Pumps and tyres

· bike ·

I thought I would provide a bit of an update on my bike, the Sprocket Rocket, after riding it in all weathers for about 8 months. I have to say that my appreciation for this bike increases the more I ride it. It is a pleasure to ride, even when it is dark, wet and cold outside. As I mentioned in my original article, it is a bike that wants to go fast. Even though I have ridden it many times, it always surprises me when I first get on and it seems to leap away down the road like an excitable puppy. At the risk of anthropomorphising inanimate objects1, it feels as if it is always calling to you, “Come on! Let’s go!” I’m not particularly into speed, and certainly not into competing, but it makes it a fun bike to ride.

I’m not naturally competitive, and since I’m commuting on the bike, not competing, I’m quite content to take my time and enjoy the bird song, fresh air and scenery. However, the bike has changed one aspect of my ride in a way that makes my non-competitive self a bit uncomfortable. Having a single speed bike changes the way that you approach hills. You can’t change down a few gears to ‘spin’ up the hill slowly, as you might if another cyclist is in front of you and taking the hill slower than you are. Having a single speed means that if you don’t gain enough speed and momentum on the approach to the hill, you will probably run out of muscle power to turn the relatively large gear before you get to the crest of the hill. That makes cycling up hills a much more binary proposition: you attack them fast and zoom up them, or you have to bail out and walk your bike up the hill. I don’t really mind doing either, but I have to make a choice. This means that when I’m behind another cyclist approaching a hill, I have to assess whether they are going to be taking the hill fast enough (or are far enough ahead of me) that I will be able to make it too. If not, I have to decide whether I’m going to walk, or to overtake them. If it’s safe to do so, I tend to do the latter, but feel incredibly embarrassed about it. I feel as if I need to wear a shirt with “I’m not showing off, I’m on a single speed bike, and it’s this speed or walking up the hill”. That’s perhaps a rather long-winded slogan for a shirt… Anyway, that element of social discomfort is a small price to pay for a brilliant ride.

The weather has not been kind this autumn and winter (though we have been lucky in the Midlands to escape the disastrous flooding that has hit the North), but the bike has coped surprisingly well. I did have one ride home where the rain was so heavy and driven by such a howling wind that I wasn’t sure whether I was cycling or swimming. I honestly worried that I might drown that night. As I have mentioned before, I ride mostly on off-road paths which make up one of the Sustrans routes. It’s a mixture of canal towpath, dirt and gravel paths, and tarmacked paths through parks, shared with pedestrians. This means that the paths are rather rough, and in autumn and winter, they are littered with debris, grit, gravel, twigs and branches and thick, squishy leaf mulch. I was slightly concerned about how my light weight, skinny-wheeled road-type bike was going to cope with that lot, but it has fared remarkably well.

I did decide early in the Autumn to replace the Schwalbe Lugano tyres for something I hoped would be a bit more puncture resistant. After some research and reading lots of reviews I settled on Continental Gatorskins. Many people seem to use them for commuting as they are hard wearing and quite puncture resistant for their weight. I am hesitant to write about punctures because it angers the Cycling Gods, and I am sure to get at least three punctures the next time I go out. Anyway — first making the Sign of the Dropped Handlebars in penitence — I can say that so far the Gatorskins have coped extremely well with the poor surfaces on my ride. I got one puncture (caused by a very sturdy thorn like a caltrop) soon after I fitted them, but since then (makes the Sign of the Dropped Handlebars again…) they have been great. They are noticeably faster than the Luganos, and while I worried a bit about grip initially (they are very slick), I haven’t noticed any traction problems. I’m careful when cornering and on slippery surfaces, but they seem to cope very well with wet and debris-strewn tracks.

The Gatorskins — even more so than the Luganos — like to be pumped up to a high pressure (ideally 110 or even 120 psi). They run much more smoothly like that, and I suspect that some potentially-puncturing material just gets pinged out to the side by the rock hard tyre, rather than getting a chance to embed itself. We already had a track pump, but it was a rather cheap, flimsy one. It also had a press-on fitting for the air hose, which — after inflating the tyre to the high pressures needed — blasted off the valve when released in a way that had a tendency to bend the valve core of the Presta valves. In fact, one inner tube ended up unusable because of that. I decided to buy a replacement that would last us a lifetime, and settled on the Lezyne Steel Floor Drive. This thing is built like a tank, with a steel body and piston, a solid wood handle, and a large pressure gauge. The newer models have a slightly different chuck to fit on the valve, but mine is one that screws on securely. It also has what they call an ABS system. This is a button on the side of the chuck that allows you to bleed the air out of the hose before you disengage the chuck, which avoids the sudden pressure release problem that we had with our old pump. It’s a great pump that inflates a tyre to high pressure from completely flat in a small number of strokes. You can get cheaper pumps, but this is very effective and feels as if it is built to last. Hopefully we will never need to buy another!

I was so impressed by that pump that I also got a new pump to carry on the bike. My previous one had a similar ‘blast off’ disengagement problem to the track pump, and was also a push to fit chuck, without a hose, which meant that air would often leak as the body of the pump moved around. I was so impressed with the Floor Drive that I got another Lezyne pump: the Micro Floor Drive HP. This little wonder is all aluminium, so it is very light but incredibly sturdy. It’s tiny, but acts like a full sized floor pump. You screw on the chuck (it has the same ABS threaded chuck as my Steel Floor Drive), flip down the foot peg and pump away. Obviously it’s smaller, so pumping requires more effort than the full sized model, but it is still very easy and quick to inflate to high pressure even from a fully deflated tyre. It comes with a plastic clip that allows you to mount it on the frame, using bottle mountings. Despite the plastic clip, it is very secure, doesn’t get in the way, and also doesn’t rattle. The way the mount is constructed means that you could also still use a bottle cage on top if it, with the pump snugly held to one side of the bottle. I’m really impressed with this pump. Again, you can buy much cheaper pumps, but this one performs so well and is so sturdily made that I think you will be saving money in the long run. One note: the ‘HP’ after the name denotes ‘high pressure’. This is the model to get with high pressure road tyres. If you have mountain bike tyres, they also make an ‘HV’ model for ‘high volume’.

To all fellow cyclists out there, Happy Cycling, and may your tyres never puncture!

  1. Let’s face it, that ship has already sailed. ↩︎