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If you’re constantly having to fix flat bike tires, sick of having to patch punctures with a repair kit, and your fingers are worn-to-the-bone from replacing blown inner tubes, then maybe it’s time to take a different approach? Maybe, it’s time to take a look at what’s happening in the post-apocalyptic world of 2000AD’s Mega City One and say hello to its most famous inhabitant, Judge Dredd, and his preferred mode of transport – the Lawmaster.
Equipped with Firelock Bulletproof All-weather Tires, the Lawmaster bikes (and their riders) never had to worry about sharp stones, broken glass, goatheads, or even laser cannon fire.
And, thankfully, we don’t have to wait till the end of the 21st century to get our hands on bike tires that are (almost) as good as Dredd’s.
We’re going to take a deep dive into puncture-proof bicycle tires. We’ll see what makes the Lawmaster’s tires so good and why they’re similar to a chocolate bar I couldn’t get enough of as a kid. We’ll also look at the tires that we can get, pre-apocalypse, that will do away with puncture repair kits once and for all.
Oh, along the way, we’ll check out what NASA can bring to the party because it turns out that burst tires are an even bigger problem for them than they are for us cyclists.
Back in the day, I had a paper round and, despite my parents’ recommendations, I spent all of my money on 2000AD comics and Aero chocolate bars.
We’ll come back to the Aero bars shortly but for now let’s focus on 2000AD and my favorite character, Judge Dredd. For those who don’t know Dredd (and haven’t seen the Stallone or Urban movies), he was part of a futuristic law enforcement team who were cops, jury and executioner all rolled into one.
Dredd and the other Judges generally moved about the megalopolis of Mega City One on their Lawmaster motorbikes. These were souped-up bikes with all sorts of fancy tech but what we need to focus on is the tires.
Lawmaster tires are a fictional brand known as Firelock Bulletproof All-weather Tires. Not only were they bulletproof, but they could also survive laser cannon fire and keep on rolling.
How did they do this? Well, the tires (which were approximately shoulder width!) were made from rubber that was filled with air bubbles. This made them a little like a bar of Aero chocolate (do you see how this is all coming together beautifully?)
What this bubble construction meant was that, whilst bullets or lasers might blow out a chunk of tire, the rest of the tire would still keep its shape and not go flat. The remaining rubber provided support and the leftover air bubbles gave cushioning.
Sounds great? Well, yeah, it does. Trouble is that tires like this would be incredibly heavy. Even if they were slimmed down to 2” wide bicycle tires, as opposed to shoulder width motorbike tires, the amount of rubber needed would make them much weightier than an existing bike tire and tube setup.
As a side note, the original tires used on bicycles when they were first invented were made from either iron(!) or solid rubber. Whilst being absolutely bulletproof, these would also have been eye-wateringly painful to ride on and very heavy. And, in fact, the first pneumatic (air-filled tire) was invented by John Boyd Dunlop to try and ease the headaches that his son was getting from riding his bike on rough roads.
What’s the problem with solid rubber tires like Dredd’s?
Whether you’re using a solid tire made from rubber or iron, or a Dredd-style air bubble tire, there are two major issues that you have to contend with:
More rubber (or iron) means more weight. Rubber is substantially heavier than air, so the more of this you have in the construction of the tire the more mass it will have. More weight on your bike means that it will be harder and more tiring to pedal.
There’s an argument that, for electric bikes, the motor can compensate for a heavier bike and make it easier to pedal. Whilst that’s true, the downside is that a heavier bike will run the battery down faster, so you will be able to travel a shorter distance. Weight is still a major factor for ebike performance, just like it is on a regular bike.
One of the big advantages to air-filled tires is comfort. Tire rubber has to be quite durable to survive road surfaces and so doesn’t tend to have a lot of ‘give’. A rubber tire with an air-filled inner tube has the advantage of having a tough outer layer of rubber with a large inner core of cushioning air.
What’s the state of play with today’s bike tires?
Today, we have two popular methods of setting up bicycle tyres: tubed and tubeless.
