Dr. Frazier’s Flat Tire Repair Secrets

March 10, 2011
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Note the white gloves for the dirty work.
A flat tire and no cell reception for a Roadside Assistance Plan means fix it yourself or pay to have the motorcycle collected and hauled to a repair shop.

Deflated tire with no safety net. Imagine being 300 miles up the treacherous 414-mile Alaska Dalton Highway piloting a dual sport adventure motorcycle towards Deadhorse and having a flat tire. Trying a cell phone to call a purchased 24-hour roadside assistance toll free number proves there is no cell connection.

Plan B, a flatbed truck or trailer ride from Fairbanks to the nearest motorcycle shop will set the adventurer back as much as $1,800 and cost the better part of a day waiting in the Alaska wild swatting hungry mosquitoes the size of raisins.

Plan A is to fix the flat, applying the techniques read about in various magazines, books, instruction manuals, watched on a DVD or while attending a tire changing seminar before beginning the off-pavement adventure. There are possibly a few other secret tips and tricks to incorporate in an adventurist’s personal Adventurer Bag of Fix-Its before making the day longer and more expensive.


Pictured is a second mobile tire repair kit  not showing gloves
Pictured is a sample of one of my mobile tire repair kits, not showing gloves

Take an air pump: The little CO2 kits are good for a one time shot of up to around 20 psi. If you have pinched the tube putting it back in, or the tubeless tire plug does not stop the leak, you are back to Square #1 with empty CO2 containers, and no way to get air into the tire for attempt #2, or #3.

My preference for an air pump has been one of the light plastic bicycle hand pumps that work both ways, whether you are pulling or pushing the handle. They are slow but will get enough air in a tube to get me down the road, albeit slowly, at 10-20 psi.

Next up on my air injection list is a small electric unit. But these take up more space, overall weight is increased, and if one is not adept at fixing a leak, using it a few times can flatten the battery, causing another problem.

Pack some decent tire irons: Depending on available tool space and personal preference for weight they can be the lightweight Titanium Tar Arn from Aerostich/Riderwearhouse (www.aerostich.com) or heavier and longer ones purchased elsewhere. Motorcycle tire rims can be soft or brittle, requiring motorcycle specific tire irons that will not the dent, ding or crack an expensive rim. I have purchased automobile specific tire irons, and then used an electric grinder to flatten the sides that will be up against the rim to prevent them from hurting the rims. Trying the tire irons on rims before packing them to test that they will not harm the rim or the tire bead is a better way to discover their usefulness than learning the same on the side of a road.

Check glue, patches and plugs: Magically, glue can disappear from inside an unopened tube. I have had it happen in less than a year from the time I purchased a full tube until I opened it on the road. There were no cracks or openings in the container. The same with inner tube patches. From heat they dried out to the point they were like ceramic tile instead pliable rubber. Just opening my repair kit and looking inside to see an inflated tube of glue and patches is not enough. I pull them out and knead them to see if the glue is still soft inside the tube or that the patches are pliable. The same is true with plugs for tubeless tires because they get old and hard over time. For repairs to tubeless tires I have been happy with the Pocket Tire Plugger, another Aerostich/Riderwearhouse product.

Carry the needed tools for wheel removal and bead breaking: Check the tool kit to make sure of having the

An older or tougher tire bead can be broken with a bead breaker. Pictured here is the Bead Popper  a lightweight plastic tool.
An older or tougher tire bead can be broken with a bead breaker. Pictured here is the lightweight plastic Bead Popper.

tools needed to get the wheel off the motorcycle. Some motorcycle tool kits that come with the motorcycle at purchase lack the necessary tools for the job. I believe a manufacturer bean counter may have decided to save a few dollars in this department and suggested the owner purchase a roadside assistant plan to fix a flat.

Besides the tools needed to remove the wheel, another most commonly missing tool is something to break the tire bead. Depending on the tire type and age, this one step in tire repair has often been a major obstacle for me. Some tire beads defy traditional methods of moving them from the rim wall to the center of the rim like carefully standing on them or using the motorcycle center stand on the edge for leverage.

On one Alaska trip a Harley-Davidson rider resorted to slicing through the hardened and unmoving bead by using a hammer and screwdriver for a chisel. Fortunately he was carrying a spare tire to replace the one damaged by cutting the bead. On the same trip a BMW R100 GSPD owner had to use a hacksaw blade for the same reason, there was no way the old, rock hard, Metzeler tire bead was going to move away from the rim, even after trying a vice in a truck repair shop and the center stand trick. He too had a spare tire to replace the damaged one.

There are several bead breakers available. The Bead Breaker from Happy Trails Motorcycle Products can and will break any motorcycle tire bead. It is a little heavy and cumbersome but I have yet to find a bead it will not break. I have also had good luck with a lightweight resin wedge called the Bead Popper, available from Aerostich/Riderwearhouse.

Know the tools and how to use them before leaving on the adventure.
Know the tools and how to use them before leaving on the adventure.

Take a valve stem remover: This small tool, or valve stem cap/remover, can shorten a long day when trying to get the valve stem out of a tube or tubeless valve stem.

Carry spare inner tubes: They do not take up much space and can be a day saver when the valve stem is ripped out of a tube or a tubeless tire has a hole too large to plug. An inner tube is not recommended for installation in a tubeless tire, but in an emergency can get the motorcycle driver slowly to where a proper replacement of a damaged tubeless tire can be made.


Make a tire change using your planned tools before leaving home. It is ugly work, but far uglier is being on the side of the road in the cold rain when I discover I cannot get the wheel off the motorcycle or break the bead.


