Ask BikeNerd: Flat-Resistant Tires, Running Reds, and Drafting Strangers

By Josh Cohen July 30, 2010

Overwhelmed by election endorsements? Think there's more to Seattle than the tunnel and road diets? (If so, you're wrong, obviously). You're in luck. This week's Ask BikeNerd doesn't even begin to broach those subjects, so sit back and enjoy a momentary reprieve.

Ellen asks: What's the best bike tire for avoiding flats?

As with almost every bike product out there, you'll get a dozen answers from a dozen people when you ask about "the best." That said, there is a general consensus that a few noteworty tires are particularly resistant to flats. Most of these models use a thin Kevlar belt or reinforced rubber compounds to improve the tire's ability to withstand punctures from glass, nails, sharp rocks, and other flat-causing garbage that tends to get swept into piles along the side of the road. Because of their reinforcements, flat-resistant tires tend to be a little heavier than other tires, but a few hundred extra grams of weight (quarter to half-a-pound, maybe) is pretty negligible in practice.

Continental GatorSkins: GatorSkins supposedly strike a good balance between ride quality and flat protection. They come in several different sizes and widths. They'll run you about $40-60 per tire. I've never used GatorSkins, but my dad sings their praises. [Ed. Note: As does PubliCola Editor Erica C. Barnett, who hasn't had a flat with her GatorSkins in more than three years.] He's gone several years and several thousand miles on them (mostly on his 16-mile round-trip commute) without any flats.

Schwalbe Marathon series: German tire company Schwalbe offers 11 different versions of their Marathon tires in pretty much any size, width, or tread pattern you could want, ranging from about $35 per tire for the basic version to about $80 per tire for the fancy version. Self-supported touring cyclists hold the Marathons in high regard.

Panaracer Pasela TG: I have a set of Panaracer Pasela TGs (the "TG" stands for Tour Guard), and I've had pretty good luck with them. They are a much more budget-minded tire (in the $25-30 range). Their quality and long-term durability probably don't hold up to the more expensive tires I listed, but for the money, they've treated me well. I've ridden them for more than 1,000 miles and have only gotten one flat (caused by an industrial construction-site nail, something few tires could withstand).

Those are just three of many, many flat-resistant tires out there. Almost every tire company has a "flat-resistant" tire in its product line. Ultimately, your best bet is to head to your favorite bike shop, tell them what you're looking for, and see what they've got in stock and what they recommend.

Alex asks: "Why does the light sometimes fail to change when I'm the only one in the intersection, and is it OK to run a red light in that situation?"

The answer to part one is: A lot of traffic lights are controlled by sensors embedded in the road. The most common type of sensor is an induction loop, which basically works by detecting the magnetic presence of a car on top of it (I realize that's a gross oversimplification, but I was an English major so leave me alone science nerds!) Some of those sensors aren't sensitive enough to detect bikes; hence, the light doesn't change when you're alone in the intersection.

The short answer to part two of your question: No, you cannot legally run the red light. Bicycles are considered vehicles and are subject to all vehicular laws, including the law against running red lights.

The longer answer is a little trickier. If you're at a red light, the sensor doesn't detect you, and there are no cars around, you can't really be expected to wait around hoping for the magnetic salvation of a SUV. I say it's perfectly reasonable to continue through the intersection (when it's clear and safe, of course) after waiting several minutes in vain.

This of course begins to skirt the rage-inducing question of whether it's OK for bicyclists to run red lights. That requires an even more complicated answer, one that I'm going to hold off on until next week (an Ask BikeNerd cliffhanger!) for the sake of keeping the column at a readable length. However, I will point to an excellent StreetFilms clip from this spring in which Randy Cohen, a man so ethical the New York Times pays him for his ethics opinions, said he thinks it's fine to run reds as long as it doesn't endanger anyone, including yourself.

Finally, Doug asks: How big an asshole do you have to be to draft a cyclist you don't know? [Drafting: Riding closely behind another cyclist to reduce wind drag].

A big one.

For one, it's unsafe. Obviously drafting requires you to be very close to the wheel in front of you. The stranger you're drafting could be (and likely is) unpredictable and make a turn or hit the brakes without any warning. The uninvited drafter is probably too close to react and could easily take both riders down.

It's also just a jerk move to make someone else do all the work.

If you really feel the need to draft on your commute (uninvited drafting seems to happen most with commuters, especially on the Burke-Gilman trail), ask the draftee for permission first. The worst they can say is no and when they do, you can pull around them, drop the hammer, and win the race that nobody else realized they were participating in.

That's all for this week. Join me next Friday for the exciting conclusion to the red-light-running discussion. And, as always, send your bike questions to [email protected]
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