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Touring Bike Tires and Pumps

Touring Bike Tires and Pumps

Best Tires for Bicycle Touring

The most common problem encountered on bicycle tours seems to be tire related. Flat tires are common and it’s not unknown to hear about a tire blow-out.

When I look for a touring tire I am looking for a tour that will work reliably every day, minimalize flats, prevent blow-outs and make my life easier by not offering too much rolling resistance.

I also look for a tire that can handle the terrain that I will be riding.

Tires comes in all kinds of different styles and sizes. Commonly mentioned touring tires include Continental Top Touring and Schwalbe Marathon/Marathon Plus.

I’ve posted a review of the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires on the next page. Hopefully I will soon add reviews of other tires to this site as well.

Touring bicycle tires
Sideview of my Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires after 6,000 km and in need of a good wash!

Schwalbe Marathon Plus tire review

I purchased new tires just before the trip. Were they any good?

This review was originally published as an email to the International Bicycle Touring Mailing List. Later it was also published as part of my Round Lake Huron tour journal on Crazyguyonabike.com This review predates the creation of this site.

The Original Review

About two months prior to the start of my trip around Lake Huron I decided to order some new tires. Originally I had planned to order the tires through my local bicycle shop but unfortunately the product I wanted wasn’t one that they stock so it was taking a long time.

Three weeks before my start date I contacted Celeste from Schwalbe North America about obtaining a set of tires plus a spare tire in time for my trip.

Celeste requested some information on the type of terrain I planned to ride and based on this information recommended that I use the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. She also contacted her shipping company to make sure that the tires would arrive in time for my tour.

I mentioned the concerns that others on the list have mentioned in the past about mounting the tires on the rim. Celeste has a liquid product that is designed to help with this. In addition there are also specific tire levers that you can get as well. Celeste included both in my order.

Unfortunately when the tires did arrive it turned out that the fenders on my bike and the 700 X 37c tires had a conflict. Although not Celeste’s issue since the sizing was at my request she immediately shipped me another set of 700 X 35c tires and asked me to return the originals. She actually absorbed the extra shipping cost which was quite surprising and unexpected!

The 700 X 35c tires arrived before my tour.

From a customer service perspective Celeste earns an A++. I cannot think of anything she could have done better to make my experience nicer.

I experienced no problems mounting the tires. In fact the mounting experience was better then the experience I have had with the stock tires in the past when correcting flat tires or pulled out valves. I did not use the liquid product because I had no need to. I did use the levers and they worked well for the job.

On the tour itself I started testing the tires the first day when I experimented with gravel riding by leaving the pavement and going on to the gravel shoulder everytime one of those giant dump trucks tried to pass me! :)

Unlike the stock tires that came with my trek (Bontrager somethings - I’ll look it up) these tires handle gravel very, very, very well! Throughout my trip around Lake Huron I went to the gravel numerous times. In each case I never felt like I was about to do a high speed wipeout.

I also rode about 200 km of gravel roads on this trip. I would never have attempted or enjoyed this with the old tires. With the new tires riding gravel roads was actually pleasurable. I had time to enjoy the quiet road and the scenery without needing to worry about sudden wipeouts.

Rolling resistance never seemed to be a problem.

No flats and minimal need to pump air in the tire regularily.

When I rode at night I was told that the bike glowed in the dark. One of the high visibility items on the bike was the reflective sidewall on the tires.

The only issue I have is actually with the front fender that is on the bike. I intend to mount the front fender differently. With this fender the mounting design is such that unless the tire is at the low end of it’s inflation range the tire and fender touch. With a slight change I think this problem will disappear.

From a functionality perspective these tires receive an A+.

As a practical note I intend to use these tires when I go around my next lake and when I cross Canada that’s how much I like these tires.

