Can You Ride A Bike With A Flat Tire: Should you even wheel it?


As all cyclists will be aware, there’s no worse feeling that getting stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire. Even if you have a spare inner tube or puncture repair kit, sometimes you just want to get back home in the warm as soon as possible. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s ever wondered if I can cycle back on my flat tire?

You should not cycle on a completely flat tire as this can cause irreparable damage to the inner tube, tire, wheel rim, and spokes. You may cycle for a few miles on a partially flat tire, but this will depend on how flat the tire is, how quickly it is deflating, your bike, and the terrain you are riding on.

So, we’ve established that cycling on a flat tire can cause serious damage to your bike, but why is this? And if some situations might allow you to ride on a flat tire, what do you need to know in order to work if you can? I take a look at these as well as whether or not you can wheel your bike in the rest of this article.

Can you ride a bike with a flat tire?

Regular riders will advise you that if your tire is completely flat, you should not be riding it. This is because riding on a completely flat tire can damage many areas of the tire and wheel. This damage may be permanent and very costly if you have to replace the wheel itself.

On the other hand, if your bike has a slow puncture, where it is losing air pressure and deflating over time, then you may be able to ride your bike for a short amount of time.

However, how long you can ride your bike with a flat tire will depend on multiple different factors. On top of this the handling, speed, and your control over your bike will reduce as more air leaves the tire itself.

Why is cycling on a flat tire bad?

The main reason that cycling on a flat tire is bad for your bike is that it can damage multiple different parts of the wheel and tire.

You could damage the inner tube

First of all, the inner tube inside the tire will be more damaged if you cycle on it while it is flat.

This is because a flat tire is more prone to pinch punctures than a fully inflated one. A pinch puncture occurs when the inner tube is not inflated enough and gets caught under the wheel rim, causing a small hole.

This means that if you cycle on an already flat tire, you are likely to have multiple holes in the inner tube, requiring you to throw it away and replace it rather than repairing it with a patch.

You could damage the tire

After the inner tube has been damaged, the next area that will be affected is the tire. A tire is designed in such a way that it carries the weight of the bike in the middle of the tire (called the tread).

The sidewalls of a tire are not designed with this in mind. As such, while cycling on a flat these may get pushed under the wheel, coming into contact with the pavement and wearing them down.

This can mean your tires wear down faster than they normally should, or in extreme cases disintegrate the side of the tire completely, causing a tear or hole that requires you to replace it.

You could damage the wheel

Once you’ve considered the inner tube and tires, the next main worry is the wheel itself. The wheel is one of the most expensive parts of a bike and so can be very costly to repair. Cycling on a flat tire can damage the wheel in two main ways.

First of all, the rim of the wheel can be damaged. The rim of the wheel is not supposed to take the weight of you and your bike. This means that if you cycle with a flat tire, a large knock (for example a pothole, stone, or curb) can cause the rim to buckle (as it no longer has the protection of the inflated inner tube).

Even small scratches or dents in the rim can cause issues with your bike in the future, causing repeated flat tires, or even stopping you from getting an inner tube or tire back onto the wheel.

Apart from this, cycling on a flat can also damage the spokes of a wheel. These travel around with the wheel and are supposed to maintain the structural integrity of the wheel itself. Putting more force on the wheel than expected could damage these spokes, again requiring you to replace the wheel.

You could damage the frame

As well as the obvious areas that can become damaged from cycling on a flat tire, other areas such as the frame could also be damaged. This is due to the tire rubbing against the frame as it is pedaled out of position.

This rubbing can wear down the paint, and in some cases, even the material the frame is made of (especially important if you have a carbon fiber bike).

You could damage the chainset

Depending on if your flat tire is on the front of the back, you could also damage other parts of the bike as you cycle.

If for example, you have a flat tire on the back wheel, it may come loose and get jammed inside your drive chain. This can cause damage to multiple areas including the bike chain itself.

While less likely than other types of damage, this would be very costly.

How long can you ride on a flat tire?

So we’ve established that you shouldn’t cycle at all on a completely flat tire. But how far can you cycle on a partially flat one? The answer depends on a few factors.

How flat the tire is

First of all, how flat is flat. Riding on a bike tire that has a slow puncture with no noticeable difference in tire pressure is very different from cycling on a road tire at 20psi. Obviously the flatter a tire is, the less you will want to ride on it.

How quickly the tire is losing air

The speed at which the tire is losing air is also important. If the tire is losing air very quickly, then you cannot predict how long it can last and so you should not ride it at all.

On the other hand, if the tire is losing air very slowly, you may be able to cycle the tire for quite a long distance by using a handheld pump to periodically increase the tire pressure back to a ridable level.

The terrain you are cycling on

The type of terrain you are cycling on will also greatly impact if you should cycle on a flat tire or not.

Flat and even ground (for example tarmac), will be better for cycling than the rough bumpy terrain you might experience on a mountain bike route.

