Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Recycling Old Bicycle Tubes

I've heard of a lot of ways people used old bike tubes, some of them unexpected. Here in Hawaii, some ukulele players wrap old tubes around their instruments to protect them. Others use them as spare tie-downs for when they carry cargo. Some people even make jewelry out of them.
But, I discovered a use for them that, while new to me, was already old news to others: using them as tape for their handlebars.
I spoke to a friend from the Philippines about this after I made my little discovery and he told me that people in the poorer sections of that country have been doing this for a long time. While Americans spend anywhere from $20 and up for a pack of handlebar tape, people in the slums of Manila only have to reach for a discarded bicycle tube to cover their handlebars. So, the USA can put a man on the Moon, but we seemed to have missed the part of using old tubes this way.
Old bike tubes aren't the only thing I've seen used to cover handlebars. Downtown, bike messengers have been seen using ordinary duct tape or electrical tape, while some even leave their bars without any covering at all. While handlebar tape can be helpful, dropping $20+ whenever you need new ones can seem to be an unnecessary expense, especially if you ride everyday, in all kinds of weather, and you go through tape on a fairly regular basis. I've bought a brand new roll and within a week, it had already started to fall apart, due to riding my bike for nearly eight hours a day, five days a week, sometimes in pouring rain.
I had thought about going the duct tape route myself, before a chance encounter made me realize how I had been throwing my money away for years. I forget who it was, but one of the other messengers had wrapped his handlebars with an old bicycle tube. I didn't realize it at the time, but after yet another two rolls of tape fell apart on me, I decided to give it a try.
One thing I learned a long time ago was that the handlebar plug makes a big difference in keeping the tape on your bars. The one brand I'd learned was best for me are theBontrager plugs that come with their brand of tape. Unlike other plugs, which have no traction of their own and rely on the bulk of the tape on the inside of the bar ends to keep them in-place, Bontrager plugs actually have some traction of their own, as seen in the picture below. I'd like to apologize for the picture quality in this blog. It's due to my owning a cheap cellphone with a crappy camera.
The ridges are wide enough to rub against the inside of the handlebar, so it actaully plays a part in holding the tape on. if you don't have any of these, you can ask a staff member at your local bike shop if they have any extras laying-around. Bontrager is a pretty popular brand at bike shops in Honolulu and there's a chance that they've done some work on bikes that included installing new handlebar tape. I've taken my bike in for scheduled maintenance and they sometimes change the handlebar tape as a little extra something nice they do for you, only charging you for the handlebar tape, but not the labor.
Okay, now that we have the end plug, we need a discarded tube. First thing you do with the tube is cut-off the valve.
With that done, you need to start rolling the tape around the bars. Since the tube has no adhesive of its own, you'll need to rely on electrical tape. Most of the glue backing on handlebar tape is rather worthless anyway and I think it's good for maybe one application when you put it on. After a few days riding in the rain, the glue is pretty much gone.
So, you start by wrapping the tape over one end of the tube and around the handlebar, so it is held securely.
Once you get started, just keep wrapping the tube around the handlebar, just like regular tape. If you're wrapping the side where your brake lever is, use a piece of another tube - like, the one you just took off -and wrap it around the lever. This provides better protection for the brackets that hold the lever on and you save a little bit of tube to wrap your bars with, especially if the tube might not be as long as you'd like.
Then, just keep wrapping the tube around your handlebar until you get to the end. Wrap a bit of electrical tape completely around the bar end, with the slack part of the tube sticking-out.
Then, just tuck-in the loose end and cap it with the handlebar plug.
Now, your handlebars have a new set of "tape", which only cost you an old bike tube, some electrical tape and a few minutes of your time. If you look closely at the right side of the picture below, you'll notice that I also used an old tube to cover my top bar, which is also good to protect it and is much less expensive than buying a top tube cover.
There are advantages of using bike tubes over regular bar tape or electrical tape or duct tape:
1)they provide better traction so your hands don't slip off the bars in wet weather;
2) being made out of rubber, the tubes last much longer than tape made of cloth or cork;
3) a tube is more resistant to weather conditions, such as rain; and
4)costs much less, since old tubes are easily gotten from your own discards or from bike shops who throw them out with the regular trash;
Certainly, using a bike tube for handlebar tape is a bit different than using regular tape, since it feels very different. My hands had to get used to the total lack of cushioning that regular tape had provided, but tubes don't. Tubes aren't very soft, after all. You're also pretty much stuck with the color black, since tubes rarely come in other colors, so color-coordination is not much of an issue anymore. But, black does go with everything anyway, right?
The most common reaction I got from people who saw my handlebars after I put the tubes on went from "What is that?" to "Why didn't I think of doing that myself?".
If I could remember how much I've spent on handlebar tape over the years, I'd probably kick myself for not thinking of this sooner.
Duane Browning
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