(Quick terminology note: tires are the stiff protective shells on the outside; tubes are the air-filled Escher condoms that go inside the tires.)
I’m a bicycle commuter and hate flat tires. Some people adopt a Zen-like attitude toward them, but not me. I’ve never gotten fast at fixing them. They always happen at a bad time. Fixing them in the field stinks. (Listening for an imperceptible hiss, tube pressed against your ear? Gah.)
Despite having a pretty good handle on the mechanics of it, I’m always a little freaked out I’m going to pinch the tube between the tire and rim, bend the rim, or miss that second pinhole and have to repeat the process over again.
After getting a road bike and having a flat the very first day I took it out, I decided to find a solution.
I read up on tough road tires and based on reviews on Road Bike Review, I settled on the Bontrager Race Lite Hardcase tire, with reviewers saying they had a good balance between protection and “road feel.”
I’d always been leery of “slime” filled tubes (I’m using this term generically), having heard so many horror stories of it all leaking out and making a huge mess. But after some research decided self healing tires had to be part of the solution. I settled on Specialized Airlock tubes. (I think this time my earlier leeriness prejudiced me specifically against Slime brand.)
To be candid, the incident that convinced me to add tubes was an office staple that gave me a flat despite my fancy new tires. I settled on the theory that the tires are good against larger offenders — glass, nails, small rocks— that might cause a large slash that outstrips the healing abilities of the tube, while the tubes would protect against pinprick punctures (staples and nature’s caltrop, the goathead) where the full puncturing force is concentrated into such a miniscule point that it overwhelms the tires’ protective abilities.
(One of my conversion moments was when I saw a goathead sticking out of my tire as I pulled my bike into my office. Already resigned to a flat tire, I pulled it out and heard only a half-second long “psst.” I rode home on a fully inflated tire.)
If I am doing a lot of riding (commuting four or five days a week year-round), I replace the back tire yearly as it wears down, and the front every other year. You can tell when they are worn down when the center curve of the tire has worn flat to the touch. (Incidentally, if you balk at the prices, maybe try the tire/tube combo on the rear wheel. It intuitively makes sense to me that bearing more weight means being at greater danger for flats.)
I have been riding with this system for almost five years without a flat tire. (Except once; I got cocky, and decided to take my road bike on a rugged off-road shortcut. I learned my lesson; this doesn’t make you invulnerable, just nigh-invulnerable.)
• You do still have to top off the tire pressure once in a while, especially if you prefer to ride on speedy inflated-rock-hard tires. Those pesky air molecules still sneak past the tube.
• This is pretty much the only tire and tube combo I’ve ridden on, so it is my baseline. I can’t tell you if it will feel sluggish or if your “road feel” will be unacceptably degraded. I feel speedy.
• This is a road bike, with traditional narrow, high PSI tires. I can’t say whether someone running this same system on a lower PSI cruiser or mountain bike would have the same results. (For example, Airlock tubes are fairly well savaged here.)
• I have given people Airlock tubes to use, and been less than impressed by their solo performance. I really think the synergy of both products is necessary to get the full benefits.
• Obligatory horror story: the first week I got the tube I was unscrewing the protective red cap and I had threaded it so tight that the core of the presta valve unscrewed instead. Slick white goo sprayed everywhere. When I installed the replacement tube the next day (grudgingly given to me by the bike shop), I removed the core, put a dot of threadlock, and then gave the core a nice firm twist with needlenose pliers to tighten it down. I also stopped using the little red caps; I never felt they added anything. (This post is informative.)
• Specialized has since fixed this “feature” so it does not unscrew readily. (Pardon me if I don’t go test this assertion with a pair of pliers.) When I upgraded to the longer stems I didn’t do anything to the core and have had no issues.
Bike accessories seem to be extraordinarily resistant to Amazonification. (Most the time any Amazon link will be to a third party bike vendor anyway.) Visit a local bike shop. LBS’s are like car dealerships — you need a Specialized dealer for the tubes and a Trek-friendly dealer for the tires. Sorry.