Tires and tubes
A tubed tire setup consists of a bike tire, inner tube and rim tape. The tire gives grip and protects the inner tube. The inner tube is pumped full of air and gives cushioning and support. The rim tape sits between the inner tube and the metal wheel rim and protects the tube.
Tubeless bike tires
A tubeless setup does away with the inner tube. The tire edges create an airtight seal against the wheel rims (with the help of liquid sealant that you add in). The major advantage of tubeless over tubed is that you can run tires at a lower pressure without the chance of pinch flat punctures.
Both these methods are great from the perspective of weight (they’re mostly air) and comfort (that air gives a more comfortable ride – the higher the volume of air, and the lower the pressure, the comfier the journey in general).
Unfortunately, the downside to both is that they’re still prone to punctures.
Whilst we’re not usually running the risk of getting our tires shot at when we head out on the bike, there are many objects that can cause punctures and leave us stranded, or trying to fathom out how to repair a burst inner tube, or how to plug a tire hole in a tubeless setup.
These objects include:
- Thorns (e.g. goatheads and three corner jacks)
- Sharp stones
So, are there bulletproof bike tire options?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could have bulletproof tires like Judge Dredd’s Lawmaster, so that we never have to worry about getting a flat ever again? Are there tire setups that don’t add unnecessary weight to our bikes and yet still protect our tires from punctures?
Well, there are a few options, let’s take a look at them.
NB. I just need to caveat this by saying that I haven’t personally tested these against late 21st century bullets, laser cannon fire, or bombs. Sorry.
Tire and tube sealant
This first option is fantastic. Why? Because it means you can ‘bulletproof’ your tires without changing either the tire or the tube.
What is it and how does it work? Easy, tire and tube sealant comes in liquid form in a squeezy bottle. Squeeze the required amount into each tube and head out riding on your bike. The magic happens when you get a thorn or nail poking through your tube. If you’re in luck the spike will fall out, if not you’ll need to pull it out yourself. Then keep turning the wheel and the sealant will flow around the inside of the tube till it finds the hole and seal it up. You might need to add a little extra air (so, keep a pump handy) but you shouldn’t have to carry either a patch repair kit or spare inner tube and tire levers.
Pros: use with existing tire and tube, cheap to buy, dose up your inner tubes and then forget about it
Cons: won’t work with larger areas of damage, adds weight to your bike
This was a gamechanger for me when I first started using it.
Rim tape is rubber tape (similar to a large elastic band) that you fit to the inside rim of your wheel rims. This cushions the rubber inner tube from the metal rim, which can often have sharp corners and edges that will poke a hole in a tube that is highly pressurized.
The tape is cheap to buy and easy to fit (although a little fiddly to do on your first go). It lasts for a long time and, in fact, I rarely fit new tape. A big benefit is that it can be used with your existing tire/tube setup.
Pros: easy to fit, cheap to buy, lasts forever, protects tube from sharp wheel rims
Cons: won’t protect tubes from sharp objects on the ground such as thorns or nails
Puncture-protection or gravel tires
The next step up is to consider replacing your tires. Slick tires, such as you’d find on road bikes, hybrids and fitness bikes, are great for going fast on, but not so great for going over sharp objects. One option is to swap out slick tires for gravel or MTB tires that have larger knobblier treads. These have somewhat higher rolling resistance (meaning that your speed will be reduced slightly) but have the advantage that smaller objects (think: broken glass shards and thorns) will pass harmlessly between the tire knobbles and not pierce the tire itself, or the inner tube.
Another option is to choose tires which have ‘puncture protection’. This usually comes in the form of a thicker liner in the tire rubber which gives more space between sharp objects on the tire exterior and the inner tube.
Both options will add weight to the bike, and will slow you down a little, but if you’re getting frequent punctures then you can offset repair time against this.
