Preventing Flat Tires: One Year of Tire Wipers

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!

Update: We found a source for Tire Wipers – made in the USA – and now carry them at Compass Bicycles Ltd. Click here for more information.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
This entry was posted in Testing and Tech, Tires. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Preventing Flat Tires: One Year of Tire Wipers

  1. Conrad says:

    Interesting experiment. It is my experience that most flats occur with the rear tire. Probably because most sharp objects on the road are lying flat until they are run over by the front tire, which flicks the sharp object up into a perfect position (perpendicular to the tire) to puncture the rear tire. I once had a wood screw puncture not only my rear tire but the entire rim. The only way that could happen was for the front tire to upend the screw in order to hit the back tire at a perfect angle. The rubber wears faster on the rear tire, but the usual limiter of tire life is cuts in the casing from punctures and not thin rubber. The front tire I can usually just wear down to the casing.
    Fortunately flat tires occur seldom enough for me around here that I wouldn’t bother with tire wipers- but if I frequented messy roads or places with goathead thorns I would consider it.

    • I agree that the rear tires get about twice as many flats as the front. So the fact that I didn’t get any flats on the rear with the tire wiper in the correct position suggests that it helps, but it’s not enough data to stand up to a rigorous statistical analysis.

  2. Alexander says:

    I got mine from “loose screws”. I run them on my Surly that I set up with Panarace Pasella if I also plan to go on gravel and Grand Bois 622-32 for events on paved. Did not have a flat since last year. Run them 1 mm above the tire surface to avoid the annoying sound. Hope they will do the job with small sharp stones and metal pieces and the like anyway. My motivation was that 2 of 3 of us were forced to give up a 600km Brevet in Austrai when after a thunderstorm they picked up an incredible amount of very fine sharp gravel used for road under-construction. We removed 23 of them that got stuck between rubber and protective belt in a Conti 4000 and found their way tro the tube one after the other. Gues that one would have been avoided by tire savers for sure.

    • I have been thinking of moving the tire wiper above the tire surface, but I am concerned that it won’t stay there reliably. When my one flat did occur, the tire wiper was about 1-2 mm above the tire surface. The tire wiper is spring-loaded so it can stay on the surface even when the tire isn’t running perfectly round.

      Thank you for the source at Loose Screws. I didn’t know they still had them.

  3. Michael Slater says:

    The wire ground away? What was it made of? Mild steel?

    • It appears to be of spring steel, very hard to bend. When you calculate the hours during which the wire ground against the rubber, with a lot of dust and often grit as an abrasive, it’s not surprising they ground away.

      Think about how water grinds away rocks through abrasion over time…

      I once ground through a chainstay of a cyclocross bike in 20 minutes after receiving a spare wheel with a tire that had shoulder knobbies that barely touched the chainstay. Granted, the frame was aluminum, but it had very thick walls…

  4. Damian says:

    Thanks for this Jan.

    One thing I have always wondered about tyre wipers is whether they have a noticeable friction effect. There must be some friction between the wiper and tyre. Also, do they wear the tyre out more quickly?

    Thanks,

    Damian

    • When I raced, I didn’t see any differences in effort with and without the tire wipers. The spring pushing the wiper against the tire is very weak, and the friction is negligible. If the tires wear out more quickly, that is not noticeable, either. Rubber is a tough material, as I found out when I tried to sand off some tread once.

  5. somervillebikes says:

    Do you think that one explanation for more flats to rear tires than to fronts might be extra weight? In general, don’t rear tires see about a 10% higher load than front tires? This would also be consistent with your previous hypothesis that wider tires are lee flat prone (less force applied to the tread per unit area).

    • Absolutely. In fact, on some bikes, the rear tire has twice the load of the front one, and even on a randonneur bike with a front handlebar bag (the most even weight distribution short of a camping bike), the weight distribution is about 45:55, or a 20% difference front to rear.

  6. Honest Engine says:

    4 minute tube change! Bravo!

    I think that smooth tires pick up much more debris than tires with even a light tread pattern. I run the Panaracer Col de la Vies on my commuter and have been impressed with their ability to shed debris and resist flats. I’ve only had one puncture flat from a rusty nail on a dirt road that wouldn’t have been stopped by anything (I did have another “snakebite,” but that was my fault more than the tire’s). I realize that CdlV’s are in a league below Gran Bois, but I think they make sense for the flat resistance and durability on a commuter.

    • My new bike has a chain rest, so when I come to a stop, the chain already is out of the way. I also was surprised how easy it was to seat the tires with the original Synergy rims, after I had struggled for 15 minutes on the “improved” (but too large) new Synergies on a test bike recently.

      You may be onto something with the tread pattern – the flat was on shaved Hetres with no tread. I think the ribs on the standard Hetres contribute to their incredible flat-resistance. Small objects may get pushed into the grooves and ejected, rather than hammered into the tread.

  7. shane says:

    rootboy from bikeforums.net makes these for fendered and non-fendered bikes:
    http://www.bikeforums.net/showthread.php/782099-Tire-Savers-for-fenders-An-inspiration

    • Glad to know of another source, although it looks like the wires are brass or copper, which is very soft. Putting the tire wiper underneath the fender seems like a bad idea. Much better to install them at the exit of the fender…

    • Justin says:

      I use those tire savers and like them very much. They’re made of brass, which is much easier to bend to the arc of a particular tire than stainless.

      Jan, why do you think installing the tire saver underneath the fender seems like a bad idea? This isn’t a new practice.

      • I am glad to hear the positive feedback on the brass tire wipers. How many miles do you have on them, and how is the brass material holding up under the abrasions of the tire?

