Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Michelin Wire: A Tire's Tiny Foe

Image from

The pneumatic bicycle tire is one of humankind's great clever inventions but there are perils in this world ready to deflate our inflated egos and puncture our pneumatic joy. Ironically, one tiny, sharp and stealthy foe is born from the death of other tires. It is called the Michelin Wire.

You may have seen the carcasses by the roadside, the blown bits of some truck tire, looking like flattened alligators. Monsieur Michelin invented the steel-belted radial tire that the world adopted but nothing lasts forever and some will always push their equipment far past the point of prudence. Thus the roadside is littered with black bits, carcasses that even carrion crows refuse to feast upon.

The sun shines down and the wind blows and the rains come. With time the rubber bits crumble and rot away but the tiny threads, the stiff and stubbly wires, remain. Broken bits void of will or malice but drawn by something not entirely unlike magnetism or gravity toward the rubber treads rolling beneath the unsuspecting cyclist.

I know them far too well, these Michelin Wires. They strike most often on the darkest nights, when the rain is falling, when rider and machine are united in a common desire to be home or at the very least be in a clean, dry, and well-lighted place. But rider and machine are still far from home and comfort, they are out in the damp, unsuspecting.

The attacker is so small it is impossible to notice, impossible to avoid. It is subtle, slow and certain. At first the machine seems just ever so slightly sluggish and the rider persists. A bit further on the rear tire (for it's always the rear) is definitely going soft and suspicion grows in the rider's mind. The puncture is subtle, but in the time it takes a human mind to go through denial and bargaining, at least half the air is lost.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find the breach of pneumatic integrity within the skin of the rain-slicked tire. Fingers probe the inner surface, hoping for sharp pain to reveal the slow assassin. The rider tempts the tiny serpent to bite again, knowing brief certain pain is preferable to slow and relentless doom.

Luck may give the rider that certainty or prudence may have led the rider to carry not only a spare tube but a spare folding tire as well (Michelin Wires are a common cause for prudence among the most experienced randonneurs). If the rider is not so fortunate or prudent, the damp rain and the long ride with many pauses to re-inflate a slowly leaking tire will give ample time for reflection.

In the clear light of a dry, well-lit place, the tiny source of sadness may be located, extracted, examined and perhaps even photographed.
Image taken in my dry, well-lit kitchen

One can curse the Michelin Wires or perhaps take their existence as a reminder that small things can and do matter. The Dalai Lama said it best, "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito."


doc said...

I had ridden close to 3K since my last flat until a few weeks ago when I had two flats in as many weeks. That little sliver on your finger looks exactly like the culprit I eventually found.

Anonymous said...

Recently I had occasion to check the "tuffy" style liner in my rear tire. I found at least six of those lodged in the liner, protruding equally from both sides. It hadn't been a problem, since the sealant in the tube kept the tiny holes from leaking more than a pound or so per week, but I removed them anyway. Val

JAT said...

My commute takes me through a major truck corridor near the Port, so the debris I'm seing may be slightly larger than the norm, but I have to ask: why are we so blithely indifferent to the various metallic, plastic, and glass vehicle parts being shed by motorists? Fenders, broken tail lights, fasteners (nuts and bolts), and of course shredded tires.

We've probably all seen (and clucked disapprovingly) the punctured bike inner tube left by the side of the road, but for the most part, if something were to fall off my bike I'd go back and get it, but cars and trucks are leaving a trail of debris and swath of collateral destruction in their wake. Why is this tollerated?

Grown ups clean up after themselves.

Anonymous said...

JAT: of course it's tolerated; if we can tolerate the death toll associated with motor vehicles, a little litter shouldn't bother anyone. As we all know, automotive traffic is a fact of nature, like tornados, lightning, and earthquakes - destructive, yes, but there is nothing you can do about it. Is there? Val

Apis said...

Alligator Skins...remember them fondly from my days behind the wheel of big-trucks.

There are other things I miss form those days, but this is not the forum for that discussion.

Anonymous said...

I've been bitten at least 6 times by the Michelin viper. Now I even carry a hemostat(surgical clamp)to pull the viper's tooth.
Here's a I shoulda known though. Picked up a lunch headed for a park, cycled to a table, propped the bike against the charcoal grill. Found out after a pleasant lunch that one of these teeth from a cousin, a grill brush, sucked the air out of the rear tire.

mary Westmacott said...

Love this post, thanks for posting, really useful, keep it coming x

Anonymous said...

Yes I was bitten by this very same thing over a summer trip of 1500 miles and 8 flats all caused by the wire. Found 2 wires at different times. Talk about ruining a good ride. Still had fun.

Somebody told me that using a cotton ball will help to locate the little buggers by hanging onto the cotton as you go by it.

Anonymous said...

Tissue works to locate the wire sometime too (run along the dry inside of the tire). Now I carry tweezers--those wires can be a devil to get out!

Bob said...

Sometimes the cause of the flat is more obvious. From Mary Metcalf Collier's Tour Divide album:

Sometimes you can see them

numeracy said...

"looking like a flattened alligators"

Lose the "a" perhaps?

Thanks for the post and keep 'em rolling!

Kent Peterson said...


Fixed! Thanks for the catch. This is why I much prefer writing for the web instead of dead trees, so much easier to clean up.

Daniel said...

I wish I could tell a story as well as you do about getting a flat tire! Fortunately I ride big heavy Schwalbes (and recently Continentals) and don't have to deal with it very often!

amoeba said...

Careful out there. It's not just bits of tyre and wire that get shed. Sometimes they're larger!

amoeba said...

When I was at school, many years ago, some of the boys had flashy and expensive racing bikes, fully kitted-out with Campagnolo components and 'tubs', racing tyres with a very shallow depth of tread and that had a sewn-in inner tube. I remember some of them had a little wire gadget that 'flew' over the tyre surface and they were there to brush off objects stuck in those fragile tyres.

Does anyone know what those wire thingies are called?
And who makes them?

Aapje said...

They are called 'Tire Savers' and can still be found new.