Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beginner's Page #5 Fixing a Flat

Back when I was a kid, bicycles had big tires and tubes. Flats from goat heads were so frequent that to save money, we would just use a tire patch on the tube. Take the wheel off with a pair of pliers, use a screw driver to pry the tire off the wheel, and pull the tube out. You would pump up the tube and dip it in a pail of water, rotating it until you would see little air bubbles escaping from the tube. You have found the hole. Mark the hole by poking a match stick in the hole. After drying off the tube, you would scrape the tube with the top of the tire patch can (looked like a carrot grater) to roughen the surface, apply the glue, strip off the protecting strip from the patch, and hold the patch on tightly until the glue dried. If you were smart, you would test the tube again in the pail of water to see if it still leaked. If you were not smart, you would put the tube back in the tire; mash the tire into the wheel and air up the tube; then ride it for a few miles to see if the tire would retain air or go flat again. To save money, this routine was repeated each flat until the tube had so many patches on it that it would feel as if you were constantly riding over a cattle guard. When it would get that bumpy, or you were putting patches over patches, you’d buy a new tube. Funny…I don’t ever remember buying a new tube.

Man, have times changed. Patch a road bike tube? Unthinkable. Throw the thing away and put on a new one. But wait, that is what the bike shops do. What if you are riding in the country and have a flat? Now, I’ve grown up, at least in size, have gone brain dead, and am suddenly scared to death of changing a tube. Why? Among other things, I heard that you needed special tools instead of a screw driver. That means it’s tricky and technical, right? What if you get the tire off and then can’t get it back on? What if you don’t know what you are doing and look like a dope? So if you have a flat, take it to the bike shop, and let them fix it.

Taking the flat to the bike shop worked for a good six months. In the meantime, I watched in fascination when a biker got a flat and just fixed it right there on the side of the road! He would do something to get the tire off. It seemed that the front tire was a little easier than the back because the back had all those gadgets for the chain plus the gears. Then he would pull out his special tools, strip out the tube, put in a new one, and air up the tire. Sometimes a person would have a little hand-pump or a hand-held canister to air up the tire. It all was mystical and looked like a magic show with slight of hands. I was in awe but still afraid to try it myself. So I did the next best thing and went to the internet and watched videos on how to change the tubes. I don’t know how many times I watched “experts” change their tubes, but it seems that when they would get to a tricky part or technical part, they would go real fast and mumble. After hours and hours of watching and reading how to change a flat, I think I finally understood the basics, but wasn’t ready to try it myself.

After about six months of riding, we finally broke down and bought some of those tire changing special tools. Put them in the saddle bag, and there they stayed. It dawned on us that the hand pump would not be available if we had a flat on the road, so we bought one of those baby hand pumps. Put it in the saddle bag and there it stayed. Oh yes, we bought a spare tube. Put it in the saddle bag, and there it stayed. We were into touring in different cities and in constant fear that we would have a flat. Just about before every tour, we would take our bikes to the bike shop and have them checked over----please no flats. And as luck would have it, no flats on the tours.

Somewhere along the line, I overheard a person say that it took a lot of strength to air a tire with the hand held small pump. So, when we got to HHH we took advantage of the wholesale prices and bought us a fancy hand held CO2 canister dispenser. We bought extra canisters and some extra tubes. We were ready for a flat and knew if we just stood on the side of the road and looked helpless that some biker would take pity on us and change our flat---we had all the tools and paraphernalia required---just not the skill. As luck would have it; no flat on that ride either. Eight months of riding and still no flats away from home.

Fast forward to our eleventh month of riding. We were in our hotel room the morning of "May be Hot, Maybe Not" at Port Aransas. As I was airing up the tires a loud rush of air come from the stem. Remember back when we were talking about airing up the tires and I said don’t wiggle the nozzle to get it off the stem? I can reveal now that you can break the little air flow blocker by wiggling the nozzle off. Swoosh, all the air goes out.

We had a little extra time before the start of the ride, so I was forced into attempting to change a flat for the first time. It was on Christine’s bike and we had just put on new tires. So? The tire was tight on the wheel. I could just barely get that gouger between the wheel and tire but it was so tight that I couldn’t get the tire started off the wheel. I pried so hard I broke off the tip of the tool. Only one thing left to do. Go to the ride location and find a bike repair support person. At the registration desk, we learned that there were no bike shops represented nor support personnel for maintenance. A lady standing by the desk said if we just needed to change a tube, she could do it for us and would meet us outside. We never saw her again unless she was the lady doubled over laughing with her buddies.

We went back to the truck and pulled the bikes off and stared at the flat tire. That didn’t help, so as luck would have it, two guys were right beside us and I got up the nerve to ask if they knew how to change a flat. One of them said he did and that he would help. Although it was early morning in November, our Good Samaritan worked up a healthy sweat getting the tire off. I didn’t feel quite so bad--instead of standing two inches tall I rose to three when he had trouble. Finally he got it fixed, and it was still before start time. I shook the guy’s hand and pressed two beers of money into his hand. Although he protested, I convinced him that I would like for him to have a beer on me.

Back at home, we bought another set of tire changing tools to replace my broken one...and dreaded the day we would have a flat that we could not just take to the bike shop to get fixed. Needless to say, my confidence was not boosted by the Port Aransas event.

Lo and behold. One day we had a flat right in our garage. I had plenty of time, all the recommended tools, and no one to see me perform. I unlocked the brake (all that watching the videos finally paid off), and took the front wheel off. It was a struggle but with two sets of tools (I didn’t throw the broken one away) I finally got the tire off the wheel, pulled out the tube, followed the video instructions to a tee, aired the tire up with my hand held CO2 canister, got the wheel back on the bike, and did an NFL hot dog dance of victory.

Fame, success, and fortune are fleeting wisps of smoke. The tire was flat again the next day so had to take it to the bike shop after all. I must have forgotten about making sure you don’t pinch the tube while airing up the tire or had one of those little wheel faults that need a protector strip between the wheel and tube or something or another…anyway it was flat.

But since that time and my new found confidence, I have been able to change a few more flats. So if any of the beginners are reluctant to ride too far out of their neighborhood for fear of a flat, come on and ride with Christine and me. I can guarantee you a good long rest period while I struggle to do something simpler than what I did as a kid.

Note: Since the time I wrote the above Christine and I have attended the Pink Wrench class offered by the YMCA, Randy Rangel, and volunteers (hey: real men wear pink!).
Now we both know how to properly change a front and back tire.

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