The Frustrations of Bicycle Maintenance

Entrance to the Winterhude Stadtpark

Author’s Note: I desperately wanted the title of this post to make a reference to the famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, one of the many books I have not yet read. But given the actual events I am going to relate, I felt it disingenuous to imply any relationship to the state of Zen. Hey, I may be a small blog, but this blogger has ethical standards!

A tranquil early morning sun, bright and warm as a fond memory, lit the grounds of the spacious Winterhude Stadtpark. Just less than a month ago I had my bike tires changed and it is with the accompanying Enthusiasm for New and Shiny Things that I set about exploring the sparsely-peopled grounds. A ride this early (and, frankly, even earlier) is something I have long since planned; unfortunately, given my predilections to staying up late, you will understand why I needed some extra motivation to even be riding here.

Again, I don’t really see myself as a cyclist—bikes are transport first, exercise second—but these new tires just improved my relationship to cycling. I immediately noticed that uphills are ever so slightly more bearable and I objectively became faster too. Just when I thought I would no longer get the satisfaction of breaking a personal record in Strava, I go ahead and improve my record in a particularly thrilling sector of my usual route by a stunning 10 seconds and that’s without even trying, on my very first ride with the new tires.

Of course, I might’ve also become fitter than last year. But I really want to think it’s the tires. After my elbow is well enough to ride my bike again, I wouldn’t even try to go fast in my stock tires as they were looking all the worse for wear.

Planetarium Hamburg

It did not matter to me that only my tires (and, well, pedals) were new; I rode around the Stadtpark, maneuvering my way around dirt paths with hardly any worry. There were barely any people in the park this early in a Saturday and I could do laps to my heart’s content. My new tires—Schwalbe Marathon Plus—had been nothing but a pleasure and, at the moment, I knew I had quite a budget of rubber to burn through. Not that I had any particular need or desire to do so. I decide to descend towards the pond, a central feature of the park, and ride along the edge because it’s a beautiful morning so why not?

My mind focused on navigating the short but rough downwards incline, I notice flecks of shiny green in the dust: shards of a broken bottle. I panic, knowing they could cut my tires but it’s too late to change lines. I ride over the broken shards, prepared to dismount immediately if my tires deflate. Thankfully, they don’t. I let the downhill momentum exhaust itself before finally dismounting to inspect my tires.

Visually, they look fine. I squeeze on them, time honored test of whether you have a flat or not, and they are as firm as when I picked them up from the bike shop. They even survive the trip home and have no issue at all in my usual Thursday rides to my Kickboxing classes at Zanshin Dojo.

One thing I’ve made a point of in the last two years is to never waste the sun. As a newcomer in these northern latitudes who arrived in the transitory months between spring and summer, I found it nice, cordial, but odd, when coworkers would end meetings with the pleasantry, “Enjoy the sun”. Having lived in a tropical climate until then, it never occurred to me that in other latitudes, fall and winter can be depressingly dark.

I mean, I’ve read books. I’m not an idiot. But it still hits differently when you live what you’ve only read about.

Admittedly, this simple pleasantry has become an imposition lately, underlined by the pandemic lockdowns as well as the fact that Hamburg’s weather does not exactly make for ideal and pleasant summers, the kind that would make bards wax lyrical about beauty. So when the sun is bright and shining outside, you go out, no two ways about it.

And so it was the case the Saturday following my Stadtpark excursion. I did not really have any plans but the sun was ripe for a ride. So I get dressed down and go down to my apartment’s bike cellar to get my bike. I notice that my rear tire is flat. Not worrying as I have an air pump, let me just go get it.

I notice that it is flat big time.

I notice a big gash at the edge of the tire.

And just like that, my pleasant weather Saturday nonplans turned into a couple of hours in my apartment’s basement trying to rescue a damaged tire without the proper tools. This was an eventuality I should’ve prepared for but did not. I regularly watch GCN but, for all the enthusiasm and good will they project about biking, all their daily drivers cost four-figures in Euros, at least. Their video about changing your bike tire, for instance, tells viewers to use the quick-release lever on the wheel. My wheels, do not have quick release, Si. It would also tell you to press a button on your breaks to open them and give your wheel clearance. Yup, another thing my venerable but humble bike, The Adventure Time, does not have.

