One thing all of us as cyclists will experience at one time or another, before we pony up and buy a new tire, is a flat. It usually happens at the most inopportune time and is never sweet, unless you have a SAG wagon following you around all the time, then it’s no big deal. In the everyday ride there are no pits. No one is going to swap out your wheels for you so you can continue your ride virtually uninterrupted. No, you either have to fix it yourself or you can take it to a Scandinavian mechanic who gives out hi-fives like they were candy at Halloween. Uffda. That’s me and I am here to help.
Now, for how common the flat tire hassle is, it is even more common for me to have a customer who is completely baffled by the whole ordeal, and we are talking utterly dumbfounded. They stumble through the door with a look on their face like they smelled something stinky, dragging their bike behind them. Instead of placing their bicycle in the stand they opt to lay the bike across it. Even with the shop rocking busy I can hear their arrival. The distinct sound of a 26×2.2 tires devoid of all air fills the room. Rubber rolling on rubber. You know the sound. It’s a sound the sticks out, especially on our shop’s slick cement floor. Even if I am elbows deep in a repair I have to stop what I’m doing and locate the source of the sound. I just have to. In doing so I usually make eye contact with them and they take that as a sign of me saying “Yes, I will drop everything I am doing and address your problem because you are important and I see you’re struggling”. You know what? I usually do because, damn it, that’s customer service. After our non verbal eye conversation they make a bee line straight to me through the crowd of do-it-yourselfers, gift shoppers, and possibly a new cyclist or two. “Let me guess, flat tire”, I say with a cheeky grin because I am charming and I love to point out the obvious. What is a better way to relate to someone than to talk about what is happening right in front of your face? Don’t answer that. There is none.
So then, I wrestle the forty pound bike in the stand and am instantly covered in brake dust. Quietly, I curse myself for not throwing on my apron. Now I have a big black smudge on my nicer jeans and it’s only eleven a.m. Great. I spent such a long time picking out my clothes the night before. I called the guys I work with to make sure we didn’t wear the same thing, I steamed out all the wrinkles, I spent a little extra time making my french roll (pegged!) on my jeans perfect, and now it all seems so pointless. As I drop the wheel from the frame it starts… “I just don’t understand how this could have happened!” Upon hearing that I have learned to brace myself for a very long, drawn out, detailed recap of what happened from some point in the past, could be one day or it could be a year, right to the moment of the flat or to where they noticed that they indeed did have a flat.
“I just don’t understand how this happened. It has to be coming from the valve.” It rarely is the valve. “I bought this bike a year ago and never got any flats” Here’s where they follow up their observation with something absurd like “…and never got any flats. Do you think I can take it back to where I bought it and they could warranty it?” “Are you fecking insane?” I think to myself, but instead of saying that I decide to go with “Probably not very likely”, because this is a retail environment and you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar. Also, it’s not a good idea to cuss at the customer.
And then they unleash.
“Well, I commute on this bike everyday to and from work. Yesterday, when I woke up from my slumber I went straight to the bathroom because the night before I had fallen asleep with gum in my mouth. While sleeping it fell from my mouth, onto my pillow, and then was matted into the back of my skullett*. I leave my bike in the hallway and while I was on my way to the water closet I noticed that my tires were at optimal pressure. I can eyeball it. When I was riding to work, right around 2.3 km from my house, I noticed it was kind of hard to pedal. I thought perhaps the brake was engaged or the wheel was rubbing against the frame so I got off of my bike to locate the problem. There was nothing. I got back on and started riding. I heard someone shout ‘Burt Reynolds! You should’ve taken the role of Han Solo!’ Which I agree, he should’ve. I am often told I resemble Burt which is why they must’ve yelled that in the first place. Well, while I was looking to see who was yelling at me I hit a bump and my wheel started hissing. There wasn’t any glass. I looked. I went back to the area in which I heard my tire loosing air and I saw a dead squirrel. I thought to myself ‘Self, what part of a squirrel could possibly cause my tire to flat?’ The only thing I could think of was it’s tooth, so I looked everywhere I could to find this renegade tooth that punctured my tire. I didn’t find it on the ground so I went straight to the source. I opened the rodent’s mouth and didn’t notice any teeth missing and then I realized I don’t know how many teeth squirrels have in the first place. So, at the angle of which the road kill was laying I figure that it must’ve bit the valve while I was running over it. I am pretty sure it’s the valve.
I unseat the tire and pull out the tube. As I put air into it I could see what looked like a very small snake bite in the tube. Two small holes in the tube side to side is the tell tale sign of a pinch flat. That’s when you don’t have enough air in your tires and you hit something, like a pot hole, and you tire gives, squishing your tube against what you hit and the rim of your wheel causing two small holes.“How often do you air up your tires?” I ask.
“Once a month….maybe.” And this is the point where I get to blow their mind…
“You know, rubber is a porous material and you lose about a pound of pressure a day.”
BLAM- mind blown.
“I’m not sure how much I believe that. I only had to fill up my ’82 Stumpjumper’s tires once in the 7 years I had it.”
Ok, I guess I didn’t blow his mind. He was really fighting me on this, but as I continued to ask him questions I learned he only did fill his tires up once…. with a silicone material that turned his tubes into one solid mass.
“Sure it added 30 extra pounds to my bike and it never shifted right again, but I NEVER got a flat” he said.
“Well, the whole point of having a bike with gears is to use them. Right? There is a better way. You can get a puncture resistant tire that is lined with kevlar so you can prevent flats, but even those you have to pump up or you are still susceptible to pinch flats, like when you hit that bump or rodent or whatever it was in that very detailed story you told me, the lack of air made your flat tire nightmare a reality.” I could see the information I was giving him was slowly sinking in. As we continue to talk and he explained his ride to me we started to talk about tires and the huge role they play in your bike.
“I’m a pretty fit guy. Hell, people mistake me for Burt all the time, so that says something right there, but I keep getting passed by people who I know I am faster than. Even old ladies with small dogs in their baskets. Is that because of my tires?”
“Yes, it most certainly is.”
As I fix his flat, I explain PSI, show him a floor pump, and some good tires because we all start have to start somewhere. Soon, this customer will swap out those huge knobby tires for something with a higher pressure and less rolling resistance, which will make me happy, because that means he learned something from our chat. He will add a rack to that hard tail. His bar ends will have bar ends. Both of his panniers will bear the reflective slow moving vehicle symbol and after he spends some serious time in the saddle between 8-9 am and 5-6pm they will achieve their CAT4 commuter status. Although none of this starts without that very first lesson: flats happen. Get over it.