I signed up for a bike maintenance class because I wanted to be able to fix my own problems. Or at least those you can tweak with a basic Phillips head screwdriver, a canister of grease, and pair of plastic tire levers. I wanted to learn how to care for my chain, change a flat, and adjust my brakes. Eventually, I aim to learn to true my wheels and build my own – acts of ungodly patience and time.
I took the course at The Bike Kitchen – a San Francisco nonprofit run by bike enthusiasts, mechanics, and newer riders like myself who share a garage space with tools. The idea is that you can build a bike from scratch using new and recycled parts. Not that I am actually going to do that. I just wanted to be able to be my own hero in case of emergency. Because no one else is going to.
At the beginning of every class you lift your bike onto a rack where it remains suspended at eye level. There is something about staring at the pink Schwinn that is your bike and noticing for the first time the flecks of dirt on the seat stay, the pieces of hair and debris wound around the back hub, the hints of orange rust staining your chain – and acknowledging that there are some things you both need to work on.
From the first class I knew I was going to like learning how to maintain my bike even though I remain terrible at it. Trust me. When the three teachers surround your station while the other eight people in your class are happily motoring along it is not because you are the star pupil. Still, I was sold when my instructor Alex began the first lesson saying: A patched tube is as good as a new tube.
Although I know he was only talking about a $5 piece of rubber, for some reason I smiled when he said that. Perhaps it’s because sometimes in life it’s easier to think new is better. Is stronger. That what is new won’t fail you. Not like your old tube. You forget that it, too ,will get old. Take you down the wrong roads. Get you lost. Slip when crossing train tracks. And spray you when it rains. That it, too, will become routine. And eventually let you down.
It’s easy to forget the days and rides it did not. You won’t remember all the moments it made you feel like you could fly. All the moments it showed you something beautiful. With $5 you can just replace it and move on. Or. You could spend 20 minutes and examine what went wrong. Separate the tube from the wheel and feel the tire for a hole. Search for the scar and try to piece things back together. Salvage what remains.
Starting over is easy. Salvaging requires you find out what failed in order to address the problem properly. You must investigate the tire to make sure nothing sharp is still caught inside. You need to check if there is a corresponding hole in the tube. You do this by pumping it back up. Once inflated, you have to note where the hole is and pay attention. Because once flattened, the puncture is harder to mark. It can leave you second guessing and pull you back to the pump where you need to fill the tube back up and listen for the air to talk back, listen for where it hurts.
Once the puncture is located, you scratch over the hole with sandpaper. You do this so the patch has something to cling to. You do this to prep the surface to make it stronger. Afterward, you cover the hole with a thin glaze of vulcanizing fluid. Next you wait for it to dry until the liquid loses its sheen. Then place a clean patch over the spot and press. Good as new. Except exactly the same. Just reinforced. And ready to go out adventuring with you again.
In the end I couldn’t pump my tire with the 100 psi required to run efficiently. Once I hit 60 psi, I was only pushing myself off the ground, my feet dangling over the pump’s pressure gauge. One of the volunteers looked over and laughed.
“This is where you get your boyfriend to help,” he said.
Wrong. That is precisely why I am here, I answered.
Alex came over and told me other women had difficulty with that same pump in the past.
“I think it’s a girl thing,” I said.
“No, I think it’s a tough thing,” he said. “I know a lot of girls who are stronger than me.”
And that comment made me smile too. Even as he pumped the remaining 40 psi into my tire.