Oh, Schwalbe, Why Do You Tease Us So?
December 13, 2019

This post will, in all likelihood, not be of interest to anyone who is not a cyclist, or even those cyclists who choose not to travel for long distances that way. That is because its topic is tires. Specifically, bicycle tires. Even more to the point, bicycle tires for long distance travel. Therefore, those who are not personally interested in that subject may want to come back in a week or two, when I should have additional thoughts concerning more general subjects, assuming that I can stay awake long enough to write about them.

It is well known that tires are one of the more problematic pieces of equipment that cyclists deal with regularly. If they are not wearing out prematurely, they are constantly puncturing, or otherwise being a general pain. Murphy’s Law also stipulates that such annoyances will occur at the most inopportune time: a puncture will invariably happen as soon as a torrential downpour has begun, or the very next day after an airline baggage system has damaged one’s pump. Obviously, such issues are even more of a concern for those on long tours, where time and distance essentially guarantee that some sort of unusual tire problem will occur along the way, or, more than likely, multiple times.

Despite the bicycle industry’s recent push towards tubeless tires, which claim to eliminate punctures entirely (that is an entirely different topic,) most tires available today are still deficient. It is my opinion that a certain amount of tire punctures are unavoidable, and, believe me, I have personally experienced just about every conceivable cause for such an event over the years. No, the biggest problem with bicycle tires today can be summed up in one word: Longevity. I have long felt that the benchmark of durability for a rear tire should be ten thousand kilometers of riding. However, most tires made over the last few decades would have fallen far short of that goal, with seemingly little effort being made by the industry to correct that situation.

With the changes that international and online commerce have experienced over the recent decades, the tire brand Schwalbe, produced by the German company Ralf Bohle GmbH, has steadily become one of the most respected by the World's cyclists, in general, and tourists, in particular. One of the primary reasons for that is that Schwalbe is one of the few manufacturers that takes touring seriously, and tries to make products that will benefit those who partake in that activity. However, the company has a few quirks that sometimes seem to make using their products a little more complicated that it might otherwise be. One of these is the often bewildering array of styles and models they offer at any given time. I have not actually counted the number, but I am sure that at one time there were at least fifty varieties, each available in the multiple diameters and widths required by the myriad forms of bicycles found worldwide. Choices are always good, but there can be such a thing as too many.

I have used Schwalbe tires for most of this century, almost always with mixed results. On the Tour of Gondwana I used one of their classic, and most popular, varieties, the Marathon XR. While they performed well overall (once a kelvar-beaded folding variety became available,) I was never quite satisfied with their durability. The average lifespan for a rear tire I achieved on that Tour was around five thousand kilometers, and, with the longer distance of that route, I therefore wore out many tires. Even more troubling was the fact that sidewall failure was the most common mode of destruction with that set of tires, something I firmly believe should never happen.

So, my eyes perked up when, some time in the early ‘10s, the company introduced a variety named Marathon Dureme Tandem. Bicycle components originally designed for tandems make fantastic additions to a touring bicycle, since they have been designed from the start to handle the increased weight of two riders. Increased weight is an aspect also common in touring situations, and, indeed, my bike has more than one tandem-focused component, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I made when I designed it. At the next opportunity, I purchased one of those tires, installed it on my rear wheel, and used it for my local riding. During that time, I was not keeping track of my accumulated distance very carefully, but I knew that it had lasted for a very long time.

Though I did not know if the extra rigors of an extended tour, gravel roads, heavy loads, extreme heat (a rigor that I have had more than enough of lately,) would adversely affect their lifespan, I knew that the Dureme Tandem would be my tire of choice, were I ever to do another long tour. A few years later, when the chances that World2 might actually come to pass seemed to be increasing, I was disappointed and dismayed to learn that they were no longer being manufactured. That reveals another quirk of Schwalbe, their seeming propensity to inexplicably discontinue their best products. Since similar events happen to me on a regular basis, with all sorts of commercial products, not just bicycles, I was not about to give up so easily.

Scouring the Web, I almost came up empty, but eventually located some still in stock. Of course, they were in the possession of Bill Laine at the wonderful Wallingford Bicycles shop. He had five remaining of the 622x42 size I wanted. Though I offered to pay full price, it turned out that Bill was about to retire (a happy day for him, but a sad day for us) and he insisted on selling them to me at cost. I quickly snapped them up and placed them on a shelf, awaiting what I hoped would be another great tour in the future.

And so this Tour eventually began with one of those five fresh tires in place, and a spare in my bags. After several months I reached a distance I would have been satisfied with. Then I rode a little farther. Then farther still, and some more beyond that. Finally, I recently began to notice the tell-tale signs of imminent failure, interior fibers showing through in patches of the contact surface, and a noticeably thumpy rolling sound. I probably could have gotten two or three more days out of it, but, for once, I actually replaced something before it experienced a total failure. In this case, I feared Mr. Murphy would get me again and it would have blown out on some isolated, but stinking hot, section of Brazilian highway. Since the rims I am currently using are tubeless ready, it can be very tough to install a new tire the first time, especially if it is a folding type. So, I am glad that I was smart enough to do that in a cool indoor room in this case.

How long did that tire last, you ask?

Twelve Thousand Six Hundred Forty kilometers!

Schwalbe Tire
Tire number two, ready to roll.

To put that in perspective, I could have done the transcontinental section of my first tour, twenty-six years ago, from Massachusetts to Oregon, plus down the coast a little, then turned around and repeated that route in the other direction (because… why not?) all on a single rear tire. This is the way things should always have been!

This also puts me in a bit of an awkward spot at the moment. I expected that touring would decrease the span of the Duremes to maybe seven thousand kilometers, and, therefore, at this point I would already be nearing the end of my second tire, instead of it just starting out. Since I have two more in a pre-packed box about to be shipped to me in a few weeks time, it seems that I will be forced to haul around two of these rather bulky and heavy tires as spares for a while. However, that is certainly a problem I can live with!

Please, Schwalbe, bring back the Dureme Tandem again. But this time give it a better name. Something like Marathon Epic Tour, perhaps. The tourists of the World will thank you!