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Published May 20, 2011

Leaning hard into a decreasing radius turn on my ancient Schwinn Paramount, I ponder the effectiveness of thirty year-old sew-up glue.  A failed tire can kill you. Changing one can, too. Bitter experience has taught me to regard  every decision about tires, however insignificant, as a matter of life or death. 

When cycling began to surpass running as a fitness pastime years ago, Mike Sinyard said, “Bike tires are the running shoes of the eighties”. He was right, but perhaps a little early. It took courage to plunge Specialized into the tire market when he did. I’m guessing the decisions he made about tires seemed like matters of life and death to him, too. The judgement to make such decisions, and the will to keep making them over the long term, is a key to business success...and may explain why Mike Sinyard is still in business and I spend my days tinkering with old motorcycles.

Crouching next to the back tire of my BMW R69S with a fistful of coins in my hand, I consider the vexing question of tread depth. Should the tread be deeper than Roosevelt’s head on a dime...or was it Washington’s on a quarter...and what does the buffalo on the nickel have to say about this? 

My father, a notorious cheapskate,  never troubled himself with such niceties. If tread was showing anywhere on the Chevy’s tires, it was good enough. “It’s holding air, isn’t it?”, was his rejoinder to any sissy safety questions. Of course it held air in a warm, well-lighted garage. Captive air prefers to escape into more exotic locales, like Stevens Pass, during a blizzard, at night. Cowering in the back seat, listening to my father curse mightily  every time a passing semi showered him with muck while he wrestled with a flat rear tire, taught me the perils of tire changing in the field.

It’s dangerous at home, too.  In close to fifty years of changing motorcycle tires, I’ve seldom accomplished the task without leaving blood on the garage floor. If the Tire Iron Toss were an Olympic event, I’d be a medalist. My personal best is forty-seven yards. I paced it off after I bandaged my hand and recovered my composure.

A tire can launch a tire iron pretty far all by itself. As any experienced grappler with motorcycle tires can attest, the elastic power of a stretched sidewall can fling a tire iron with startling force and frightening accuracy. I’ve had one narrowly miss my head only to bounce off the tank of the bike I was working on, leaving a dimple to remember it by. 

If you’re man enough, you can dispense with tire irons entirely. It’s one thing to claw a 700C bicycle tire into place with calloused fingers, but quite another to do it to a motorcycle tire. Legend has it that Rolph Tibblin, the great Swedish motocross champion and fitness trainer, was able to change a 400 X 18 Trelleborg knobby with his bare hands. People still give him a wide berth at old timer’s events. A friendly hand shake from Rolph Tibblin can buckle the knees of the unwary. 

Once the tube is replaced and the bead reseated, the danger only escalates. Hyper inflation is as hazardous at the local gas station as it is in the economy at large. Over-exuberance with the compressor, combined with a pinched tube, can create a concussive blast more forceful than that of a twelve gauge shotgun. A detonating tire arrests the attention of everyone at the gas station. Heads turn, children squeal, and men gasp, as I stagger back to my truck, glassy eyed from shock, ears ringing. The embarrassment of such public spectacles eventually led me to buy my own compressor.

The perils of inflating a freshly changed bicycle or motorcycle tire pale when compared to the latent destruction lurking in a truck tire, as I learned when assigned to tire changing duty in the motor pool of the 137th Field Service Company.  In the early seventies, during the Vietnam conflict, the Fighting 137th kept the Vietcong from invading Pasadena by patrolling the city in “deuce-and-a-halfs” towing implements of mass destruction like the Mobile Field Laundry Unit, the Mobile Field Bakery Unit, and the dreaded Mobile Bath and Delousing Unit.

All of this deterrence rolled on massively tough all-terrain tires. Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move the world.” He never tried to pry the bead of a “deuce and a half” tire over the rim, which is impossible, no matter where you stand. And when it comes time to re-inflate the tire, you’ll stand behind a bunker if you’re smart. 

The truck tire retaining ring was invented to eliminate the need for twenty-foot long tire irons. However, it introduced a new hazard, the flying spring steel retaining ring. A grainy black and white photo on the motor pool bulletin board illustrated the problem in the most stark and graphic manner. It showed a steel retaining ring embedded about eight inches deep into a ceiling beam some fifteen feet above the garage floor. This made an impression on me. 

In every motor pool, the job of inflating truck tires is given to the new guy or the dumb guy, and as a buck private with a college degree and bad attitude, I qualified on both counts.  On tire changing day, I was assigned the last two steps in the process... securing the retaining ring  and then inflating the tire. The guy that installs the retaining ring always inflates the tire, for the same reason that a skydiver packs his own chute. A mistake in the first step can make the second step unduly exciting, but at least you won’t have to waste any of your remaining seconds wondering who to blame.

There are three ways to do a job...the easy way, the right way, and the Army way. The easy way was to lay the tire on its side on the floor, with the valve and retaining ring facing the ceiling beams, and then crouch next to it, filling the tire at arms length. The right way was to roll the tire into a vertical cage made of heavy steel bars and thread the compressor hose through the bars, taking care to keep your hand and arm away from the retaining ring. The Army way was to get somebody else to do it.

Having a keen sense of self-preservation and no rank, I did something the right way for the first time in my spotty military career. I inflated a dozen tires that day and every time I rolled one into the cage, everyone else in the garage went outside for a smoke break. It was cold and drafty in that cavernous garage, but I perspired like a pimp in church as I listened to the hollow, doomsday hiss of air swelling each tire.

At the end of the day, I felt the novel satisfaction of having survived a job well done.  Riding home from the armory on my BMW after the Reserve meeting that night, I got a flat rear tire, went into a tank slapper, crashed and broke my elbow.

I don’t know if Mike Sinyard still has a motorcycle, but at the time we talked tires he told me he had a Honda VFR500 Interceptor, a pretty sophisticated machine in the mid eighties. He hadn’t put a lot of miles on it, however, because he wisely chose not to ride at night and he noted that, “It’s dark when I come to work and it’s dark when I go home.”  Yet another reason why he’s still in business and I’m not.

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