Monday, 27 May 2013

Punctures and Why I Hate Them

I don't get punctures anymore.
"What's your secret?" people ask.
"I hate punctures," I reply.

I still remember the sense of let-down I felt when I was a small child, out on my bike having fun or on my way to somewhere in a hurry. That sudden rumbling beneath me accompanied by a slight loss of stability that indicated a puncture. That feeling has never changed.

It is for good reason that people use the word 'punctured' as a metaphor. 'Punctured optimism' - 'punctured pride.' It draws upon the feeling every experienced cyclist knows and loathes.

For years I accepted that punctures were an inevitable downside that balanced the outstanding pleasures and practical advantages of cycling. Nothing that great comes without a downside, I told myself. But I did come to wonder why punctures were so much less frequent with my car or motorcycle. "If they could fly men to the moon, what was so difficult about inventing a puncture resistant cycle tyre?"
I continued to cycle and muttered such things to myself every time I found myself kneeling at the side of the road with a tyre lever in my hand. "Bloody ridiculous!" is what it was.

Around five years ago, I was preparing to cycle 10,000 miles from the West of Ireland to Tokyo with my son. Punctures would be a big issue; I knew that from books and blogs I'd read, written by other long-distance cyclists. I toured the internet searching for advice and talked to mechanics in bike shops. Eventually, attending the 2008 cycle show at Earls Court in London, I talked to an elderly gent at a stand. He was demonstrating the puncture resistance of Schwalbe Marathon and Marathon Plus tyres. They had a thick protective band built into the tyre. With the 'Plus', it extended around the sidewall of the tyre as well as the main running section. I'd used things like puncture resistant tape and liquid slime type preparations and they'd improved things, but I'd still got punctures. Was this really so much better, I challenged him.
"I just had a girl here yesterday," he told me. "Four of them cycled from London to Australia, via Indonesia, using Marathon Plus tyres. They didn't have a single puncture between them."
Elderly and a gentleman he might have been, but surely he was exaggerating wildly.
"Not at all," he assured me.
He demonstrated, using an inflated tyre already full of drawing pins. Then he handed me a drawing pin.
"Have a go for yourself!" he said, seeing the look of suspicion on my face.
I tried several and even gave it a good old jab with the point of a knife. Nothing! The next day I ordered a set of Marathon Plus tyres for my Dawes Super Galaxy touring bike.

Six months later, Sam and I set off for Japan. Even in Ireland, some of the road surfaces were bad. Classic puncture territory, I thought. I waited, anticipating that sense of deflation - of punctured enthusiasm at any moment. We were loaded up and therefore far more puncture-prone. But days went by and rough surfaces with broken glass, discarded bolts and bits of vehicle debris passed beneath our wheels without that sense of impending puncture-doom amounting to anything. This good fortune continued all the way across Europe until after a few thousand miles I had almost forgotten about punctures. Sam's bike had been delivered with standard Schwalbe Marathon tyres (without the sidewall protection) but had proved equally resistant. I thanked that old man in my head.

Although my good fortune continued all the way to Japan - problems with perished valve seatings being the only blemish, necessitating new innertubes - Sam was not so lucky. He made the mistake of riding across a field in the dark, somewhere in Eastern Turkey looking for a place to camp. In the morning, as we repaired his multiple punctures, we could see that the field was a mass of large thistles. I remembered the drawing pin exercise. Sam suffered 15 further puncture episodes that day as the tiny, invisibly embedded spikes repeatedly inflicted him with that sense of deflation. The extra protection of Marathon Plus on my bike had proved worthwhile.

Over those 10,000 miles and ever since, I have added to the protection given by the Marathon Plus tyres I would now not be without. Sam and I came to realise the benefit of watching where you're going. There's all sorts of debris lying in wait for you on a road, just ready to deflate you. If you watch, you can see it coming. It can make the difference between a good day and a horrible day. What makes punctures so potentially damaging, is that while you are in the process of repairing one, you often do some other damage to the bike. A bad temper, haste and tiredness do not help. Even something simple like failing to reattach a luggage strap, which then gets caught in the back wheel and mashes your gears, or a trapped gear cable when you retighten the back wheel, or a tiny shard of metal sheared off the tyre lever or the rim, getting itself lodged inside the tyre can be deadly. I once read of someone (Christopher Smith) getting stuck in Greece for a week, waiting for new tyres after an almost invisible strand of protective wire in the tyre rim (dislodged by the tyre lever when mending a puncture), caused multiple further punctures and was almost undetectable. The poor guy almost lost his mind with frustration. So better left well alone. Inspect your tyres for cuts and things sticking in them but avoid taking those tyres off and on if you possibly can. It could be the start of something diabolical.