This is because the uneven ground does not effectively spread your weight over the wheel as well as a smooth road would do. This means the wheel is more likely to get damaged as you cycle.

The type of wheels you have

Certain types of wheels are also affected differently when riding on a flat tire. The most common types of wheel material are aluminum and carbon fiber.

Most bikes use aluminum wheels. As you cycle on an aluminum wheel, the rim will be damaged, however, this is likely to occur in a linear way. For example, the longer you cycle, the more damage you will do to the wheel until it finally gives out and breaks.

On the other hand, carbon fiber wheels do not damage in this same linear way. This is because carbon fiber wheels tend to hold themselves together well, right up until the moment that they can’t withstand the force anymore and fail, falling apart completely. This means that you can’t tell if cycling on a carbon fiber wheel with a flat tire is doing any damage until it is too late.

The type of tires you have

The type of tire you are riding on will also impact the amount of damage riding on a flat tire will do. There are two types of tires that use inner tubes – Tubular tires and Clinchers.

Clincher tires are the most common type of tire. These are the classic tire that most bikes come with, using an external tire around an inner tube. This inner tube is what you inflate before you cycle.

Tubular tires are similar to clinchers, apart from the fact that they have the inner tube sewn directly into the tire.

Because of the way this is done, tubular tires are better at being ridden with a flat tire than clincher tires. This is because tubular tires are better at covering the wheel rims when they are flat than clinchers are. Thus offering more protection than clincher tires to the wheel rim.

How fat the tires are will also play a part in how far you can cycle. Wider bike tires are better at being cycled at low pressures. For example, a mountain bike may have tires with a pressure of 40psi, whereas a road bike may aim for 100psi.

This is because wider tires are designed in such a way where grip is more important, and a lower tire pressure allows them to do this best.

How much weight is on the bike

Another factor that will impact how far you can cycle on a flat tire is the total weight of you, your bike, and your gear.

Any extra weight will cause the wheel to be more damaged by cycling on a flat tire, it will also cause the tire to deflate more quickly.

The situation you are in

Finally, the last thing to consider is the situation you are in. If you are on a bike and get a flat tire, you may well want to take into account factors such as how late it is, how far away from home you are, whether you have any other means of getting home, or how dangerous the area you are in is.

Overall, even in the perfect situation, you should not be cycling further than a few miles on a flat tire. Even then, whenever you do so, you are risking damage to your bike.

Can I wheel a bike with a flat tire?

So, riding a bike with a flat tire is a bad idea, especially for a long period of time. But what about walking a bike with a flat tire?

Will wheeling my bike with a flat tire damage the tire?

Wheeling a bike with a flat tire may still cause damage to the inner tube and the tire. We’ve already established that the sidewalls of a tire are not designed to take extra weight or rubbing and so even wheeling your bike may cause these areas damage.

You can try to overcome this by only wheeling your bike on the “non-flat” tire. For example, if your front tire has deflated, try lifting the bike up a little as you walk, wheeling the bike only on the back tire. This will help to reduce any drag on the flat tire.

Will wheeling my bike with a flat tire damage the wheel?

In general, provided you take care of the bike as you walk it (for example making sure to avoid potholes) and are walking the bike at a suitable pace, walking a bike with a flat tire is very unlikely to cause any damage to the wheel itself.

While bike wheels are prone to damage while riding on a flat tire, they are not so delicate that the weight of the bike alone is likely to cause significant damage to them.

As I’ve stated though, you will want to be particularly careful anytime you could hit the wheel rims, for example when taking the bike down a curb. You may also want to take extra care if you have a particularly fragile bike, (for example a very high-end racing bike), or one with a very low spoke count on the wheels.

Is it harder to ride a bike with flat tires?

If you decide you are going to ride a bike with a flat tire, you should know that cycling on a flat is harder than cycling on a normal tire. This is for multiple reasons.

Higher rolling resistance

First of all, flat tires have a far higher rolling resistance than normal tires. This is because more of a flat tire will be touching the floor (as the wheel compresses down on the flat tire they spread it out more than normal). Because of this, you will feel an excess drag on the wheels which can severely impact your speed and pedaling efficiency.

Unpredictable handling

Another thing to consider is the lack of predictable behavior that a flat tire will have. As the tire is flat, it will not react in the way you would presume it would. This means that you will have to make far more adjustments to the handling than you are used to.

Also, flat tires have far less “lateral grip” than normal tires. A flat tire is much more prone to slipping out from under the wheel, causing you to jerk out to your right or left. This can result in you slipping off the bike and hurting yourself.

Overall

As you can see, riding a bike with a flat tire is not advisable, however, in certain situations, you might consider it.

At the end of the day, the best way to deal with this problem is to take a spare inner tube with you on your rides, no matter how short.

If you want to take a more in-depth look at the types of wheels I’ve mentioned in the article, take a look at my article on the best wheels for bikepacking which can be found here.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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