Note: I like GCN. Their content and explainers are welcoming and not condescending to any skill/interest level but Park Tools’ library of content has been far more useful for me. Park Tools’ channel covers what GCN lacks for as a consequence of their fancy schmancy Pinarello frames and Shimano group sets.

I know that the DIY mindset has a certain association towards sustainable and frugal living but one thing I find often overlooked in this movement is the fact that you still need a certain amount of capital to get started doing repairs on your own. Before you can use whatever is just lying around, you first need to have a few things (or more) lying around. There’s no pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Tools and spare parts don’t grow on trees.

If I may digress for a bit into the world of computers, this is what I found so puzzling about the design of the Raspberry Pi, especially the earlier editions. It featured solely an on-board HDMI display port which made it incompatible with any of the monitors I had access to in 2013, and I was already working in the industry by then. Sure you could use adaptors but, first, you need to find adaptors!

Maybe, the touted cost-efficiency of DIY repairs depends on the item you want to repair. A spool of thread and some needles to patch up a pair of jeans is very accessible, easy to learn/use, and, yes, leagues cheaper than buying a new pair of jeans but for basically anything beyond that, you’d need tools, spare parts, as well as some training, all of which have a considerable upfront cost. Not to mention, hurdling that barrier does not completely preclude the possibility of failure.

(Ironically, what I really like about Software Engineering is the relatively cheap cost of mistakes. You can’t CTRL+Z a Civil Engineering miscalculation.)

As such I have learned to repair things in the least invasive manner to begin with. The best fix in the world is the one that does not call for disassembly. Alternatively, why fix the hardware if you can compensate for it in software?

So imagine my dread at being faced with a repair task that is pure hardware and has no uninvasive option. That tire and inner tube would need to be replaced. Heck, the wheel itself needs to come off at least.

But first I needed tools.

I already had a small 15mm wrench that I tried to use on my pedals a while back, for unrelated reasons. I bought it because it was cheap but unfortunately, this taught me the hard way what makes good tools. Small and cheap meant little to no leverage. I was unable to remove my pedals with it.

So I needed a wrench with sufficient leverage.

And speaking of levers, apparently there’s a very special type of tool called tire levers that you use to unseat a bike tire from the rim. I also needed that and I managed to order this small item from a local bike shop online that very night. This provided me with some comfort in my distress because I don’t remember seeing this tool in any of the bike shops I occasionally visit.

Naturally, tools are useless without the spare parts. I needed to buy tires and inner tubes. Despite the premature failure of the Schwalbe Marathon Plus, I took the events to show that this particular tire managed almost 20km on borrowed time. That sounded like a nice feature so I decided to stick with it. Not to mention it would bother my meticulous self endlessly to run two different types of tire in my bike, let alone different brands.

The Sunday that followed was uneventful but for this exact reason I was annoyed. I have long since learned that there is no situation that I detest more than those in which I feel helpless. So long as I can struggle against something, I can find a certain peace, a certain satisfaction that my fate is not completely out of my hands.

Waiting is not a struggle.

Monday arrives. I visit this nearby bike shop for the first time because I am certain they have the exact tires I am looking for. I buy a pair of tires and a pair of inner tubes because I was certain I’m going to fuck up at least once. At this point, it also does not hurt to have spare supplies at hand.

Tuesday arrives. The tire levers I ordered online should arrive tomorrow. I visit BOC, perhaps the largest bike shop in Hamburg, and I finally get myself a pretty hefty wrench. If this does not remove the damn nut, I don’t know what will. I also see a set of tire levers and, despite having ordered a set already, I buy it anyway.

That turned out to be a good decision.

I return home and immediately my Feierabend is dedicated to replacing my rear tire.

Engineering

It was frustrating.

I’ve already related how much I value my self-sufficiency in living as a stranger in a strange land. I take a certain pride every time I complete a conversation in German, no matter how short, no matter how imperfect I sounded, because like Python, I learned German more or less completely on my own. But for the first time, as I was in the common garden of my apartment trying to swallow my frustrations at reinserting the damn tire, I dearly wished I had someone to teach me.