I also purchased a Schwalbe Marathon 700 X 35c folding tire for a spare. I carried it around the lake and fortunately had no need for it! :)

Here’s some contact information for Celeste:

celeste.steindl at schwalbetires dot com Céleste Renée Steindl-Moser Owner / Director SCHWALBE NORTH AMERICA A Division of Moser Enterprises Incorporated Victoria, BC and Mill Valley, CA 1-888-700-5860; 250-598-0397 ext: 101 www.schwalbetires.com

For the cynical people out there now is probably the time to mention that while a happy customer I am affiliated in no other way with Celeste or Schwalbe. I also did not receive a reduced price or anything else in exchange for these comments. Celeste did not request this review, see it in advance or even know that it was coming (I think that should cover all the needed disclaimers, let me know if I missed one).

Great people and excellent tires!

Responses to follow-up questions

The following information comes from an email thread that had some additional questions.

What is your opinion of the rolling resistance - the Marathon Plus are even heavier tire than the XR’s, but the tread pattern is not as aggressive. Schwalbe’s marketing states that the rolling resistance of the Plus’s is relatively low - do you agree? How do they compare to previous tires that you have used?

I was very suprised with the low rolling resistance of the tires. Since they were heavier I fully expected the tires to be slow feeling to ride. This wasn’t the case for me at all! In fact I felt like they roll smoothly compared to the tire they replaced.

I should point out once again that I had the front tire at around 80 psi due to the fender issue. Recommended inflation is 86 psi so my comments are being made without full inflation of the front tire as well.

Another comment that should have made my review is that since the tread is not agressive like a knobby tire the tire does not handle deep (3+ inch ), loose sand very well. Knobby tires handle that stuff better but with a knobby you would definately have some issues too.

I guess the final response to your question is that although there is still life in my original tires I have no intention of removing the Pluses. I would much rather continue commutting and touring with these tires!

I also see that the Plus only come with a wire bead, whereas the XR (and some other Marathons) come with the Kevlar folding bead

I think you are correct about this. I most likely have the XR folder that you describe as my spare! It is a different tire model then the two on the bike.

Extra comments

Sometimes a mark of the quality of something comes also from what things you no longer do as a result.

Going around Lake Erie I worried a lot about road debris because I wasn’t confident of the tires ability to prevent flats. Even with all that extra effort I still managed to pick up a tiny wire that embedded itself through the tire and popped the tube.

Going around Lake Huron was different. Perhaps it’s foolhardy but after reviewing the tires and putting them on the bike I decided to take only 2 spare heavy duty tubes instead of 4.

Additionally after my initial gravel tests I really stopped worrying about road debris and instead sat up and enjoyed the view. I did indeed run over more debris including some metal bits and glass but no problems with flats or sliced rubber. I also went down some very rough roads compared to the previous summer.

When I returned home I was down to only one spare tube…… The missing one went to another cyclist who had used up all of his fixing flats! :) (Now that’s a nice problem for me to have, being generous rather then fixing my tires)

I think Celeste mentioned to me once that the Plus tires are called “The blue wonder”. Partly due to the blue wear strip that appears and partly due to the quality of the tire for touring.

Remember when I mentioned her specific questions in my review? She was actually trying to determine the type of touring I was going to be doing so that she could give me the correct touring tire to use. I think the XR was the other choice. Like I said, quite impressive!

Correcting the minor fender issue

During my review of the tires I used going around Lake Huron I made the following comment:

The only issue I have is actually with the front fender that is on the bike. I intend to mount the front fender differently. With this fender the mounting design is such that unless the tire is at the low end of it’s inflation range the tire and fender touch. With a slight change I think this problem will disappear.

I made a slight adjustment of the front fenders position on the bike. The change was to mount the fender using the rear mounting hole on the fork and to use use two brake spacers between the hole and the fender bracket.

The net result is to move the fender back slightly and to completely remove any concerns about the fenders preventing the tires from being fully inflated.

I have now been running this setup for two weeks. I find that the fender being back actually resulted in improved performance in rain.

I had to remove the fender to make the move. As part of this process I fully inflated the tire and measured clearance between the top of the tire and the fork itself. Clearance amounted to 1.5 cm. To me this is plenty.

At this point I have nothing but good things to say about these tires!

Selecting a tire pump for a bicycle tour

Touring bicycle tire pump
My full sized floor pump. This one is made by Wrench Force.

A tire pump is useful for recovering from a flat tire and for periodically topping up your tires. Several different types of tire pumps are available for your consideration.

