by Jet McDonald
A slow puncture is like a stilted sigh. Down on my knees I pumped my exasperation back into the tyre with a rusty pump. Again and again it deflated. Being in the middle of the desert I had no handy buckets of water and had to rely on inflating the inner tube and gobbing on dodgy-looking spots to look for bubbles. After the third repair I gave up and spent the next 100km back on my knees every half hour. Later examination in a hotel room revealed three tiny nicks made by the wires that explode from old truck tyres. Puncture maggots.
Before I started my adventure, cycling to India, I had been led to believe there were such things as “puncture proof” tyres. “So and so” had ridden to Australia with only one puncture. “So and so” had cycled across Africa without so much as a single patch, I was reliably informed.
“So and so” had either been cycling on silk or had been super-lucky. No tyre is puncture proof, merely puncture resistant. Tyres, like human beings, wear down. I met a guy at a hostel who’d weathered seventeen punctures in one go when he’d wheeled his bike off road in Turkey. He went on to pull out 72 thorns from his tyres (when you have that many, you count them all). The poor guy had been cycling on pencil-thin racing tyres, but it proves my point that the menace of the puncture persists, and insists.
A friend of mine, Steve, took his trusty racer out for a jaunt in the English countryside, got a puncture and then discovered that there were no patches left in his repair kit. Walking his bike home for twenty miles he was not happy a man. He then discovered his best friend Susie had borrowed his puncture repair kit, used the last patch and then replaced it in his saddle bag without telling him. Steve and Susie had a blazing row which preceded them becoming lovers, moving in together and finally becoming married. All this was caused by the minutest intrusion into the feather bed of air that carries us aloft. Bicycles offer the possibility of simple, direct travel. But when a puncture thwarts that promise we end up ranting at the wayward vagaries of fate, the bike and ourselves.
The simple answer, of course, is always to carry a new puncture repair kit and stop being such a pansy. Indeed many riders now carry a spare inner tube and some even resort to those ghastly disposable compressed gas cylinders for instant inflation. But need the thorn be so vexatious? Can we learn to love the puncture and cherish those little puncture repair kits? Those kits, a consistent reminder in a hundred years of cycling, from boneshaker to carbon forks, of a bygone self sufficiency?
This I pondered on a long desert road as my bike deflated beneath me. The answer was Stoicism. In modern parlance the word “stoic” has come to mean “unemotional” or “indifferent to pain”, but the ancient Greek Stoics, a school of philosophy, did not wish to extinguish emotion, rather transform it through calm reasoning. Seneca, a Roman stoic, and one of its clearest thinkers, puts it thus in his essay “On Providence [i.e. will of the gods] – why any misfortunes befall good men when a providence exists”:
“I do not maintain that man is insensible to externals but that he overcomes; unperturbed and serene, he rises to meet every sally.”
Easier said than done you might say, particularly when you have a puncture in the middle of nowhere and it’s dark and it’s raining and your cocoa’s going cold back home. But for Seneca this process of transforming emotion and overcoming adversity was not an instantaneous process, but came gradually through accepting the inevitability of misfortune.
“Prosperity unbruised cannot endure a single blow, but a man who has been at constant feud with misfortunes acquires a skin calloused by suffering.”
I’m not saying here that all cyclists should go around with nasty welts on the tips of their fingers, but that if we start to accept punctures as being an inevitable part of cycling, that if we start to accept them not as problem but as an inevitable part of cycling, like oiling a chain, they cease to be such a disturbance. Consumer society and the service industry seek to sell us the idea that we needn’t have to deal with discomfort, that everything can be planned for, that even the future, fate, can be bought for a price. Hence puncture-proof tyres, puncture-proof “slime”, CO2 gas canisters. But if you accept from the start that punctures will happen, that they are not a problem but part of the solution of cycling, they become less burdensome.
The more punctures we get, the more we repair, the more we become better at repairing them, the less anxious we are about them, the more self reliance we achieve and more “clear reason” we develop. This “self sufficiency” is one of the magical things about cycling. The modern car demands, with its interlinked electronic components, that you take it to a specialist, who does everything for you and gives you a bill at the end. The car is emblematic of a service industry that makes you relinquish control. But when we are in control we are most self sufficient, most happy.
This is a mighty claim to make for the humble puncture repair kit. But that puncture repair kit only represents what we might be able to do if we embrace the minutiae of discomforts that make up our lives and take control of them, rather than expect someone else to sell us the solutions off the shelf.
When I first started cycling long distances, I was petrified of punctures. I hated it when twenty minutes before dusk and far from a safe place to camp I felt the jarring bump over a metal rim over stone. But now I have repaired so many they feel like a familiar scratch. I jump off the bike, dump the bags, flip the frame over and get on with it, and in fifteen minutes, mostly, I’m done. I’m proud of myself, I repaired the puncture, and I get on with cycling. Having accepted that punctures are part of the road, the road itself becomes less threatening.
“By regarding future possibilities as certainties he softens the shock of disasters which cannot disconcert men prepared and waiting”.
Mending punctures is in danger of acquiring the aura that darning socks has now attained, a dowdy old throwback to the past and post war dreariness. If only we could recognise that it is the very self sufficiency of fixing our own kit that makes it so attractive.
“What is the happy life?”, Seneca concludes at the end of his life. – “Self sufficiency and abiding tranquillity”
Perhaps I am getting too idealistic here. But the concept of self sufficiency has been a driving force in the cycling movement, and its power shouldn’t be underestimated. “I really felt the bicycle could be for the world’s cities what the spinning wheel was for Gandhi”, said John Dowlin, a 1970s bicycling activist. Gandhi used the emblem of the spinning wheel to suggest his countrymen could create the fabric of their own lives; they could be self sufficient beyond the machine of the Raj. John Dowlin was angling that we can create our own way through the car-clogged cities and reach for a more self-determined future.
Bold hopes, and you could argue it is trite to force such ideals onto the simple bike and its humble puncture repair. But if we don’t learn to maintain the transport of our own lives, to own our difficulties, then those tiny problems will start to own us, and that will not help us ride into an uncertain future.
Words and images (c) Jet McDonald, 2016.
Jet McDonald Crowdfunding his Book “Mind is the Ride”
An Adventure through Cycling and Philosophy
In Association with Boneshaker Magazine