The soul-destroying act of fixing a road-side puncture | Ned Boulting

Ned is feeling deflated

Illustration of Ned Boulting feeling deflated

Recently, I have been actively pursuing a course designed to close independent bike shops. I hadn’t realised that this was what I was doing when I wheeled my filthy, mongrel town bike into an East End cycle emporium, but it seems I was conniving with the proprietor to hasten his own demise. Here’s how…

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It’s about puncturing: that useless passage of time by the side of the road, during which time your hands end up as coal-black as if you had manually stoked the Flying Scotsman all the way from London to Inverness, while passers-by on the pavement look at you with that same sneer of pity and ridicule usually reserved for street artists who paint themselves silver and stand very still.

Punctures seldom happen, admittedly. They are rare enough for me to have to proceed, my heart racing slightly, through a mental checklist of how to get it done.

First, the wheel must come off. That’s easy if it is the front wheel, which it obviously never is. It is always the rear rim, which means birthing a wheel from a convoluted mesh of chain, cog and sundry items with unknowable functions.

That done, on no account must the bike be turned upside down, apparently. This may well have the advantage of being obvious and stable and easier to get the thing detached, but it is as wrong as it is to wear long/short, black/white socks (I forget what the correct option is so delete your own preferences as you will).

Fixing a puncture on a bicycle inner tube
Urgh, punctures… At least at home you have the benefit of time.
Johnny Ashelford

Then come the ‘tyre lever games’; second only in irrational horror to the Hunger Games, but with a higher swear ratio. Sometimes they snap. But mostly they just don’t insert themselves without flying off into the road, usually taking a section of thumbnail with them.

This period of intense activity with plastic and rubber and metal lasts several minutes; often long enough, in fact, for the insidious thought to creep into your consciousness, clouding your actions with doubt: ‘What if I never actually get this tyre out?’ This fear is often followed, once the inner tube has finally been removed and the new one stuffed in, by: ‘What if I never get this tyre back on?’

But somehow it comes together, miraculously, and with only a half hour wasted. There follows the tremendous effort of pumping up the tyre with a mini pump, which is like widdling into an empty, Olympic-size swimming pool in an effort to fill it up. And, finally, that surge of pride when you tentatively squeeze the newly inflated tyre with a thumb, and nod with self-satisfaction.

This is followed by the realisation that you have just expended your only spare tube, and still have 10 miles to ride.

Bike shops don’t want to sell solid tyres. If they do, they put themselves out of business

So, there I was, wheeling my bike into this shop with the sole intention of banishing the puncture from my life forever by purchasing solid tyres. There are very, very few places in London that sell them (and install them), but I had found one.

“What size rims have you got?”

“Er… 23? No, 24? Dunno.” I hate questions that require accurate answers, so I simply pointed at my bike. “Something like that size.”

“That’s a 25”, the bloke said, somewhat irritatingly.

“Do you sell a lot of solid tyres?” I enquired, as he started to wheel my bike into the workshop with a look of thinly veiled disgust.

“A few, yeah. But bike shops don’t want to sell them. If they do, they put themselves out of business. The amount of people who still come in asking for a puncture to be repaired, you wouldn’t believe. And then when they’re in, you find something else that’s wrong,” he admitted with refreshing honesty.

“Unless,” he went on, “you’re the only shop selling them. Then you’re the one putting all the others out of business. Until you do it to yourself.”

I left him to his philosophy only to return an hour later looking forward to rolling away on my solid blue rubber tyres. But my bike was still there, tubed and aerated.

“Sorry, mate.” He looked at me, crestfallen. ‘Wrong-shaped rims. Can’t do it.” We both then looked at the bike, crestfallen on its behalf.

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And so off I rode into the London afternoon, wary of puncturing, but basking in the warm glow from not having forced the closure of another bike shop, all thanks to the bicycle’s ridiculously over-complicated lack of compatibility. Bloody stupid invention.