If there’s anything that is worse than being stranded with a flat tire, it’s being stranded with no way to repair it. Picture it: you’re out on a beautiful Sunday morning, the bikes purring like Tony Bennett crooning I left my heart, and all of sudden the tire loses pressure. What moments ago was a pristine example of motorcycle design in motion is now about as awesome as a hobo pushing a shopping cart. Worse yet, there’s no help in sight. This pretty much defines a “this friggin’ sucks moment,” doesn’t it?
Unfortunately motorcycle tires rarely go flat at convenient times and even fewer bikes pack a spare, which leaves you with two choices: you can fix the thing your own self and get back on the road or you can curse the fates and call for a tow.
If you are reading this and you have AAA, now would be a good time to verify that you have the motorcycle service on your account. If not, they have been known to refuse to provide the service to you and that will make an aggravating situation even worse.
First up, these are the tools you’ll need for the job:
- Tire Plug Kit
- Tire Inflator (pump, CO2 cartridges, on board or battery powered compressor).
Tube and Gloom
I must digress for a moment to point out that if your bike is running tube tires, as many spoke wheel cruisers, dual sports and retro standards do, you’re in for some tough sledding. If you can remove the tire and you’ve got a spare tube or a patch kit along with the knowledge to use it, you may be in luck. The next task is getting the tire off the bike and then prying the tire off the rim by the side of the road. None of which are simple tasks.
Removing a wheel on the side of the highway is tough enough if you’re riding something like a Bonneville let alone a Road King or other heavy cruiser unless you happen to have a center stand. There are folks out there who can pull this off, so if you have the experience to install a new tube without pinching it then you’ve got a fighting chance of getting back on the road.
Then again, if you can do all that then you won’t find this blog of much use. However, if you don’t have the skill or knowledge to successfully complete all seven of those steps perfectly then the side of the road is the wrong place to learn how to do it. Your chances of success are 50/50 at best. My recommendation in this case would be to try effect a temporary repair using an aerosol inflator like Fix-A-Flat or Tire Slime and then ride the bike gingerly and sedately to the nearest safe port of call for a professional repair.
If you’re on a bike with tubeless tires it’s a different kettle of fish. In most cases a safe, effective and temporary, emphasis here on the word temporary, repair can be carried out on the side of the road that will at least let you finish the ride and get back home.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of tubeless tire repair let me point out a few salient facts. First, there is not a single manufacturer of tires or repair kits that considers an external tire plug to be anything more than a temporary repair. Second, although a case can be made for placing a properly repaired tubeless tire back in service after it’s been dismounted, inspected and patched from the inside, I think you’ll find that the consensus among tire manufacturers, engineers and technicians is that a repaired tire should always be replaced, if only because there may be hidden damage that can cause a catastrophic tire failure without warning. Third and most obvious is that the best tire repair kit ain’t worth squat to you if it’s not on your bike, so if you don’t have a quality tire repair kit, along with the means to inflate the tire when you’re done, put their acquisition at the top of to do list, before the next big ride.
So, what type of kit works best? Excellent question, Grasshopper! In broad terms, tire repair kits fall into two broad category’s those that use rope type seals and those that use a rubber, mushroom type plug. Although the rope seals are often somewhat easier to use, it’s my opinion that the rubber plug variety make a better repair, so those are the ones I recommend. This is especially true if you’re touring and the repair may have to last awhile before you can the tire replaced. While it’s not my intention to act as a shill for any particular company I do recommend Stop & Go kits, I’ve never had one let me down and their Puncture Pilot, which includes a small compressor, is at the top of the list.
With that diatribe behind us, here’s the 411 on how to conduct a roadside tubeless tire repair.
At the first sign of trouble pull of the road and find yourself a safe spot, well away from moving traffic. More people have been killed or injured while changing a tire by the side of the road than you can imagine, so rule number one is to protect yourself and your buddies by getting out of harm’s way.
Once you’re in a safe spot your next job is to locate and assess the damage. Nine times out of 10 the problem will be some foreign object, most likely a nail, or other chunk of road debris that’s penetrated the tire tread. If the injury isn’t in the tread, if the sidewall is torn or punctured or the valve stem torn, stop right there. Sidewall damage can’t be repaired, and replacing the valve stem means removing the tire and breaking the bead, so damage of that sort means it’s time to start dialing up a buddy with a trailer. Fortunately those scenarios are rare and straightforward are punctures relatively easy to repair.
Use a pair of pliers or a multi tool to remove the offending object. If you have a marker handy, circle the damaged area. It’s amazing how hard it can be to locate the puncture when there’s nothing there to mark it.
Tech Tip: If you can’t find anything obvious, pour a little water or any other non-carbonated-non-flammable liquid over the tire surface and look for the bubbles.
Your repair kit should have a full set of instructions. It’s good to reading through those to gain some understanding of the process before there’s a problem.
First: Use the rasp in your kit to clean out the hole. If you feel metal-to-metal contact you’ve punctured a steel belt, so work that thing like you mean it and smooth over the edges lest they saw through the plug. This step is tedious, so stay calm and do a thorough job because you may not get a second chance at a roadside repair.
Second: Following the instructions, load the plug or seal into the installation tool.
Third: Insert the plug or seal through the puncture. Although details vary, in essence the rope seals are forced through the puncture and left in place when the tool is withdrawn. The rubber plugs are placed in a nozzle which is inserted into the tire. The mechanical action of the tool is then used to push them through the nozzle and into damaged area of the tire. Once the plug is in place the tool and nozzle are withdrawn and the plug firmly seated by pulling upwards on it with your pliers. Once the mushroom portion of the plug is seated the tail is cut off level with the tread.
Fourth: Inflate your repaired tire. You can use CO2 cartridges a hand pump an onboard compressor, or even an air-line that screws into one of the sparkplug ports if you are experienced with such tricks. After trying every type of inflation device on the market I’ve settled on carrying a small on-board version that runs off the bike’s battery. I’ve found this to be the most compact and the least-physical method of inflating a tire and one of the few that can easily inflate street bikes tire to the recommended pressure. After the tire is inflated chill-out for a few minutes to make sure it holds air before getting back on the road.
Before we wrap this up, let me reiterate that a plug is a temporary means of repairing a tire. Every plugged tire should be dismounted and replaced at the earliest opportunity. Once the repair has been made, you’ll need to keep your speed and distance down and riding no further than you have to until the tire’s been inspected.
Let me also remind you again that the best tire repair kit in the world won’t help you if it’s not with you when you need it.