There aren’t a lot of things that frustrate me more than knowing how to fix something and not having the tools to be able to do it. Having to walk my bike off the trail because I couldn’t fix it would likely put me over the edge. That’s why I carry spares and tools when I ride. It’s also why I learned how to fix bikes in the first place. When the Boy Scouts told me to “always be prepared” I took it to heart. I wish the same happened when my parents told me to “do your homework,” but here we are.
The most common trailside repair by far is the flat tire. And the most common way to fix a flat has traditionally been to throw in a spare inner tube. But things like tubeless setups with sealant and beefier tire construction, have greatly reduced the frequency of flats. And for me, living in the loamy paradise of the Pacific Northwest, my frequency of flats went from not very often to not being able to remember the last one.
Also, tire plugs work really well.
So, after not needing to use an inner tube a single time in years, I chose to stop carrying them on most rides. Perhaps it was after having spent more than a week on the Arizona Trail, carrying multiple spare inner tubes the whole way, and not needing a single one, that I told myself, “Self, maybe it’s time to stop lugging tubes around.”
But not without some consideration.
With tire plugs’ ability to fix most punctures, a tube is usually only needed when the tire has a hole too large for plugs to seal it. But was there another way to fix a large hole? Tire boots are a thing, but sealant has made adhering anything to the inside of a tire basically impossible. Then I remembered when I was a kid, someone told me you could sew a gash in a tire. I’ve never actually seen it done before, but it makes sense.
I have this Speedy Stitcher thing that I picked up at REI a few years ago because it looked neat, I had some dividend money to spend, and I figured it’d be a great addition to my camp kit.
I wasn’t about to carry the big awl thing around on rides, but the wax thread that the kit came with (you can also buy it separately) seemed ideal for stitching a tire. So, I took some of it over to Michael’s craft store, and found a needle with a big enough eye to fit the rather thick thread. I added the needle and a couple feet of the thread to my Genuine Innovations tire plug kit, and quickly forgot about it.
My reasoning was basically that a needle and thread is way lighter and more compact than a tube, and it’ll be able to repair the thing that I’d see myself using a tube for.
I went years without ever using it. Blissfully cruising along, not slicing tires.
But then we went to Tucson, Arizona, to test budget bikes, and rode on sharp rocks with tires that weren’t made for it. And we got a lot of flats. Most of them were handled by plugs. Until one wasn’t.
I was out on my own loop, which I’d extended because I wanted more time on this particular bike, and wanted to take it over to this spot that has a super technical traversing section I was trying to clean. The flat happened roughly 2 seconds after my celebratory “fuck yes!” After stuffing all six plugs in the gash, the tire still wouldn’t seal. If I’d just carried a tube, I would have been able to quickly throw it in and be out of there, but no, I just had to make it hard on myself.
Which to be honest, I was sort of psyched about. I’d finally get to break out the needle and thread to see if it actually worked. And it totally did.
I left one bead of the tire on the wheel, and was careful not to spill all the sealant while doing the job. I pushed the needle through from the outside, ran it across the gash, and poked it back through the other side. I then made a knot to tie off the beginning of the stitch, and proceeded to needle a tight stitch that was just a bit longer than the gash itself. I had to use a pebble as a thimble a couple times, but other than that, it was quick and easy. Definitely not as quick as a tube would have been, but hey, it worked.
The remaining sealant in the tire took care of any minor leaks in the repair, and it proceeded to last the rest of the trip.
I’m not sure the lesson should be to not carry a tube because this was a much less convenient way to fix the problem. And, if I wouldn’t have been able to re-seat the tubeless bead when blasting my very last CO2 canister in the tire, my needle and thread would not have been able to save me. I think I’ll alter my setup a bit and start carrying one of those tiny Tubolito tubes, especially now that I live in a place with rocks again. But the needle and thread are here to stay.
Photos: Ryan Palmer