Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Last Tuesday—a week ago yesterday—I set out for a quick morning spin on the velocipede and suffered a sidewall blowout less than half a mile from home.

A small bang and a hiss like the air brakes on a bus made me turn my head a fraction of a second before the feel from my rear wheel let me know I’d lost all pressure.

Luckily I was barely as far as the river road close to home. I took a quick survey of the situation—long enough to determine that I hadn’t suffered an inner tube puncture, but a tire failure from age and miles—and pushed my tired wheels home.

I’ve owned this bike long enough that this is the second time I’ve worn out a rear tire. It’s actually a satisfying feeling. It means I’m using the bike. On a typical bike the tire is supported by a pressurized inner tube; the pressure is contained in the tube, so the tire doesn’t have to be airtight. But when the tire wears out and splits, the inner tube will typically fail immediately, bursting at the same spot where the tire no longer holds it in.

And that turned out to be exactly what had happened. Kinda a bummer, because that was a good tube, with an extra beefy outer section to ward off thorns. It was far from ready to trade in. I’m still hemming and hawing over whether to patch it. My history with patched bike tubes leaves me never trusting them completely. Last thing you need when you’re thirty miles out on a ride is to find out your patch has a slow leak. Still, I hate to chuck the tube. Lots of good rubber in it.

(I don’t know what they call blowouts on French bikes, by the way. The title above comes from too many hands of Mille Bornes played when I was a boy and my elder siblings were learning French, but it’s the word used when you’re driving a car. Maybe for les bicyclettes the French have a different word.)

Wednesday was too busy to get a new tire; Thursday I got to the bike store thirty-five seconds after they locked the door and shut down the register. Friday I went to REI instead (open till 9 p.m., and they’re having their spring sale) and bought a couple of new tires, a couple of new tubes, and some chain cleaning gear. Saturday dawned bright and clear, a fine day for patient maintenance.

As long as I had the rear wheel off to replace the tire, I figured I might as well catch up with some other too-long-deferred maintenance projects.

Actually, I’d cleaned the chain briefly a few weeks before. For that, I got a chain brush and some degreaser. That was fine as far as it went, but at REI I’d picked up a plastic chain-cleaning machine, a gizmo you attach around your chain, with brushes and scrubbers inside, and a reservoir of cleaning fluid. Then you just run the chain through it, and the grease magically comes off. More or less.

I’ve taken this bike hundreds of miles in all conditions and never seriously cleaned the chain with more than WD-40 and a rag—just added fresh clean grease from time to time—so I’m working on the premise that it’ll take a few cleanings to get it completely right.

First time out, with the brush, was a good first step. That gave the grit and filth that decorate the derailleurs and gear cassettes a fresh place to migrate to. It also swapped sticky old grease for cleaner, more fluid fresh grease.

I got the chain-cleaning machine gizmo for a more thorough second round. A clean, well-oiled chain moves effortlessly, but with all the riding I do on the beach, I had to assume I was carrying around a lot of fine dust that was grinding every time I turned the pedals. That means you work a little harder, plus it eventually wears out the chain.

The top picture above is after I’d finished cleaning the chain, before I took off the wheel to replace the tire and tube. The next picture is after I took the rear wheel with me into the shower, where the hand-held jet fixture did a very nice job of pressure-washing off a lot of caked grease and grit.

(One reason you have to love the Germans is that they call bicycling Radsport. Rad indeed!)

After a major overhaul like this, it’s important to remember how everything was put together, or you may cause permanent damage when you reassemble the machine.

As you can see, the first time out I put it all together all wrong, with the wheels facing completely in the wrong direction. (But note the squeaky-clean new rear tire!) I realized this couldn’t be right when I got on the bike and took it for a very painful test ride. After a couple of laps around the block, I pulled up in front of my garage again, resolved to find the problem and fix it.

When I took it all apart and put it back together again, I remembered a right-left orientation I’d got wrong the first time. This time it reassembled with the wheels facing in the conventional direction, toward the ground.

On my next test ride, the bike rode like a whisper, jetting out around curves and swallowing up straightaways the way the wind whips through a mountain pass.

I’ve been riding happily ever since!


Andrew Shields said...

Has your name shown up in Dr. Fuentes's records yet? :-)

mrjumbo said...

Overinflating tends to cause poor traction and more blowouts. Dr. Fuentes' style of degreasing is too rich for my blood.

Papa Bradstein said...

His code name is Crève!--they just haven't deciphered it yet.

Nice work. Nothing rides better than a clean bike.

Andrew Shields said...

Clean bike, clean rider—what a good sportsman! :-)

"I just thought about doping, and Fuentes used a Portkey to transport me to a graveyard ..."