Before muscling off the tire  protect the rotor by any means to keep from damaging it.
Before muscling off the tire, protect the rotor by any means to keep from damaging it.

Protect the brake rotor: Use bricks, shoes, boots, logs or anything else convenient to keep the brake rotor off the ground. The rotor can easily be damaged when trying to break the bead or remove the tire and tube.

On a single rotor wheel pull the bead over the rim from the rotor side: Break the bead on the rotor side first, then the other side. To get the bead over the rim for tube removal do it from the rotor side using the rotor to wedge one tire iron down while working the other in very small increments (one inch) around the rim.

Check the inside of the tire for sharp objects: Before installing a patched or new tube in the tire, run hands very carefully around the inside of the tire to feel for what may have caused the hole. It is sometimes a surprise to remove an obvious hole-maker like a nail from the outside of the tire only to find a second or third object protruding through the tire inside wall.

Before installing a patched or new tube  or plugging a hole  find the reason for the hole by running hands around the inside of the tire  possibly finding more than one culprit.
Before installing a patched or new tube, or plugging a hole, find the reason for the hole by running hands around the inside of the tire, possibly finding more than one culprit.

Little bites, on and off, and then “easy-does-it”: Bead removal over the rim and installation is best done in little bites instead of big bites with the tire irons. To keep from pinching the tube between the tire iron and the rim add some air to the tube before starting the installation. A little soapy water on the bead helps slide the tire back over the rim. Carefully roll the bead off the tire iron not bending the tire iron all the way over the rim to allow its tip to make contact with the inner rim.

Mix soapy water for easy removal and installation: In the jungle I have used hair shampoo from my travel kit mixed with my drinking water to make a soapy solution to apply to the tire bead for easier removal and installation.

Drive slow: After making a fire road or jungle path fix, drive slowly, until a proper replacement can be made. The 20 psi of air might be able to get the wounded tire into the new tube or plugged tire but possibly not be enough to seat the bead against the rim firmly, while riding slowly might, and if the fix lets go it is better to be rolling slow than on the go.

Another surprise was finding a patch on the inside of an inner tube that had an outside patch over a hole at least one inch in diameter  not in any way safe  but had worked!  This was another example of a South American flat fix.
Another surprise was finding a patch on the inside of an inner tube that had an outside patch over a hole at least one inch in diameter, not in any way safe, but it worked! This was another example of a South American flat fix

Carry mechanics or latex gloves: These are small and light, and can make chain and tire removal less messy. They are a bit cumbersome for tight work like valve stem removal, but after finished with the messy work it is a blessing to roll them off and toss them away. I also carry a small amount of waterless hand cleaner in a plastic bag, another blessing when things get messy.

Make patches for big holes: I cut various size patches from old inner tubes, ranging in size from two-inch squares to six-inch diameter circles. I can use these to glue to the inside of a tubeless tire for an extra large hole using glue, or doing the same to a large cut in the sidewall of a tire or large hole in a tube tire.

Outside the box fixes: My wildest outside-the-box fit was filling the inside of my holed tire with jeans and T-shirts when I had a flat and no repair kit or spare tube. I wedged all the rolled and scrunched clothing into the tire, and then muscled the tire bead back onto the rim. I drove very slowly, and wobbly, to the next town. The clothes were ruined but I did not have to leave my loaded motorcycle unattended by the side of the road and walk.

Another time I was able to use safety wire to stitch a cut in a sidewall together, and then Shoe Goop glue and one of my self-made inner tube patches over the stitches that held well enough to get me to a town where I was able to purchase an inner tube to install inside the ripped and sutured tubeless tire.

Keep an eye on the tools when doing a road fix in front of a crowd.  They can easily disappear while concentrating on doing the flat fix.
Keep an eye on the tools when doing a road fix in front of a crowd. They can easily disappear while concentrating on doing the flat fix.

I have managed to get 17-inch tubes into 18-inch tires and 18-inch inner tubes into 17-inch tires and have them hold enough air to get me off the mountain. I have seen a 21-inch tube go into a 17-inch tire to do the same. 

One of my more creative inner tube fixes was using strong nylon thread pulled out of my riding pants to tie off a hole in an inner tube after twisting the tube and holed section to tie off the bleeder below the twist. It was not pretty but held air, which was enough to get me to the next inner tube oasis.

Watch your tools when in a crowd: I was fixing a flat in Morocco with a crowd gathered around. A hand reached out between the legs of the watchers and snatched my adjustable wrench. I stopped my flat-fix, stood up and then pushed through the crowd to chase the thief. After taking two or three steps I realized I was leaving the rest of my tools to the gathered throng in a land where Ali Babba had trained 40-plus thieves. It was foolish to chase one wrench if I returned to a stripped tool kit. I gave up the chase and returned to save what was left.


Unbelievably this inner tube had been patch six times  once with a patch on top of a patch.  This came from South America to the USA!
Unbelievably this inner tube had been patch six times, once with a patch on top of a patch. This came from South America to the USA!

Repairing a deflated tire is a short time fix, not a cure. The integrity of the tire was compromised when it was holed. Patching an opening should be trusted only to limp into the next tire depot where the tire should be tossed away as well as any patched inner tube. Trying to move forward on a patched tube or plugged tire for more than a short time is pushing the personal envelope against common sense. A patch is a patch, a plug the same. For the price of a new tire and tube I would be adventuring with little common sense compared to what can happen when the patch glue lets go or the plug fails in the campground or motel parking lot during the hours of dark. Worse could be at speed while on top of the motorcycle with possibly full gear and a trusting pillion. Those are adventures I already have T-shirts from and do not need any more.