It started to rain and the tire is still not properly seated. I hurriedly gathered all the separated parts and brought them back inside the basement. I already feel like I failed to take care of my belongings when I saw the tire damage last Saturday but now I have to leave The Adventure Time broken and vulnerable and in the basement’s darkness, no less. Undeterred, I decided to bring the half-finished tire upstairs inside my unit and continue working on it; thankfully, I had the good sense to clean off all the gunk in the gears before I even removed the damaged tires.

So, in my apartment, over a small makeshift work area of newspapers I picked up for unrelated reasons several weeks back, I continued my thankless toil. I have no idea how it eventually came to pass but sections, arcs, of the tire started to seat firmly on the rim. I get the idea to use my tire levers to help me in the process; this will turn out to be a mistake. But at least, in this Tuesday night, I have an accomplishment.

Wheel

Behold, the first tire I ever attached myself. It’s the IKEA effect speaking, I am well aware, but what a beauty!

Inflated to a little over the minimum pressure required, I am satisfied with my handywork. I even still had time to go downstairs and reattach it properly to The Adventure Time. That night I slept with the peace of mind that I did not leave The Adventure Time in a vulnerable condition in a dark basement.

Now, English has this curious expression for disappointment, “to burst someone’s bubble” which sort of compares a person’s happiness to a bubble (or if you are J.K. Rowling, a balloon) the bursting of which is the equivalent of dismay.

The following morning, I go down to check on my bike on a whim. That Wednesday morning, my body still sore from yesterday’s exertions, the bubble was my bike’s rear inner tube and it burst overnight.

With the first stage of grief imposing itself on me in that cramped and dirty bike cellar, I tried to inflate it in vain. There is an audible exhaust of air; the tire would not even take form. I take a deep breath through my nose, the way we were taught to stay composed in Taekwondo. My lungs fill with air in a way my rear tire won’t. I exhale, my head clearing just a little bit. The faster I process my grief over this setback, the better it will be.

Wednesday is typically my grocery day for no particular reason than, well, it’s a pretty day to pay for things at the cashier. I would usually walk to the grocery at around 7PM (that’s 19:00 for you in European) be done in less than an hour and by around 8PM (or 20:00), I will be done sorting out my groceries, taking out my trash and I’ll be settling down to read a book or watch Netflix. But not today, no no no. Having done all my chores for the day, I pick up my orange toolbox and a LED lamp and proceeded to disassemble The Adventure Time once more.

This time I worked faster. I removed the inner tube and inspected the damage. The rupture wasn’t difficult to locate as it was exactly on the longitudinal fold of the tube, around a centimeter long deflated—a tell tale sign that I simply messed up my first attempt and pinched the tube between the tire and the rim. Knowledge from research suggests that this would commonly happen if you use tire levers to reseat the tire into the rim.

So this time, I perform this arduous task with a hard embargo on using my tire levers. It was still frustrating and took some time but, despite the restraint I exercised, I definitely accomplished the task faster this time around. I worked with the assurance that it can be done and I did not mess up the measurements of the spare parts I bought.

The rubber neatly attached, I proceeded to inflate it. I have no excuses for the decision that follows other than (a) I’m a software engineer, not a bike mechanic and (b) I am just tired at this point but I inflate my tire to just below the recommended pressure. I decided to attach it and leave it like so overnight, reasoning that if it does not burst until morning, there are no pinches and I will proceed to inflating it to the recommended pressure.

Thursday arrives, that one day in the week where I actually have a destination to bike to; it’s the usual day I attend Kickboxing lessons. Eager to see the results of my experiment, I go down to the bike cellar to see that the tire has, yet again, deflated.

At this point, replacing my rear tire has transformed from a challenging little DIY excursion into an imposing Sisyphean task. My body is weary and my mind is frustrated. Once more, as yesterday, I give in to the sweeping wave of denial, my mind even venturing as far as exploring the possibility that it is, after all, not my fault. Perhaps dictated more by desperate delusions than sound reason, I tried to inflate my tire, as I did yesterday.