In the four years since we completed that epic trip, I have cycled a good deal and have not suffered a single puncture. I've helped others mend theirs but none of my four bikes have succumbed. Punctures, in my opinion, really are something where prevention is better than cure. Having said that, I last changed my Marathon Plus front tyre in India around 7,000 miles ago. It's totally bald and has a split in the wall. I have a new one in the shed. I will get around to changing it one day, but I sort of want to see how long it will go before I suffer that near forgotten deflating feeling again. Sometimes reliability can get really boring!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

FREEDOM - The thrill of cycling

What made me take up long distance cycling?

As it says at the beginning of my book, I discovered the joy of cycling at around 4 years of age.
'I realised at the age of four that a bicycle was the key to freedom. The joy I felt as I first escaped down the hill from my home has never left me.'

For many people of my generation, a bicycle was their first real taste of freedom. Back in 'the olden days' parents might have been happier to let their young kids disappear for the whole day in a way that they wouldn't do now, but the fact was we had less money to go off on trips to theme parks or hop across the channel by train or plane, let alone fly to Florida to experience the dubious delights of Disney-world. But what we did have were bicycles. Bikes were fairly cheap, especially if like mine it was second-hand. I soon learned that I could travel quite some distance from home on my old bike (so long as I had a puncture outfit and a bone spanner). My cycling friends and I survived for a day on hastily prepared doorstep cheese sandwiches, an apple and perhaps some 'pop' from a shop. We talked to kindly old ladies, who sometimes invited us in for tea and old men who helped us fix a chain or a puncture. We had no mobile phone to call home if we had a problem. Once we were gone, we were gone for the day, with no real idea of what lay ahead of us.

I look at children of the same age (11 or 12) now, with their i-pads and playstations or sat for hours in front of mindless TV pulp, and I despair. This was why, after years of giving cycling a rest, I began to encourage my 10yr old son to come cycling. I didn't want him to become one of those kids. I wanted him to experience what I had, albeit with me so I didn't need to worry. Yes the thought of allowing a ten or eleven year old to go off cycling all day alone or with a friend is pretty scary. Not because the risks are higher - I'm sure they're not - but because we've changed. Not for the better, in my opinion.

As it turned out, encouraging my son, Sam, to come on a little (40 mile) cycle expedition over a couple of days when he was ten, put something more than a a set of bike wheels in motion. At the end of that 2 day trip, Sam asked me if I'd cycle to Japan with him. I remember chuckling to myself at first. Did he know how far it was, I asked. He didn't but he said we'd have a year to do it if we did it during his 'gap year.' At least he knew what a gap year was. Ten years later, after a few practice trips around southern England, France and Belgium, we set off on the 10,000mile journey to Tokyo. I have never stopped cycling since and nor, I'm pleased to say, has he. You see I still feel that thrill in the pit of my stomach every time I set off on a bike ride. I can't quite believe that with such a simple piece of equipment, it's possible to go anywhere and to have so much fun. You don't need an expensive bike or chic lycra clothing. You don't even need to take much money if you have a small tent that you can put up quickly in a field next to a country lane. It's the simplicity that can be such a breath of fresh air.

So rather than leave that bike in the shed - the one you bought a few years back with the intention of getting fit and losing a few pounds of Christmas flab - give it a service and get out on it this weekend. Take a short ride to a country pub or a tea shop. You'll return home with a beaming smile. Thrilled by the wind having rushed through your hair on the downhills and boasting about climbing up the other side. And people will talk to you. "How far have you come mate?" or "I had one like that." You'll wonder why you left it so long.

Sam inspiring small Vietnamese children to cycle