        Regarding the mounting location of the tire wipers: I have heard many stories of accidents when fenders crumple, yet none of them involved a well-mounted metal fender with sufficient clearances. Putting anything inside the fender is asking for trouble the moment a large object goes into the fender and gets stuck on the tire save. We hope the tire wiper will disassemble and not cause the fender to jam.

        I don’t see any reason to put the tire wiper inside the fender – it is at least as effective at the trailing end of the fender. Furthermore, mounted in the open, you can check whether it is rubbing on the tire correctly.

      • Justin says:

        Jan, I have only a few hundred miles on this particular setup, but no flats. ;) I’m using 28mm Vittoria Rubino Pro tires. The brass material looks fine. If and when the brass wears out, replacing the curved portion should be inexpensive and as easy as sending an email to Scott Gabriel (the maker). I don’t mind thinking of them as consumables.

        I understand your point about the under fender mounting, but I only use aluminum fenders and feel confident these particular tire savers would easily disassemble if something large made its way in there. That said, I’m not particularly risk averse and would much prefer the look of mounting the tire saver underneath the fork crown as opposed to the front of a nice Honjo fender. This is just my personal preference.

    • Kyle says:

      I’m sure that Jan already knows about them, but http://www.longleafbicycles.com/ ordered up some of the Velocity A23′s in 650b size which are now Tubeless ready so you may be able to run tubeless Hetre’s before you know it.

    • Went tubeless got two flats this week on the same tyre and the sealant didn’t work. Had to take them off and put a patches on. I now carry a spare inner tube.

      • RJ says:

        John,
        I’d be interested to know more about your setup (model of tire, sealant type, tire pressure you run, what and where the damage was).

      • RJ: The tyre is an IRC Formula Pro 23C. The sealant is Greax Pitstop in a small aerosol can. The first flat was off centre where the sidewall and the centre bead meet and the second was right in the middle of the tyre. Both were small. When taking the IRC off the rim there was quite a bit of sealant in liquid form in the tyre.

        This tyre was given to me by the bike shop when I got my wheels and I have used it for over a year and probably put on a couple thousand trouble free miles. I have a set of Hutchinson Intensive 25C ready to put on. One more flat and into the garbage for the IRC. I do like using tubeless and have two sets of Shimano Ultegra wheels.

      • RJ says:

        John,
        Your experience doesn’t speak well for that sealer. I’ve not used that type but the punctures you describe would have easily sealed with Stan’s (what I use). The only time I’ve had a problem there was when I hit something so hard that the rim bit the sidewall. Even though the gash was nearly 2mm and high up on the side of the tire it sealed, but wouldn’t hold permanently during the flexing of the casing afterwards. Even so it was good enough to ride into the next town, with a couple stops to add air, thus saving me from unpacking my tube.
        I think you’ll like the Hutchinson tire. I’ve recently put a set of Fusion 3′s on my new Easton RT wheels and they beaded up near perfectly and sealed 100% even before I put sealer in. With the wider rims those 23C tires measure 24.25mm resulting in a nice ride. However, getting them to full size took sitting overnight with near max pressure. They only seem to stretch once the pressure exceeds 100psi. Perhaps your Intensive’s will require the same treatment.
        Good luck!

  8. Phil Miller says:

    Wear gloves with a full thumb coverage and wipe your tires from time to time using the thumb. That’s the way we use to do it when running the old tires. The new tires are so puncture resistant compared to what we were running 30 years ago, I don’t think that the solutions we are considering here solve for much any more. Thorns, glass and snakebite punctures aren’t going away by wiping. (wiping breaks off thorns, then they wedge themselves deeper into the tire until they penetrate the tube.)

  9. Ed says:

    One flat in 4500kms sounds considerably better than my own experience. I have never tallied it up, but suspect that three per 4500 would be closer to the mark (and that is with Conti Four Seasons).
    Maybe I need to switch from the “flat-resistant” tires?!

    • I usually average a bit more than that, too. Maybe the tire wipers were working? Or it was just plain luck. When you do the statistics, you will find that 3 flats per 4500 km is statistically the same as 1 flat per 4500 km.

      However, if you get less than 1 flat per 1000 km, I suggest switching to more supple tires simply to increase your enjoyment of riding your bike. (Your speed will go up considerably, too.)

  10. James Jenkins says:

    I used the wire with clear tubing type, many years ago. Making and replacing the worn out piece of wire that rubbed on the tire was easy. Adjusting the wiper to barely touch the tire was a key to success. Wipers are a great solution for Goathead thorns, although I do not use them these days.

  11. Piergiorgio says:

    Hi,
    if you don’t know it, here’s another clever tyre-saver:
    http://www.velo9.com/photos/PENCPT.jpg
    http://www.velo9.com/photos/PENCPT1.jpg

    it weights only 5gr and costs 7,5eu

  12. Joe Kendrick says:

    Hi Jan,

    Does the resistance from tire wipers noticeably slow down the bike?

    Leo Kendrick

  13. Rob Litherland says:

    I use a leather mudflap on my front fender. If I suspect I’ve picked up something in my front tire I’ll use my foot to gently press the mudflap against the tire while rolling. To me this seems safer than wiping with a glove.

  14. GuitarSlinger says:

    Somebody on the Colorado Front Range needs to try this experiment . With the abundance of dreaded Goat Thorns/ annual flats on any paved surface there I’d think some better statistics might result . If we wind up moving back this year ( its now a possibility ) I may just stick one on my Moulton and see how many of the little monsters stick to the tire after a ride on the extensive paths system …. where the Goat Thorns seem to prefer to migrate to ;-)

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