“[T]he best touring tire in the world.”
— Round-the-world cyclist Scott Stoll
I’ve been asked several times since completing a transcontinental bicycle trip: How many tires did you go through?
Tires, after all, are perhaps the most vulnerable part of a bicycle — especially a touring cycle loaded down with about 55 pounds of gear. The tires are in constant contact with the road and all its hazards: shards of glass, nails, sharp bits of metal and those West Texas beasties called goatheads: rock-hard, little burrs sloughed off by a ground-hugging plant with small leaves and yellow flowers called Tribulus terrestris.
But in answer to the question: I finished the journey of more than 3,100 miles from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., with the same set of tires: German-made Schwalbe Marathon Plus touring tires. And if not for a freak mishap involving my rear rack, I would have finished the trip without a flat.
Some riders in our caravan of 15 — pared to 12 by the end — had so many flats that they lost count. One rider had four flats in a single day.
A good example of flat-prone tires was our Oct. 9 ride out of Las Cruces, N.M. A local cyclist had suggested we use a bike trail along the Rio Grande to avoid heavy rush-hour traffic on U.S. 70.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the trail was infested with goatheads.
Six of us rode the trail. At the end, our tires were festooned with the burrs, which caused a total of seven flat tires. One rider, using a small-wheeled Bike Friday and pulling a two-wheeled trailer, had three flats. Another had two. And two others had one each.
The tires again proved their worth near Van Horn in West Texas on Oct. 11. About three miles out of Van Horn, our intended destination, I heard something banging on my bike frame with each rotation of the rear wheel. I thought I had broken a spoke, in which case I would have been in deep doo-doo because I’ve never replaced a spoke and didn’t have the tools to do it even if I knew how.
But the noise turned out to be a nail of about 2 1/2 inches that had penetrated my rear tire at an angle. I thought the tire would immediately go flat once I worked out the nail. But, wonder of wonders, when I extracted the nail the tire remained hard and fully inflated. The nail apparently penetrated only the protective rubber cushion on the Marathon Plus tire and didn’t reach the tube.
If it had, I’m not sure that my self-sealing tubes would have prevented a flat. So I credit the tire.
A Sept. 15 post on the blog GearJunkie told the story of Scott Stoll, who has bicycled around the world and is now circumnavigating North America. The blog post discussed the gear that Stoll is using and quoted him as saying that the Schwalbe Marathon Plus, which has a 5mm-thick layer of rubber for puncture protection, is “the best touring tire in the world.”
I’d second that.
“The Marathon Plus tires, which cost $55 a piece,” the blog said, “are cited by the company as impenetrable even by shards of glass and thumbtacks. Stoll went 15,000 miles on one set.”
Several members of our group tried to find Specialized Airlock tubes at bike shops along our route. One rider, who had several flats, called his bike shop in Los Angeles and had a set of Marathon Plus tires sent to Del Rio, Texas, one of our overnight stops.
The one time that I had to change a tire was during the last week of the ride on Nov. 16 in the Florida Panhandle. After nearly two months on the road and more than 2,800 miles of riding since leaving San Diego on Sept. 20, I was the only one in our company who had not had a flat.
But my flat-free record was broken not by a failing of my tires, but by loose screws on my rear rack. All of the screws that secured the rear rack to my bicycle frame had worked loose because of the jolts and jostles of a transcontinental bicycle journey.
As I was riding along a quiet country road just west of Woodville, Fla., I came to a screeching halt.
The rear rack had separated from the brackets that secure it to the frame just behind the seat post. The rack rotated backward on the bottom bolts at the rear axle and dropped the rear panniers to the pavement. They dragged behind the bike like an anchor.
A loose bracket that had held the rack in place behind the seat post dropped down and stabbed the rear tire as it rotated forward. Like a knife, it penetrated the cushion that protects against run-of-the-mill punctures: nails, thorns, wire-like pieces of steel from truck tires.
I had to dismount the panniers, resecure the rack and replace one of the flimsier bolts with a good stout one. The tire had a small stab wound, and the tube had a slash too large to repair. But I was carrying three spare tubes.
So I was delayed only about 45 minutes and rode flat-free the rest of the week to St. Augustine, our final destination, which we reached Nov. 21.
On any future tours, I’ll plan to use Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.