Here are four reasons why it’s good to be able to fix flat tires fast on your road bike: 1) so you don’t cool off too much and have to warm up again; 2) so your riding buddies don’t have to wait too long for you; 3) so you don’t freeze or overheat in extreme weather; and 4) so that you have a chance to chase back onto that fast group ride or event where they don’t wait when you flat.
Bruce Anderson taught me fast flat fixing
But none of these reasons is why I learned to fix flats at warp speed. Bruce Anderson, the owner and head mechanic at Andy’s Cycle Shop in Keene, New Hampshire, taught me. I went to work there in 1973, and my first job was fixing flats. Bruce wanted it done right and done fast so that customers wouldn’t have to wait to ride. So, he would egg rookies like me on with taunts and insults, motivating us to get as fast as he was.
I wanted to give Bruce a shout out because this summer I visited our old shop and found him, at 75 years young, still running the place almost single-handedly with the same energy and passion he had back when Nixon was in the White House. He told me he still loves the bike biz and he’ll retire when he turns 85!
The process Bruce taught me and that I have used ever since is fast because it’s simple. It also avoids the most common problems caused by other techniques.
First, a few disclaimers. I’m focusing on how to fix a flat fast, so I’m assuming you already know that you need a spare tube and a good pump that inflates fast (I carry a full-size framefit pump, not a mini), and that you know how to remove and install your rear wheel. I’m also figuring that you have Presta valves (not Schrader -- the same type found on car tires).
Further, I assume you know that if you don’t remove any sharp object(s) in the tire before you install the new tube, that you’ll likely have a second puncture down the road.
Tip: But I want to point out that you may be willing to take a chance. Let’s say you’re doing a century and you’ve found a fast group riding at the perfect pace for you to achieve your target time. Suddenly you flat and have to stop.
In this situation, you might be willing to not spend much time trying to find and remove what caused the flat. And you could get lucky and have the piece of glass or sharp rock fall out as you remove and replace the tire. Or, just removing/reinstalling the tire/tube might change the angle of the object against the tube, letting you finish the ride without another puncture. Obviously, it’s always best to know that you removed the tube popper, but for sheer speed you may sometimes want to skip that step and hope luck is on your side.
Hyper flat fixing tricks and tips
There are only a few tricks to know, but they make a big difference. In the order used, here they are:
1. With the majority of standard clincher tube-type tires, you don’t need tire levers to remove tires. You can do it with your hands and it’s a lot quicker to “rip” the tire and tube off in one move than it is to pry the tire off little by little with levers.
Tip: Taking the tire and tube completely off the rim is faster than removing one side and pulling out the tube. But more importantly, it gets the tire off the rim, where it’s much easier to see/find any sharp object in it and knock it out, and it also makes it easy to see and check that the rim strip is still covering the sharp holes in the rim, another flat-causer.
Trick: When the tire is fully inflated, it’s essentially locked onto the rim. To get it off by hand, you must: 1) get all the air out of the tube; 2) push the Presta valve up inside the tire; and, 3) squeeze the sides of the tire together to get the tire edges (called the “beads”) off their locked position and down toward the middle of the rim.
With practice, you can do all of this in one “move” by pressing and holding the Presta valve with one hand, while you go around the tire and wheel with your other hand. The hand holding the valve keeps it open and also pushes it up inside the tire. The hand going around the wheel squeezes the tire forcefully to get any remaining air out and to pinch the beads together and off the rim sidewalls. You can do this whole move in a few seconds.
2. Next, remove the tire and tube as one by holding the wheel vertically with the valve stem at about 6 o’clock. Place both hands together side-by-side at the top of the tire so that you can squeeze the tire with your fingers there and roll it back.
The object is to get both thumbs beneath the side of the tire (the sidewalls, not the beads) so that you can pry with your thumbs to pull the tire up. Doing this gives you a lot of surface area to hold onto and lets you force the bottom of the tire into the rim so that you have a bit of slack at the top where your thumbs are.
When you’ve pulled the tire as far as it wants to go, continue holding the tire with your thumbs so that it can’t slip back where it was, and push it over the opposite side of the rim. Don’t be gentle. Show that tire who’s the boss. You can do it!
Tip: The weight of the hanging wheel helps you keep the tire in place on the bottom and lift it up over the rim on the top. If it seems too tight still, keep your dominant hand/thumb in place up top, and use your other hand to go back and squeeze and wiggle the tire at the bottom, and as you do this shake the wheel using its weight to force the tire to relax and drop into the rim.
To remove tighter tires, it helps to put the wheel on the ground so you have something to push against. Just keep pushing and the tire and tube will come right off the rim and you can then pull if needed to remove it from the wheel completely. If only one side comes off, reach inside and pull the tube out partially, which helps free the other side of the tire.
3. If the tube is still in place, now pull the flat tube out of the removed tire and stuff the tube in your jersey pocket. Get your spare tube out, remove any valve cap and nut and put them in your jersey pocket with the ones you might have already removed from the old tube (no caps or nuts are needed to fix flats fast).
Trick: Then, perhaps the most important step, is to inflate the new tube just enough to make it round and remove any wrinkles. Do this by opening the Presta valve tip, pressing it down if it’s stuck and blowing into it with your mouth as if you were blowing up birthday balloons. But -- and this is the part of this step many people don’t get right -- be sure to tighten the valve tip after you’ve blown air into the tube so that none of the air you just blew in can escape during tire installation! The tube has to be inflated and round for fast tire and tube installation.
Tip: If you don’t do this and the air gets out during installation, the tube becomes flat and has a tendency to slip beneath the tire beads. That makes it much more difficult to install the tire and can also cause the tire to get blown off the rim when fully inflated and/or cause a pinch flat.
4. To put the tire back on, take the new tube that you just put air in and put it inside the tire. The aired tube has shape so it will want to stay inside the tire. Pick up the tire/tube combo, holding it up vertically near the valve stem, stand the wheel vertically, leaning it against your shins with the valve stem hole at 12 o’clock.
Tip: Place the valve stem in the valve hole in the rim. Do not force the valve stem fully into the valve hole. Just get it in place and started into the hole. If it’s pushed/pulled down at this point it will interfere with getting the tire in place.
Now quickly move your hands from the top of the wheel down and around the wheel in opposite directions, pushing down on the tire and manipulating it to get the side of the tire that’s on the bottom onto the rim. You may need to lift the wheel off the ground to get the portion of tire at 6 o’clock on the rim.
To finish the job, go back to 12 o’clock, push the other side of the tire onto the rim there and then repeat the process of moving your hands down, pushing and popping the other side of the tire onto the rim. With a little practice you can put both tire sides on in one move instead of doing it in two moves.
Trick: Almost always, about a 6-inch section at the top fights you and doesn’t want to pop over the side of the rim. To create a little slack, use the same tire pulling-and-squeezing technique you used to get it off, and then let all the air out of the tube that you blew into it.
If it’s still tight, pick the wheel up while holding your hands near the tight section you still need to pop on. Kneel or bend over and rest the wheel on your thigh/knee so that the tight section is right on top of your knee. Now, you have something solid to push against and with the heel of your hand (not your thumbs), you can push the tire onto the rim and finish the job.
Tip: Don’t try to push the entire tight section on in one push. Instead focus on getting an inch on at a time and with a few pushes, it’ll pop back on. Again, show that tire who’s in charge!
5. All that’s left is to inflate the tire, install the wheel and hit the road. Good job! Keep in mind that you don’t need full inflation to ride, even if you’re in a race, so you can save a bit more time by just getting the tire hard enough to ride rather than trying to top it off fully.
Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.