Two different approaches to “reinventing the wheel”

Commuter, Concept, MTB, Utility 10 31

If asked to name an invention that has dramatically improved the bicycle in the last couple hundred years, the pneumatic tire would probably be at the top of many people’s lists. John Dunlop’s patent for an air filled bicycle tire in 1888 set the course for the tires that are used on almost all vehicles today. Compared to a solid rubber tire (or a solid wood wheel prior to that), Dunlop’s pneumatic tire added a level of comfort and handling that allowed for other improvements to the design of the bicycle. Almost immediately after the pneumatic tire became a standard though, inventors were trying to come up with a non-pneumatic tire that mimicked the comfort of Dunlop’s invention… but without the possibility of a flat. One hundred and twenty years later, people are still trying, so the good old fashioned pneumatic tire is obviously not easy to improve on.

Living just a few miles from Michelin’s North American Headquarters, I often hear news about the Tweel project, an experimental non-pneumatic tire design for the automotive industry. Much like the Tweel, a new prototype tire/wheel from Colorado designer Brian Russell uses flexible spokes to create an airless tire with the cushioning properties of a pneumatic. According to Chop MTB, Russell’s Energy Return Wheel uses “rubber stretched over a series of rods to provide its cushioning. These rods can be adjusted, changing the tension of the rubber to suit different types of terrain. The 29er rim is made from carbon fibre to keep weight down, and Russell is thinking about adding a thin sidewall to keep mud and trail debris out.”

Airless bike tire designs are pretty common, but the ability to tune the “pressure” by adjusting the rods makes this one pretty interesting. Check out the video at Chop MTB for more about this prototype design.

Another airless tire project going on right now is the Milele bicycle tube from Baisikeli Ugunduzi. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because they were one of the student teams in the African Bicycle Design Contest, which I participated in as a jury member a couple of years ago.  These days though, Baisikeli Ugunduzi is a social business startup in Kenya that is working for those who depend on bicycles to earn a living. The bicycle taxi drivers in Kenya (boda boda) are the ones who stand to benefit the most from the inexpensive Milele, which is a flexible, solid, foam tube. According to Baisikeli Ugunduzi, boda boda earn about $2.50 per day and spend a quarter of their income fixing flat tires. Due to flat tires boda boda struggle to feed their families and send their children to school. “

Baisikeli Ugunduzi’s Indiegogo page explains the project in much more detail. Currently the tubes are successfully being used on boda boda bikes in Kitale, Kenya, but the goal of the Indiegogo campaign is to raise 40,000 dollars to outfit 8,000 more boda boda bikes throughout the country. They have 11 days left to reach their goal, so check out the site, and see if it is a cause that you might be interested in supporting.


10 Comments

  1. Andy October 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm -  Reply

    I think the biggest issue with airless tires is that they seem to lack any adjustability, and have huge rolling resistance. With pneumatic tubes, I can put the pressure where I want, and just ride. A flat might take 10 minutes to fix, and costs me about 25 cents to patch (I bought a bulk patch kit of 100 that will hopefully last a long time). But with foam or other methods, you have a set pressure forever, and it has less efficiency compared to air tubes. I welcome the attempts, but I think there’s a reason why we still use tubes even after so many years!

  2. greenobike October 31, 2012 at 10:47 pm -  Reply

    I would like to see some technical data from a reputable, independent source regarding the Milele bicycle tube before donating money. The websites listed only provide limited anecdotal evidence.

    • John Gershenson October 31, 2012 at 11:51 pm -  Reply

      greenobike – I would agree. It is important to know who you are backing. You can see more about Baisikeli Ugunduzi at http://www.baisikeliugunduzi.com. We believe the evidence of the success is strong. One proof of this is the fact that USAID has just decided to get behind us and support what we are doing in Kenya. Regardless, please feel free to contact me directly and I would love to tell you ore about what we are doing.
      Thanks, John.

  3. Ben November 1, 2012 at 12:42 am -  Reply

    Andy, good point. For Baisikeli Ugunduzi, however, imagine yourself in rural Africa. You don’t own a pump or a patch. A repair will take an hour. You earn only $2 a day using your bike, and, due to harsh roads, cheap tubes, and heavy loads, you flat twice a day. You can ill afford the loss of 25% of your income, plus the time of earning new income. The extra effort you can handle if you have to, your bike already weights >50lbs and your drivetrain is hacked together. Come check us out on Indiegogo, it would be great to have the bicycle design community jump in so we can bring the milele tube to thousands more people who depend on bicycles for their livelihood. http://www.baisikeliugunduzi.com

  4. botchjob November 4, 2012 at 8:41 am -  Reply

    @ andy …
    why is nobody reading the post ??

    “rubber stretched over a series of rods to provide its cushioning. These rods can be adjusted, changing the tension of the rubber to suit different types of terrain. The 29er rim is made from carbon fibre to keep weight down, and Russell is thinking about adding a thin sidewall to keep mud and trail debris out.”

  5. schris December 6, 2012 at 1:51 am -  Reply

    The Tweel project does have merit and regarding tire pressure – for commuting and urban riding it would be realistic to retain a specifc tire pressure (or characteristic for this pressure). For MTBing variable pressure is desirable for different conditions and is a potential option that would need to be mechanically adjusted, and in comparion to air, is over complicating this aspect. If we look at tires today, there are shifting trends though for a general market acceptance of this radical change, something special needs to happen.

  6. Ron May 30, 2013 at 6:31 am -  Reply

    The Milele tube looks exactly the same as the Perma-Tube which has been for sale in South Africa since the 1970s.

    • Baisikeli Ugunduzi November 22, 2013 at 2:13 am -  Reply

      Yes, a very similar concept. However, with a completely different material. These work – they can be loaded, they don’t increase tread wear, they are not as heavy, and they come in a wide variety of sizes. Look at http://www.baisikeliugunduzi.com

  7. kipchumba August 3, 2013 at 4:55 am -  Reply

    I wil like to fit those solid rubber tubes in our hospital wheelchair which as been an headache in repairing them

    • Baisikeli Ugunduzi November 22, 2013 at 2:11 am -  Reply

      Kipchumba please contact info@baisikeliugunduzi.com, we have been working with wheelchairs as well.

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