Michael Farrell relies on his road bike to get him to and from work every day. So when his tire popped last week, he had to walk about a mile.
And when he had another flat again this week, he was stuck walking once again and wondering about the culprit of his misfortune.
“I ride everywhere,” Farrell told the IR. “My bike is important to me, for my commute.”
Turns out, Farrell is not alone. Though several local auto shops say they haven’t seen a change, bike shops in town are reporting an increase in popped tires due to glass this time of year compared to winters past.
“Our mechanic is currently fixing his own bike that has a flat caused by glass,” said Jim Barnes, owner of Big Sky Cycling and Fitness. “He hasn’t had any flats in the past three years, but he’s had several in the past weeks.”
Barnes said Helena cyclists have always had issues with broken glass on the road year round, but fewer cyclists ride their bikes throughout the winter. Already this winter, several customers have come in to buy new inner tubes for their bike tires.
“We’ve always contended with broken bottles,” he said. “I just don’t believe that it’s from the broken bottle issue that’s been there.”
Eric Grove, owner of Great Divide Cyclery, said his shop has definitely been hearing about bike tires popped by glass more frequently this winter as well.
“It seems like it’s more prevalent these days,” he said.
One difference between this winter and years past is the type of mix the city’s using for traction on icy and snowy streets. This winter is the second one the city’s been using pulverized recycled glass in the mix. City Manager Ron Alles said the city went through the Department of Environmental Quality to make sure the pulverized glass was environmentally sound, and it was approved. He said the small pieces of glass don’t have sharp edges and don’t cut tires, though the sparkly bits are very evident on the roads. He said as a demonstration, he’s grabbed a handful of the glass and rubbed it between his hands to show its harmlessness.
That said, “I couldn’t tell you that no glass got in somebody’s bike tire,” Alles said. “Whether or not it was our glass I don’t know.”
The city’s public works director, John Rundquist, said the glass is crushed down to three-eighths inch in size and is run through a screen that prevents large pieces from getting into the mix. Alles said the glass mixture goes through the same screening as the old traction grit, which prevented larger rocks from getting through.
“We have very good quality control on these things,” Rundquist said. “There’s no way at all a 3-inch piece of glass could’ve gotten through.”
The city’s street superintendent, Ben Sautter, said he’s looked through the city’s 500 tons of glass “just about every other day” and has yet to find a sharp piece. He said over the past week, the city’s swept up most of the sand and pulverized glass mix and returned it to the warehouse for further recycling. He said it looks and feels just the same as it did before it went out.
“I was wondering if it would wear down and look different after it gets run over,” Sautter said. “I’m not seeing that.”
All three city personnel said they’d received very few calls about the glass. Sautter encouraged anyone with damage caused by glass to save the glass and bring it in to determine whether or not it’s the city’s pulverized glass, which looks completely different than a broken bottle. The city has a process in place for victims of property damage.
If it turns out that the city’s glass is causing damage, Alles said the alternative is to put the glass in the landfill rather than recycle it. He pointed out that glass is inert and essentially no different than dirt or sand, and it doesn’t cause toxicity in the environment.
Barnes commended the city for recycling the glass, but he said he hopes the roads get cleared quickly as ridership picks up in the spring.
Farrell said he spent $9 for a new tube last week and doesn’t want to put in a claim for the $2 patch kit he got this week. He said the problem has cost him more than just money: It’s cost him time and energy.
“It’s not going to end,” he said.
Reporter Piper Haugan: 447-4075, email@example.com or Twitter.com/IR_PiperHaugan