Monday, August 22, 2011

Fixing flat tires

When I was a boy --

No, wait. When I was a boy I swore I'd never lead with that silly, self-aggrandizing phrase. Reset...

Back in the last third of the twentieth century, I rode my bike to school. I rode my bike to work. I rode my bike to Boy Scout meetings, and to my after-school jobs, and to the bowling alley, and when my friend J-- was away and I subbed on his paper route. I rode my bike pretty much everywhere.

I got flat tires every so often. Every bike gets flat tires, so it goes. When I got a flat tire I patched it. Once a tube got a few patches on it, I'd relent and buy a new tube. I didn't give the arrangement much thought. I suppose it was, in part at least, a matter of economics: why spring for a new tube when you could patch up the old one?

On Monday morning, a week ago, all suited up for work, my partner found his tire flat where we lock up in the side yard. Yep, I still ride my bike to work, and so does he. That day he walked.

You go to a bike store these days (I like Mike's Bikes, just west of the campus in Berkeley) and you have to work to find a new two-wheeler under $300. You won't find many for less than $500. Over a grand? There's a smorgasbord to choose from. The most expensive bike on Mike's website this weekend is on "Mega-Sale" for $7,799.95.

Um. Yeah.

Matthew and I are pretty frugal about our commute vehicles. Old habits die hard.

My bike is a hand me down. It's the one my brother rode in college some 25 years ago. He gave it to our dad, and after it moldered for a while in the parental garage I adopted it. My brother was serious about trail riding (and still is); he put together a bike built to take plenty of abuse. I ride a mile and a half to work on paved streets, and I'd guesstimate there's about an 18" rise in elevation along the way. David's old bike is holding up fine. I've been riding it to work since the early nineties.

We bought Matthew's bike from a neighbor for $35.00.

So my instinct when we found a flat tire on Monday morning was ... to patch it.

Do people do that anymore? Patch tires? Would somebody who pays eight hundred bucks for a bike -- let alone eight thousand -- compromise their precision-engineered machine with a patched inner tube?

I don't know, actually. Across Telegraph Avenue from the café in which I'm writing this post, Karim Cycle sells used bikes to those who ignore the shop's sketchy reputation (there are at least two sides to that story, caveat lector). I'm guessing a lot of Karim's customers still patch their own inner tubes.

The Missing Link is another favorite Berkeley store, and a co-op business besides (note the dot-org URL if you follow the link). The co-op offers classes in bike repair, and on-line advice that's free to all comers. On top of their Repair Tips page is "fixing flats." That proves I'm not the last of the tube-patchers, right?

In fact, it wouldn't occur to me to own a bike without having a patch kit handy. But if last week's experience is evidence, I seem to have lost my touch.

Oh, I found the puncture easily enough, and I marked it with a Sharpie, and scuffed up the rubber, and squeezed out the rubber cement, and laid a cut-to-order patch over the gluey rubber, and pressed the repaired tube under a piece of cardboard with a heavy cinderblock on top to set. Standard operating procedure.

The patch held for about a day. Then it must have worked loose, because that tire was flaccid as ... as ... well, it was flat as a pancake by Wednesday morning.

Matthew walked to work again.

I sighed, set aside my conservationist principles, albeit reluctantly, and changed out the inner tube.

Now this is the thing. A new inner tube at Mike's costs about five bucks. They happened to be on sale last week when I stopped in, 3 for $10, so I, um, bought three. Ten bucks is a lot less now than it was in nineteen seventy whatever, and it doesn't hurt that I'm gainfully employed. Well, employed anyway.

(What's the difference between "gainful" employment and the other brand? That they take taxes out of your paycheck? There's a Wikipedia article on the topic, but it looks more than a little officious to this skeptic's eye. Anyhoo...)

Changing an inner tube is a lot faster than patching one. Doesn't take much longer to install one than it does to pump it full of air afterward. Broadly speaking, I'm shorter on time these days than I am on five-spots. But it sure seems wasteful to throw out an inner tube with one itty bitty hole in it.

Have you got a bike? Do you patch your own flats, change tubes, or take the bike into the shop and let the guys with grease under their fingernails do the dirty work for you?

Thanks to Sam Dal Monte for the classic flat tire image, posted on Flickr.


  1. Very amusing post - though I bet it was not as amusing when you labored on the bike.

    Thank you so much for the care.


  2. My bike is currently at the shop for a little tune-up, after being mothballed for a little while. I usually let other people do that stuff, but it's mainly because repairs by me are usually mediocre at best.

  3. @Matthew -- Actually, it's nice to do something with one's hands that doesn't involve a keyboard. No worries...

    @Steven -- Better to ride than to mothball ... hope you enjoy getting back in the saddle when your bike comes back from the shop.

  4. I try to patch, but really it depends. If I'm in a rush, I just put the new tube in, but I usually save the old one and patch it later. I understand why people don't though, it's a bit of an ordeal, since you go through all that work and the patch might not take. I always hold my breath for the first couple of days anyway.

    Another thing that's made flat fixing way easier for me (and a reason for me not to go to a shop) is that I have this awesome new kind of bicycle quick release on my road bike - even faster than the traditional qr, although I've luckily not flatted during a race.

  5. Patches serve as a band-aid solution for punctured tires. However, there are times when it's better to replace the old ones. If you don't, the rim could be severely damaged, burning an even bigger hole in your pocket. :)

    Rita @