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In praise of fixing punctures

Trevor Ward
5 Dec 2018

In a throwaway world, patching and reusing an inner tube remains a small connection to an age of honest labour and self-reliance

This article first appeared in Issue 77 of Cyclist magazine

My dad was a docker for 40 years. Every day he walked five miles to the Seaforth container base in Liverpool, put in an eight-hour shift of loading and unloading, then walked the five miles home where he had his tea, lit up a fag and promptly fell asleep in an upright position on the sofa while holding the Liverpool Echo in front of him.

Most of my friends’ dads had unskilled manual jobs too. A few worked at the Ford factory in Speke, some at Champion spark plugs across the Mersey. They all put in an honest day’s work with their hands.

That was the world we lived in. It was a blue-collar, factory-floor society. Laptops, mobile phones and the internet had yet to be invented.

My dad never understood how I could make a living without breaking sweat or getting blisters on my hands. He couldn’t comprehend how it was possible to earn a wage by working from home at a computer.

The world is a very different place now. Call centres have replaced factories. Google has replaced libraries.

Computers operate the cranes at my dad’s old container base. And that’s why repairing a hole in a piece of rubber has never been more important.

It’s a primal scream against a disposable world. All products are designed to become obsolete, from your iPhone to your rear cassette.

In my dad’s days, they were designed to last. Imagine if that happened today – millions of marketing people would be made redundant overnight.

That’s why it counts to occasionally unfurl your old, punctured inner tubes, pop open that beautiful little tin containing the glue, sandpaper, crayon and patches, and get your hands dirty.

It’s a statement of intent – ‘I won’t be dictated to by the fads of a shallow, consumerist society!’ – and a declaration of solidarity with the heroes of old.

Yes, Eugene Christophe may have been given a massive time penalty for daring to weld back together his own broken front fork on a blacksmith’s anvil during a Pyrenean stage of the 1913 Tour (his actual offence was to allow a third party to operate the bellows.

His not unreasonable defence that he had only two hands fell on deaf ears with Monsieur Desgrange), but it was a highly symbolic gesture that resonates today.

Video: Change an inner tube like a pro

Self-sufficient

The original ‘Convicts of the Road’, carrying tubular tyres around their shoulders, were expected to be fully self-sufficient.

No such fripperies as team cars, soigneurs and energy gels for them. Some of them, the independent touriste-routiers, even had to pay for their own bed and board during the Tour.

One rider, Jules Deloffre, famously performed acrobatic tricks at the end of each stage to be able to afford a room for the night (and still managed to complete seven Tours).

These may sound like quaint, extinct creatures from the pages of mythology, but they are more solid and lasting threads in the fabric of our sport than a carbon bottle cage or a ceramic hub bearing will ever be, and we should never miss a moment to honour their feats.

Dipping a punctured tube of butyl into a bowl of water and looking for the tell-tale plume of bubbles is the least we can do. It’s what Christophe and Deloffre would have wanted.

But there’s also a more contemporary reason for going to the trouble of patching up an old inner tube rather than simply buying a new one.

It’s applicable to riders like me who have the soft hands and smooth skin from never having done a day’s manual labour in their life. (The nearest I came to ‘a proper job’ was my nine months as a postman when I regularly rode a three-gear bicycle loaded with 16 kilos of Amazon parcels up and down a succession of rolling roads and driveways.)

For us, mending a puncture – one of the oldest and most superfluous rituals to survive in a world where everything from bikes to body parts can now be 3D-printed – is a rite of passage as important as passing our driving tests or sending our first email.

It’s a chance to use our hands and fix something.

All that effort hardly seems worth it: painstakingly locating the tiny pinprick where the air is escaping from; drying it; marking it with crayon and sandpapering the surrounding area; applying the glue and waiting for it to set; hooking the tube over your shoulder while trying to separate the tyre patch from its foil cover; applying patch to glue and removing paper lining without dislodging the whole thing; waiting impatiently – and never long enough – for it to set; then, finally and inevitably, having to start the whole process all over again because you either didn’t cover the entire hole or, shamefully, discover too late that the air is escaping from more than one place.

Yet I will occasionally submit myself to this ceremony. Not because I desperately need to save a fiver, but because to me it’s the equivalent of a caveman hunting and gathering.

It’s one of the few opportunities modern life offers me to prove my self-sufficiency – even if afterwards my kitchen will resemble a crime scene and I will never find that valve cap again.

Yet the net result is a primeval sense of triumph. I have used my bare hands to fix something that was broken. Something that didn’t work, does.

I have conquered one of the elements and imprisoned it in a rubber tube.

It’s my Eugene Christophe moment. I have metaphorically seized the blacksmith’s hammer and forged life back into something that was defunct.

For those of us for whom indexing gears or greasing hubs is a step too far, mending a puncture is as good as it gets.

My dad would be proud of me.

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