The bike tube blues

Serious outdoors types don’t hesitate to over-pack with safety gear these days: Climbers use ropes strong enough to wrangle a mammoth, cyclists carry enough agua to water-board Poseidon, and who knows what hikers tote around in their packs.

The horror: Writer Jonathan Poston’s simple problem became a major debacle. Don’t let it happen to you.

I’ll admit that before donning my Kmart bicycle helmet and getting out for a ride, I always pack a few emergency supplies. I grab my CamelBak and begin stuffing it full of things like a tire pump, spare tube, flashlight, cell phone etc. And though it’s been years since I got my last flat, I vowed that I’d be prepared should another leak cross my path. No way would I walk my bike back down the trail with passersby admonishing, “You know, it helps to carry a spare.”

On a recent warm evening, I hit the trails at Bent Creek for a mellow 8- to 10-mile ride to the top of the Five Points intersection and back. On my return, I raced to beat the sunset. Rocks, leaves, roots and dirt all whizzed by in a blur as dusk settled into the woods around me. A couple of miles out from the trailhead I began to coast, certain that I could make it back before night.

Nice plan, but there was a hitch: As gravity pulled me down the ridge, my back tire smashed into a rock that my front tire had managed to dodge. My back rim began slicing into the earth, the unmistakable sign of a popped tube.

No problem, I thought: I had a tube and all the tools needed to get my bike up and going again. It took me just a few minutes to yank the back tire and rim off, unload the flat tube, reload the new one and snap the whole contraption back into place. As I pumped the tire up, though, I noticed the inner tube bubbling out slightly from between the rim and tire. I pushed it back in place with my thumb. It bubbled out again. No problem, I thought: I’d ride it back half-inflated. But once I settled my 200 pounds into the saddle and began pedaling, the tube ballooned and popped out of the tire.

I stopped, dismounted and began coaxing it back in place. Really, how hard could this be? I started up again and this time my tire seized completely, tying itself into a big rubber knot. As I yanked at the tube to get it free, it peeled away into several different strands.

At least, I thought, it was mostly a downhill ride from here. But as skittered down the mountain, my pedaling crunched to a stop. Now my chain links were tangled in knots. And just when I was consoling myself with the fact that there was no one around to see this, a runner and his dog materialized. I could see his grin in the fading light. He winced as he passed and said, “Doesn’t sound good,” before disappearing into the woods.

The next day, I pleaded my case to Pro Bikes’ mechanic Alex Breyenton, telling him that I did everything I thought I should, but that my tire seemed destined to pop again no matter what. He put my bike in the stand and took a quick glance at the rear wheel. “Looks like you rode on the rim for a ways,” he said. I admitted I had, silently counting the dollars a new rim might cost me. Normally the tire wouldn’t need to be replaced, but of course my rim had managed to slice through it on the gravelly ride back. I was out $6 for the tube, $20 for the tire and $10 for labor.

So that you don’t repeat this drama yourself, I’ll share the correct steps for changing a bicycle tube: First, unhook the rear brakes and gear down into the lowest gear (to make it simpler to rehang the bike chain when the tire goes back on) before disconnecting the wheel from the frame. Insert a tire lever between the rim and tire and slowly work your way around the wheel, pulling the tire away from the rim. Once one side is off, the tire can be easily removed. Pull the tube out of the tire and check the inside of the tire for damage or any remaining sharp object. Put the tire back on the rim, leaving one side hanging over so you can insert the tube. Pump a little air into the new tube before inserting it in the tire (making sure you use the correct-size tube and valve-stem type for your tire). Insert the valve stem (the metal part) into the rim before running the rest of the tube around the inside of the tire. Use your lever once more to slip the rest of the tire back onto the rim. Inflate slowly, making sure that the bead (the edges of the tire) is seated snugly into the rim. (This was the part I left out since I was in a hurry, resulting in the tube popping out every time I inflated it). Once inflated, put your wheel back on and you’re ready to go.

After watching a professional change my flat the right way, I realized that it’s much easier to do in adequate light and at a more leisurely pace. Maybe changing a tire isn’t that hard after all, but I think I’ll bring some “Fix-a-Flat” along next time, just in case.

[Jonathan Poston can be reached at www.prnut.com]

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One thought on “The bike tube blues

  1. Cycling Tips

    Aww don’t you just hate flats. Spoils your otherwise exciting ride. :(

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