My favorite lyric for years concerning flat tires has been from Hank Williams’ “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”  To wit:

We’ll put aside a little time
To fix a flat or two;
My tires and tubes are doin’ fine,
But the air is showin’ through.

Flat ties on a bike ride are no fun.  I go prepared with an extra tube, two tire levers, and a pump or CO2 cartridge.  I have a set for every bike, because every one of my bikes has a different size tire except for the Trek and the Bianchi.  I long ago decided that life was too short to deal with tube patches, especially when I can sometimes buy tubes for less than $5 apiece on sale.

There are basically three kinds of flats: compression, pinch, and puncture.  Punctures are sometimes inevitable; you just miss seeing the piece of glass, or the tiny and sometimes deliberately scattered tacks, or the sharp shard of metal.  I’ve even had a puncture from a long thorn, probably a Pyracantha, hidden in the grass cuttings and crap blown onto the trail by mowers.  Pinch flats are always your own fault, on one level.  They occur when the tube is pinched between the tire and the rim when you install the tube or replace the tire.  They can be largely avoided by being careful, inflating the tube just a bit at the beginning of installation, making sure the tire is seated right on the rim, inflating the tire about halfway, then deflating it, working your way around the rim with your fingers to loosen any twists, and repeating that whole process again, and then inflating to full pressure.  Ideally you then let the tire sit for a day before reinstalling it, just to make sure.  Compression flats are also your own fault, in a different way.  They happen when your fully inflated (c. 110 psi) road tire hits a hard obstacle and  the tire is momentarily compressed by the impact, raising the air pressure to a level that pops the tube inside.  They almost never happen with fat tires.

I had a compression flat a month or so ago caused by a worn tire.  I’d gotten an incredible 3000+ miles out of my original equipment Bontrager Race Lites on the Trek 2.1.  Coming home over the Vienna Hill, I hit a stone, shooting it off to the side with a kind of “pop” sound.  This happens all the time; I’ve even hit a couple of parked cars with the stones.  But this time my rear tire flatted, because it was so worn that it had little strength to resist the momentary compression of hitting the stone.  I knew the tires were on their last legs, and had bought Michelins with light blue sidewalls to replace them.  But I hadn’t done so yet, and I paid the price with a two-mile walk home.

I’ve mentioned several times already the autumn phenomenon of contrasty, dappled sunlight/dark shadow patterns; this time of year the sun is lower in the sky and the leaves are essentially all on the trees.  This combination often makes visibility difficult.  Last weekend I was out on a ride, taking an alternative climb to Hunter Station Road before heading out to Herndon.  I get off the Trail at Clark’s Crossing Road, climb that nearly to Beulah, Make a left and go down Brookside Lane to Meadowlark Road, left again to Abbey Oak Drive, down and through Sun Valley Park, up Lozano Drive almost to Beulah, and then retrace the route back to the Trail.  The toughest climb is up Brookside going back.  Almost as steep as Hunter Station but not as long.  The problem is that parts of this route have very bad road surface, notably on Brookside and parts of Abbey Oak, and much of the ride to Abbey Oak is quite shaded most of the year.

So on Sunday I’m going back toward the bike trail, zooming down a short, steep drop on Meadowlark before sweeping right onto Brookside for the climb.  Going around the turn onto Brookside I hit a bad pothole.  At least it must have been bad judging by the sharp, shocking impact.  I never saw it in the dappled shade.  My first reaction was “shoot, I hope I didn’t break a spoke,” followed immediately by “I’ll be darn lucky if I don’t have a flat.”  (Full disclosure requires me to stipulate that “shoot” and “darn” are euphemisms.)  Glancing at the front tire, I was just deciding that all was well when I heard the unmistakable rumble from the rear.  Way too much blue sidewall visible from above.

So I stop beside the grassy drainage ditch in front of a new McMansion subdivision.  It’s a very warm day, and without the evaporation of speed I am dripping.  I pull out my repair kit, remove the wheel, and get to work.  (The wheels on the new Trek are so much easier to remove and reposition that it’s not even funny.)  Tire and tube come off without a hitch.  The flat is of course a compression flat, a slit over an inch long at a seam.  So I install the spare tube.  All is well until the inflation process.  I’ve never used a CO2 cartridge before, though I have seen one used.  My device seemed to have an easy way to control the amount of CO2, and looked like it would work.  But the compressed gas did not go into the tube well.  It seemed to freeze up the valve stem and harden the tube.  The tire did not inflate at all, and the gas was gone.

I simply resigned myself to a 4 or 5 mile walk home and began trucking.  Jane was at a book group meeting and was unavailable to rescue me.  I got up Brookside, down Clark’s Crossing, and back on the Trail.  It was a weekend, and there was lots of traffic out there.  Before long I had a couple of cyclists who wanted to give aid.   One had a short hand pump, and the other another CO2 cartridge.  Neither worked.  Then we determined that there was a big hole in the replacement tube.  Had to be the result of my abortive attempt to use the cartridge, I think.  So one of my benefactors gave me another spare tube, inflated it with a second cartridge, and I was on my way.  For about 100 feet.  Then the tire blew again.  Trouble with cartridges is that you can’t do that whole routine to make sure the tube is seated.  Nor can you, with his anyhow, control how much of the cartridge you use.  So I think that the second blowout resulted from both over-inflation and a pinched tube.

As Emiril would say, “Bam!”  I was walking again, making a virtue of necessity by getting a few miles of exercise.  Trudging along, I envied the slowest, most awkward rider on the crummiest bike.  He was making better time, and having more fun, than I was.  Got home ar 4:30, and I was in a pretty grumpy mood for the rest of the day.  I know these events were beyond my control.  Sort of.  Could have taken it carefully and slow around that corner.   From now on I’m going to carry a hand pump in my Camelbak pouch, and I’m either going to ride more carefully or take a fat-tire bike on the route I rode that day.  As the narrator concludes at the end of “Margaritaville,” “it’s my own damned fault.”

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

1 thought on “Flat

  1. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of the CO2 cartridges…it has always seemed to me that you’re just begging for a second flat (or failed fix, as you experienced) on the same ride. And something about the single-use, disposable nature of the thing rubs me the wrong way too. The mini pumps kind of stink for home use but are a reasonable compromise on the road.

    I also think that patch kits are OK but better done at home when you can apply them with much greater patience, find the leak accurately by submerging under water, etc. So on-the-road, better to have a spare tube (and maybe the patch kit in case of second flat?).

    The compression flats (also with tell-tale two-hole snakebite signature) can also be your fault if you underinflate.

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