Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Cycling Incompetence and Communal Good Will

Yesterday, even at 9:00 A.M., the air was vernal -- not warm, but aspiring. By the time I made it outside again, at 3, dressed for a 40-degree ride, it was downright balmy; I was overdressed.

I had not intention of accomplishing anything on the bike yesterday. I had a route in mind that would entail maybe 10 miles -- down Penn into downtown, across the jailtrail and up through Oakland and home. And I resolved not to push any time I didn't feel like pushing. A Sunday ramble, of sorts. I figured I'd be riding into work today, and so I didn't need to wipe myself out on a Sunday afternoon, especially since I had so much left to accomplish (or so I thought).

Once again, I was struck by how much more at east I am on the fixed-gear than I was a month or so ago. It just feels right, like I never should have ridden anything else.

I do, however, have an odd bump in my rear wheel, which makes it feel like I'm getting gently tapped on the butt on each rotation. It's an odd problem, an outward radial irregularity on the rim (normally, for obvious reasons, rims tend to get pushed inward), and it hasn't been bad enough to warrant drastic action.

I did however find that my lockring just refuses to stay locked. For the umpteenth time since it first happened, when in my ignorance I completely disabled the bike by spinning the cog completely off, I felt, on my second or third skid of the day, my lockring let go and unscrew a turn or two. The next time I came to a near stop, I forced myself to accelerate extremely hard, intending to screw the cog back in as tight as possible without a chainwhip. I had underestimated how far it had screwed down the threads, however, and I almost threw myself over the handlebars when the pedals whirled 180 degrees instantly before generating any forward motion to speak of.

After that, needless to stay, I stopped skidding; the drivetrain still accepted back pressure, it just wouldn't stop the wheel outright.

On Boulevard of the Allies, heading back towards Grant Street, the jail trail, home, I started hearing something rubbing in my rear wheel, but couldn't with quick looks down figure out what it was. I realized next that the ride was considerably more bumpy than it ought to be. And only then did I realize that I had flatted -- for the first time on the fixie. Here was my chance to prove to myself that I can change a stupid inner tube on the road.

The short version: I did not prove to myself that I can change a stupid inner tube on the road.

The long version: I was close enough to the jail trail that I figured I could carry the bike over and find a nice bench on which to work, somewhere in the sun. I had everything I needed -- replacement tube, tire levers, CO2 pump and cartridge, even a five dollar bill, which a friend taught me a while back could be used as a temporary way to cover a significant hole in a tire and prevent new debris from getting in and damaging the tube.

With the tire levers, I was pleased to find that the tire could easily be separated from the rim. This in itself gave me fits with my cyclocross bike, without the aid of levers but with much larger tires, and I was told to expect road tires to be worse. So this at least was a pleasant surprise.

The same friend also had taught me to look for the leak in the old tube and match it up with the tire, to see if anything was still coming through the tire, or if the tire had been significantly damaged. I figured that my CO2 system should enable me to turn it on and off right? Right? Yeah.

So I'm sitting there, adapter fastened securely to cartridge, but I'll be damned if I can get it to inflate anything. It's just not accepting the presta valves. I confirmed that I had properly punctured the canister by starting to remove the adapter; freezing gas immediately streamed out, and I closed it back down.

Then I called another friend to see if he knew anything useful about the kind of canister I was using. No dice. The first friend was marginally more familiar, but he too seemed unsure upon hearing that I couldn't get the valve to open. Foolishly, he asked whether I needed a ride; I told him to hold that thought and that I hadn't given up yet.

After these calls, I sat on the bench twiddling with the brass screw-valve on the CO2 adapter absently, utterly baffled that it wasn't more intuitive to use, that the directions on the side of the can seemed to think it was so easy that it need not explain anything beyond the screwing on of the adapter, and then all at once the adapter started venting CO2 at a frightening rate. I tried to turn the brass thing the other way, but it wouldn't stop the flow. In my panic, I tried to cover the escaping gas with my left pinkie. Repeat after me: contents under pressure -- BAD IDEA. If I'd slammed my pinkie in a car door at that moment, I'm pretty sure it would have shattered.

So finally I do the next thing that comes to mind: pop it on to the new inner tube, notwithstanding that said tube is not yet situated inside the tire. Okay, so now the inner tube was full, sort of, and the CO2 cartridge began spitting an icy spray as it neared equilibrium with atmospheric pressure. These droplets sizzled on my skin like oil spatters from a skillet, and I began the slow process of despising myself for having screwed this up, and for not having a second cartridge with me.

Still, for a few minutes I figured I'd try to shove the partially inflated tube into the tire. It was pliable enough that I could squeeze it down and insert it an inch at a time. Which worked great for a span of about ten spokes, before it became clear that it was just toying with me and had no intention of ever actually assuming, half-full, the position inside the tire with the bead resituated.

During this debacle, another cyclist had pulled up about forty feet away, and was adjusting something on his bike. At this point, all but wiped out with frustration, down to carrying the bike or calling back my friend as options, I approached the other cyclist and asked whether he had a hand pump. He looked up from his fancy black and turquoise Bianchi 'cross bike adapted with little X20 road tires and deep V aero rims. He smiled. "No," he said, "but I've got some CO2 cartridges." Demonstrating my phenomenally short memory, I actually allowed this to buoy my spirits.

He assured me he could spare one, and only once I was convinced I accepted. These things go for a buck or two, if memory serves, maybe three, and I'm sure the opportunity will arise where I can return the favor to the universe. So that I had no real pocket money -- except the emergency $5 bill -- didn't bother me much. I was holding my rear wheel in my hand during this transaction, and the other cyclist -- Robbie, I later would learn -- asked before I left whether I was riding fixed. I said that yes, I was, and he shared his respect for that, and his interest. I invited him to wander over when he was done, and he followed me shortly.

It turned out that my CO2 adapter was threaded, while his cartridge was not, a distinction I remember the folks at my LBS emphasizing. Fortunately, Robbie hadn't left when I discovered this fact, and so he handed me his adapter as well. I bled the air out of the tube, got it inside the rim and tire, reset the tire and pulled out the valve, then hit it with the new CO2 (which, for the record, was a much more intuitive system, with what amounts to a button to open and close the valve). More or less instantly, the tire sprang to life, and felt like it had maybe 80 or 90 psi -- not the 120+ that I ride at, but plenty to get me home.

We said our good-byes and Robbie and I went separate ways -- him toward the street and downtown, and I down the jail trail, resuming my journey.

About 100 feet later, that same awful rubbing sound I heard on Bigelow recurred. The tire was flat again. Whether I had damaged the tube messing around with it in stupid ways, or whether the same puncture or debris that breached the other tube was still inside the tire, it didn't really matter. I was without gas, without pump, and without replacement tube.

I called Dave.

Thanks Dave.

More lessons learned: carry multiple tubes and multiple cartridges; set the tube in the tire before hitting it with any gas when using CO2 cartridges; check the tire for flaws and punctures, and check the interior of the tire for debris, before replacing the tube. And be nice to people because they are uncommonly nice to you. And so on.


Anonymous binky said...

Easiest way to re-flat yourself: pinch the tube with the levers while putting the tire back on.

No, I take that back. Easiest way to re-flat yourself: use a screwdriver to put the tire back on. If only I had the proverbial dime for every time someone came into the bike shop I worked at to say: "You just sold me a defective tube!" "Sir, did you use the handy plastic levers we sell?" "nah, that's a rip-off, I used mah screwdriver!"

10:54 PM  

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