Treading Softly

Further to Tuesday’s post, it’s clear people have strong feelings about tires:

Given how much we rely on our tires, and how much they inform the ride quality of our bicycles, this is no surprise. Furthermore, I’d argue that there’s no other component that is more vulnerable to the caprices of fate. Frames, handlebars, saddles, cranks…ultralight boutiquey stuff aside, all of these are extremely unlikely to fail in the course of your ride. Meanwhile, even the most robust and well-designed tire can swiftly fall victim to road debris and stop you in your tracks. Tubed, tubeless, supple bedsheet-like casings, 3mm layers of puncture-resistant Kevlar®…no matter how you’re rolling (with the exception of solid tires, but those don’t count) there’s always a sharp piece of metal out there that’s capable of relieving your tire of its precious air supply:

And of course the longer you’ve been riding, the more tire failures you’ve seen. And it’s not just road debris, either. Back when I had crabon wheels (they came on the Renovo Aerowood, which now lives at Classic Cycle), the sharp inner edge of rim slowly separated the tire casing from the bead:

Fortunately I noticed the bulge before it exploded and stranded me somewhere:

What I’m saying here is that no matter how much thought you put into tire selection and setup, there’s always something you fail to account for–whether it’s a gutter full of roofing nails, or a a $2,000 wheelset with an insatiable appetite for tire sidewalls. And of course human nature has a mechanism it deploys when dealing with unpredictable situations, and that’s called “superstition.” Consequently, we’re more superstitious about our tires than we are about any other part of the bike, which is why so many riders have an almost religious devotion to certain tire setups, and why they’ll even attempt to proselytize you if they believe the way you’re doing it is “wrong.”

At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of data around bicycle tires, which means it’s possible to approach them in an ass-puckeringly anal-retentive manner. For example, in researching my most recent tire purchase, I started playing around with the Bicycle Rolling Resistance site, to which I sacrificed a hefty chunk of time upon the altar of Bicycle Dorkitude:

It’s no wonder we can spend so much time over tires–not only is there endless potential for superstition, but there’s also massive amounts of hard data, and the result is a powerful synergistic effect that can turn a simple tire purchase into a process more fraught than shopping for a home. By the way, it’s become clear to me recently that nobody has exploited* this tire obsession more successfully than Rene Herse, whose adherents display a level of devotion that make the Rivendell faithful’s loyalty to Grant Petersen seem like mere affinity in comparison.

*[Please note I’m in not using “exploited” negatively, nor am I in any way implying they market their tires disingenuously, or that they don’t deliver the ride dynamics that they promise. I’m just saying people are really into these tires in an almost stalkerish way, in part because they reside right in the sweet spot of science and superstition.]

Speaking of tires, I headed out on the “gravelized” singlespeed again yesterday, and thanks to the Bruce Gordon Rock n’ Roads it’s like having a whole new bike:

I’m quite glad that I put down a deposit for this bike almost 10 years ago now, because it rides beautifully, I’m still deriving a lot of joy from it, and it’s still quite able to evolve with both my lifestyle and the times. (A singlespeed 29er is quite dated, and yet what’s more 2020 than a singlespeed flat-bar gravel bike?)

At the same time, I don’t think I’d order another custom bike today. For one thing, it’s hard to think of a type of riding you can’t buy a really nice stock bike for today. (I mean you could buy plenty of stock 29er singlespeeds back when I ordered this bike, but they generally had suspension-corrected forks or corny chain-tensioning setups or were designed to be set up in eight different ways because people were buying them as novelties.) For another, as my recent association with Classic Cycle has taught me, there are so many amazing old bikes out there! So at this point in my life, if someone dumped a pile of money on me and said I had to spend it all on bikes, I’d probably choose to immerse myself in the dream bikes of yesteryear rather than try to create a new one from scratch. With well over a hundred years of cycling history it’s the height of arrogance to think you can add something new to it.

Or maybe I’d just start a tire company…

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