Pros: keeps your existing inner tubes (and the comfort that comes with those), knobblier tires give easier cornering and better traction on loose gravel surfaces
Cons: tires need replacing with more expensive ones, extra weight, higher rolling resistance
Armored tire inserts
My favorite method of ‘bulletproofing’ bike tires is to use Tannus armored tire inserts. These work with your existing tire and tube setup. The insert is a multicell foam liner that goes in between the tire and tube. At the widest point (the section pointing down to the ground), the liner I use has 15mm / 1/2” of foam cushioning. Combined with the tire rubber, this gives plenty of protection against most sharp objects you’ll typically come across.
Armored tire inserts like this give the best of both worlds – the protection of Lawmaster air-bubble rubber tires and the lightness and comfort of traditional tubed tires.
One further benefit is that, even if your tire fully deflates, you can still ride it for a short way as the foam insert cushions and protects the wheel rim and tire from damage.
Pros: Works with your existing tire and tube, allows you to ‘run flat’
Cons: Can be expensive (look out for deals), adds weight
Solid bike tires
The closest early 21st century equivalent of Dredd’s Lawmaster tires are solid tires. Technically, these are a closed cell polymer resin. Slice one open and you’d find a honeycomb of tiny bubbles throughout the tire.
Sounds great? Well, they can be. But they suffer from some fairly challenging problems. First up, they’re heavy – much heavier than a tire and tube setup. Secondly, there’s no actual tire around the outside, so you’re essentially cycling on the polymer resin structure. Many cyclists report that this is much less grippy on road surfaces than tire rubber. Solid tires are very difficult to fit onto the wheel rims – you know how hard fitting a standard tire is? Well, a solid tire is exponentially harder. Oh, and finally, a solid tire is much more uncomfortable to ride on, transmitting all the road vibration up into you, the rider.
On the plus side, you’ll never ever get a puncture with these tires. So, you can offset some of that extra tire weight by leaving the tire levers, bike pump and spare tube / patch repair kit at home. That, and the peace-of-mind of not worrying about punctures, is a huge benefit.
Pros: Never EVER worry about getting a puncture again, leave the puncture repair kit at home
Cons: Not as grippy as regular tires, very hard to fit, uncomfortable to ride on, heavy
Now it’s time to look forward into the not-too-distant future.
You think punctures are an issue for you? Well, just imagine you’re NASA and you send a multi-billion dollar space ship to Mars with a wheeled rover on board. The rover touches down on the red planet and heads off to explore…until…oh no! Houston, we’ve got a puncture!
If you get a puncture on your earthly bike, you can say some rude words and then go fix it. If that Mars rover gets a puncture, NASA has to fork out another multi-billion dollars to send out a new one.
So, it’s a major problem for them. The answer they’ve come up with is to create an entirely new wheel that uses a shape memory alloy wrapped in a rubber ‘tire’ outer layer. There’s no air to pump it up with and the wheel deforms as it goes over bumps and then reforms on the other side.
SMART, the company that’s bringing this to market is hoping to have a bicycle-ready model for sale from 2023 for the price of a premium regular bike tire.
I can’t wait to take them for a spin.
Pros: NASA tech on your bike?! OMG! Wow!!
Cons: Pricey and you’ll need to replace the ‘tire’ outer layer when it wears down
After the apocalypse, when we all live in megalopolis patrolled by tough law-enforcing officers like the Judges, shoulder-width Firelock All-weather Bulletproof tires might be commonplace. Well, so long as you own something like the infamous Lawmaster motorbike.
But right now though, in the pre-apocalyptic early 21st century, with a slightly cozier existence that doesn’t involve a complete breakdown in law and order, or laser cannons…and sadly no Judges and Lawmasters…we just have to make do with the bike tires we have available to us.
Thankfully, there are plenty of options that are puncture-resistant (if, unfortunately, not bulletproof), comfortable to ride on, and not as heavy as a 2 foot wide Firelock Lawmaster tire.
In the coming few years we’ll likely be able to ride around on bike tires specced by NASA for its rovers that are headed off to explore other planets. In the meantime, we have earthbound options aplenty that will keep us rolling into the future on our bikes.