Floor pumps are very large pumps that usually make pumping up tires very simple especially since most of them have handy platforms for you to stand on while you pump and each stroke of the pump moves a lot of air into your tire tube. Often an integrated tire gauge is available making your pumping chores as simple as possible.

Unfortunately for most tours the bulk and weight of a floor pump usually force it to stay at home while you and your bike take off for the great beyond. As you read through various online journals you will start to notice that the people who seem to experience a lot of flat tires eventually seem to strap a floor pump and carry it for the rest of their tour.

Historically a type of pump called a frame pump was used for bicycle touring. This type of pump would usually hang horizontally beneath the front tube or stand vertically on a special peg behind the seat tube. With the long air chambers of these devices it was usually relatively easy to pump your tires up to the required pressure.

Mini-pumps are another option that have become more widely available with the advent of the mountain bike. These pumps are light weight, compact and good at pumping up low pressure tires. Many of these pumps also feature multiple heads or an easy conversion method meaning that you can use them with either Presta or Schraeder valves. Unfortunately these pumps are generally not very good at pumping touring or road tires to the higher pressures that we seem to prefer although there are exceptions to this very general statement.

So with all this variety what are some of the things that I look for in a tire pump for use during a bicycle tour?

  • Able to achieve the desired maximum pressure needed by my tires
  • Compact so that it fits inside the tools saddlebag
  • Lightweight
  • Durable
  • Not overly complex and/or prone to easy failure
  • Able to work with my touring tires tube type
  • Able to work with the common tire types that other tourers might be using in my touring location. This is nice to have in case I encounter a fellow cyclist in trouble.

I have experimented with a few different kinds of tire pumps during the past few years. I have had several break and more then one that proved unable to pump the tires up to the desired pressure during a tour. As time progressed I picked up a Topeak Mountain Morph for use on my Round Lake Huron tour. Prior to purchasing this pump I had heard good things about both the Topeak Mountain Morph and the Topeak Road Morph pumps from other cyclists.

I really liked using the Mountain Morph during the Round Lake Huron tour and if I hadn’t found a Road Morph at MEC for a good price then I would probably still be using it today. The Road Morph has the advantage of being a bit narrower giving me a more compact pump to stow away.

Both pumps are nice in that they feature the best attributes of a mini pump in terms of size, weight and durability while also having some of the features of a floor pump. These features include a pump head nozzle hose that allows you to easily attach the pump to the tube while still being able to use the built in platform to help with pumping. This platform really helps you to easily achieve higher tire pressures.

Although I carry my pump inside a saddlebag these pumps also come with an adaptor to make mounting them directly on the bike frame possible. I typically don’t use the mounts because the pump seems to stay cleaner and more secure when stowed away in a bag.

Like many pumps the Topeak products also have maintenance parts consisting of some replacement seals for the pump. The parts cost very little and since flat tires are so common and the consequence of a non-functional pump so terrible I prefer to carry them along with me when I tour.

Touring bicycle tire mini pump
Three of the mini-pumps that I've tried over the years. Top is a Topeak Mountain Morph while the bottom is the Topeak Road Morph. The center pump has the ability to use the CO2 cartridge that you can see beneath it.

Some pumps have the ability to attach directly to a CO2 cartridge. While I appreciate this feature for racing bikes and when mountain biking with friends I don’t see it as a big deal for a touring bicycle. The cartridges add weight and cost while forcing you to repump the tire relatively soon anyway when the CO2 seeps out through the tube walls. With the other bikes you are likely to be home long before this happens but on tour within a day or two at most you will be replacing that CO2 with normal air pumped in by hand. Why bother with the expense, added complexity or cost in this situation?

One last word of advice. If you are about to depart on a tour with a new pump spend some time before the tour making sure that the pump works. Empty one of your touring bike tires and pump it back up to your normal tire pressure using your new pump. The obvious reason for doing this is to make sure that the pump will actually allow you to pump to the pressure you want but another equally important reason is to make sure that your pump is working correctly before you are out in the woods far from a nearby bike shop or helpful cyclist!