In praise of… fix­ing punc­tures

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

Cyclist - - First Person - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy TAPESTRY

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.

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 steep 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.

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

The dark art of suc­cess­fully re­pair­ing a punc­ture is a homage to the pi­o­neers of our sport, who didn’t have team cars, me­chan­ics or spare bikes

Fix­ing a punc­ture is a lot of ef­fort for not very much re­ward. But it can save you a fiver

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