Supple tires with relatively thin tread greatly contribute to the joys of cycling. They roll much faster and are more comfortable. However, they also tend to be more prone to punctures. On the other hand, “flat-resistant” tires are harsh and slow. The more puncture-proof tires get, the less fun they are to ride. Worst are airless tires, which bring us back to the era before pneumatic tires, when the machines were called “boneshakers,” and not without a reason.
What if one could have everything: the speed and comfort of supple tires, but without worrying about punctures? That is the promise of tire wipers (often also called “Tire Savers”). The tire wiper’s thin wire rubs lightly on the tire, brushing off any debris the tires pick up before sharp objects gets hammered through the tread and puncture the tube. Above you see three different models. In the foreground is a Pelissier model from the 1950s, with a small spring hidden inside the bulge, while the other two are more modern and use surgical tubing as springs that push the wire onto the tire.
In the days when professional racers had to change their own tires rather than receive a new wheel from a support car, their bikes were equipped with tire wipers. You have seen the photos of racers with tubular tires slung around their shoulders… The Rebour drawing above shows Hugo Koblet’s bike, on which he won the 1951 Tour de France. Not only does he use tire wipers, he also has a pressurized air “gonfleur” and a pump. Clearly, he did not want to lose the Tour due to spending too much time repairing a flat tire. The only thing worse than a flat would have been to ride on puncture-proof tires…
I raced with tire wipers for years, after flat tires had cost me all hopes of winning in several races. In amateur racing, a puncture usually means that you are off the back – without a strong team, it is almost impossible to chase back up to the peloton even if you get a quick spare from the “neutral support.” Once I started using tire wipers, I did not have a single flat in those races, despite using fragile hand-made tubular tires.
To test whether tire wipers truly are effective, I installed one on the rear wheel of my Alex Singer. I left the front tire unprotected to offer a comparison. I used supple Grand Bois Cyprès 700C x 32 mm tires to maximize my chances of getting punctures. Would I get more flat tires on the front than the rear now?
After one year of testing, here are the results:
- Distance: 4482 km (2801 miles)
- Flats front wheel: 0
- Flats rear wheel: 1
I rode this bike close to 3000 miles over the last year, much of it during the winter on gritted roads, and I only had one flat tire. That flat was on the rear. Before we conclude that tire wipers don’t make a difference, I realized that the wiper had become dislodged and no longer was wiping on the tire. I also noticed that my tire was getting very thin, and I replaced the tire when I got home. Would the tire wiper have prevented that flat if it had actually been wiping the tire? We’ll never know.
The simple truth is that flat tires are too rare and too random to obtain good data, even during a year’s worth of riding. While the tire wiper was installed correctly, I had no flats on the rear. I also didn’t have any flats on the front, without a tire wiper.
After a year, the tire wiper is almost worn out. The wire, which originally was round, has been ground to a thin sliver. I probably won’t replace it: When riding out of the saddle, the rear wheel flexes and the tire wiper makes a slightly annoying sound. I just don’t get enough flat tires…
Of course, just last weekend, I did have a flat on my other bike – the first one in more than 3000 km (2000 miles) since I got my new bike. I picked up a long piece of steel wire (from a disintegrated truck tire), probably while riding along the debris-strewn shoulder of a busy highway. Half a mile after leaving the highway, my tire started going soft as the wire was hammered into the tube. This is a puncture that the tire wiper actually might have prevented. As it was, it took me about 4 minutes to change the tube and remove the wire. (Fortunately, it was easy to find.) Then I was back on my way.
If you would like to try tire wipers, unfortunately, they are hard to find. The last source I knew was a retired school teacher in Colorado, who now seems to have stopped making them. They’d be easy to make from stainless steel wire and surgical tubing – if anybody wants to get into the business, we’ll gladly sell them. And if you use them, check from time to time that they are still aligned and wiping your tire!