A little over a week ago, Friday Aug 23 to be precise, I mashed my face on the road.

(This drama shot is from my phone that shoots video from an armband, so I have a video of the accident too. But I’m not going to post it, being a little embarrassed about the audio track.)

bloody face

Actually, I’m a little embarrassed to blog about it at all, since it seems so easily preventable.

For example, when I show this picture of my front tire sidewall, I’m afraid seasoned cyclists everywhere are going to say I got what I deserved.

sidewall

The truth is I can’t seem to recall exactly why I put this tire on and decided it was okay. I had actually taken it off once already, deciding it was done. I suppose I didn’t really believe a tire could blowout so suddenly. Maybe I should also say this tire doesn’t look quite as bad as this picture when it’s inflated. Anyways, the story, if it isn’t too dull, goes something like this:

Feb 2010 I bought an old Schwinn Le Tour that was wearing this tire, and another just like it. Most likely, I should have just changed them both then and there, to be safe.

July last year, I bought a Kenda K40 road tire for $10.50 on Amazon to replace this tire here. I put the Kenda in front.

April this year, I had some spokes break on the back wheel, and the bike saw a mechanic. The mechanic at that time wanted me to replace the back tire (not the one shown, it was in slightly worse condition). I have a history of ignoring mechanics, both on the car and the bike (which I have to say hasn’t served me well in either case), and anyways he said their tires ‘started’ at about $40 (although including labor maybe that’s normal). At this point I had almost 2,000 miles on these tires and they seemed fine - I blew him off. He didn’t say anything about the Kenda tire.

Maybe the most interesting part of the story is that around July this year the Kenda tire fell apart spontaneously. To me it looks defective. Nothing terrible happened to me since it blew slowly enough, but I wonder if that just means I got lucky. Here is a new-ish tire, barely a year old, it’s been in the front and barely saw 800 miles so the tread is practically brand new - but with a shake of the dice could it have blown suddenly and caused the same accident?

bad Kenda tire

So much for low-end Kendas.

So in July I bought a Continental Gatorskin for $42 online. It’s one of my favorite tires, although the rubber compound is a little slick when wet. I believe the GP 4-Season is a better tire for commuting purposes, although this old Le Tour has 27” wheels and is not compatible with the 4-Season. Maybe the Supersport Plus is a good compromise. (I seem to have some brand loyalty toward Continental.)

At about the same time, the other oold tire started to fall apart. This is where my memory is a little foggy; for some reason I decided to swap the two oold tires. I suppose in my head I was thinking one tire was in better shape than the other, and so I would just ride it until I got around to buying a replacement. Probably I figured I would buy another Gatorskin in a few months and then have a few thousand miles of trouble-free riding. But what was really exceptionally lazy, even for me, is that I left the Gatorskin in the back, which is where it had ended up by chance.

You know what they say about hindsight.

Moving along, here is what actually happened:

The tire carcass tore open along the tread (which was worn out, but I believe the primary factor was age), and the tube blew out.

I’m fairly certain I didn’t hit anything. I don’t remember a bump, there’s nothing in the road to see in the video, and forensically I don’t see any evidence I struck anything.

A really interesting question is whether I would have seen something wrong here if I’d inspected my tire before the ride. I’ll never know.

The failure was so sudden you could hear it pop, with no hiss afterward. It’s obvious in the video, and even one of the passersby said they heard it pop. I went from 75 PSI to nothing in the blink of an eye.

blowout

I was going about 22 MPH. There are plenty of skilled cyclists who I don’t doubt could have controlled this bike with no air in the front tire at that speed, but I couldn’t manage it, and I went down right away.

It seems like there are some important morals to the story (though my list also includes some other indirectly related generalities on the subject of avoiding face-plants):

  • Inspect your tires. Replace your front tire (maybe back tire too) if it doesn’t look right, particularly if it’s ripped, cut, bulging, or if you can see the threads of the carcass for any reason. Inspect your brakes too; make sure they’re aligned, there’s enough pad left, and that there is no unnecessary slack at the brake handle.
  • Be especially anal about the tires (and brakes) you find on a used bike. Might as well just replace the tires if they’re on an older used bike that looks like it’s been sitting unused for years. The rubber in tires has a limited useful life, even in storage, and over time the rubber becomes brittle and weak. (Case in point.) Tire casings can also fatigue before they get close to their tread-limit, especially if it has been ridden without adequate pressure. Was the previous owner competent?
  • If in doubt, ask a shop for inspection.
  • Listen to mechanics, even though it’s possible they’re occasionally self-serving. This especially when it comes to critical components; tires, brakes, and maybe the fork if the bike has been through an incident.
  • When you put on a new tire, rotate front-to-back, so the newest tire is always in front. (I have almost always done this.) The front tire is more critical for stability and control than the back tire generally, although the back tire may also be fairly critical when taking sharp turns.
  • Consider using tires that have ‘thorn breakers’; like the Continental Gatorskin, GP 4-season, Supersport Plus, Schwalbe Marathon Plus, to name a few. The reason I suggest this is actually not for thorn resistance, but rather my belief is that the breaker layer will act to protect the all-important carcass from rocks and glass. Because this type of tire places the thorn breaker in between the carcass and the road, this may be a more effective combination for road-hazard safety than, say, adding a tire liner inside a cheaper tire (which makes it an unfortunate recommendation cost-wise, nevertheless, that is how I see it). Sticking with thorn breaker tires will also steer you away from models I suspect are overly cheap, like the Kenda K40. Still, this is just my guess, and thorn breakers are not advertised for road-hazard safety. Knobbies are probably exempt here, as long as you’re following the newer-in-front rotation, so that the front tire always has full tread, but man knobbies are slow.
  • For wet pavement, it’s all about the rubber compound. It’s not about tread, since it’s almost impossible for a cyclist to achieve conditions for hydroplaning. That, and just take it easy when riding in traffic on wet roads.
  • (Icy conditions are different; but I consider you genuinely crazy if you ride in traffic and ice.)
  • (Off-road is also different; but I’m focused on pavement here just because that’s what I do.)
  • Put on some elbow pads and practice riding in the snow in an empty parking lot to learn how to handle the bike with no traction. Also for those riding in traffic, practice stopping hard on dry and wet pavement and evasive maneuvers. I haven’t been doing this and don’t seem to have a good feel for the bike at its limits, which is a surprise to me.
  • Consider getting a full-face helmet (e.g. Cratoni Shakedown, SixSixOne Comp, or Met Parachute [that one is not for sale in the US?]). Full-face may be a little hotter and more expensive than other helmets, but take it from me it beats chipped teeth. Full-face helmets are usually for off-road, but apparently folks as coordinated as me should consider wearing a full-face helmet on the road as well.

Doesn’t that look nice?

Probably most of my advice should sound familiar to folks who’ve been around the block. Consider it an object lesson.

Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. Nothing a half-dozen stitches and the dentist can’t fix (update: 3 root-canals). I did have my helmet on, that was probably good.