And what do you know, this time it actually holds air! Unlike yesterday, the tire actually takes form at least for a few seconds. There was a distinct jet of air emanating from it—it was still not rideworthy—but this was definitely an improvement over yesterday. When you are desperate, you take your wins no matter what form they take.

Thus I found myself with a crucial decision to make: do I attempt another inner tube replacement and risk riding that to Zanshin Dojo that same day or should I go to Kickboxing class by other means, heck maybe even cancel for the week?

There is probably an Economics or a Game Theory textbook somewhere using this exact scenario as an example of risk evaluation. So far I have proven to be a shitty mechanic and it is unwise to take a 9km ride on a bike repaired by someone with my track record. This does not seem to be a hard choice to perform rationally.

Alas, you are reading my blog, not an Economics or a Game Theory textbook. I have so far outlined how a series of suboptimal decisions has lead me to this predicament, this holistic exhaustion, starting with choosing a travel line across a downward slope. What’s another suboptimal decision in this story?

This is how I ended up dedicating a portion of my lunch time that day buying inner tubes from that nearby bike shop I went to last Monday. I buy not one, not two, but four spare inner tubes. I disassemble my bike once more, this time setting it aside in a convenient nook in the basement as I take the wheel to my apartment.

Our tale nears its end and I don’t want to give the false impression that I facilitated the decisive turn of the plot by myself. Again, this blogger has ethical standards. Tutorials from GCN and Park Tools having failed me, I ask YouTube’s search as if it is human, “how to avoid pinching inner tube”, which, for all the clout this blog can give a link, has lead me to this video from a certain Tony Marchand which suggested that (a) I powder the inner tube before I place it in and (b) a check to perform before I inflate the tire to minimize the probability of a pinch flat.

This time, my body has already synthesized a technique for the nail-bleeding task of reseating the tire to the rim; the whole process took me maybe 40 minutes, an indisputable improvement over my first attempt last Tuesday. The tire neatly fitted, I performed the test Tony Marchand’s video suggested. Passing that, I then proceeded to inflate my tire, this time with no half measures.

Satisfied that it is already well within the recommended operating pressure, I proceed to test it even further. Through all the disappointments, I was just thankful my mistakes manifested while the bike was at rest and not while I was riding it; QA Testing could quite literally save me another accident. So I bounce the inflated tire off my floor several times. I squeeze it, hit it lightly with a knife-hand chop. I let it stand in a corner for a few hours before I finally re-attach it to The Adventure Time.

Back in high school, one of our teachers has remarked that our class had a tendency to perform a dry run test simultaneously with the first (and only) performance of a class production. In line with my belief that everything is practice until it isn’t, I pack my bags for my Kickboxing class as The Adventure Time waited in the basement.

With a little over half an hour to go, the lines distinguishing a dry run test and a first outing blur once more as it did all those times in high school. I lightly kick the rear tire for luck before I mounted The Adventure Time. The first few moments were nothing but tense. So far, it has held my weight. That is encouraging.

“I am not Lewis Hamilton,” I repeatedly tell myself as I pedal. It has become a sort of mantra which I believed would save me another inconvenient accident and especially so today. On red lights I try to glance at my rear tire, noting every bit of deformation, especially on the part where it made contact with the road.

Pressing my brakes for a terminal stop in front of Zanshin Dojo’s makeshift outdoor gym, the tire I replaced has just survived its first 4.5km. And it’s still looking great.

After the first 4.5KM

Coda

It is Friday. Yesterday’s Kickboxing went fine except that I could definitely feel my exertions even for the most basic of techniques (writing this in retrospect, this is definitely the exhaustion from the whole week showing itself). I could at least take pride that I pushed through even when I was gassing out; you don’t improve from easy sessions.

I am standing in front of a DHL Packetstation. I scan this small note I just retrieved from my mailbox. For some mysterious reason, DHL could not deliver the tire levers I ordered online to my doorstep. So here I am, trying to sign my name on a cheap unresponsive touchscreen interface.

Though tired and without a goal in mind, I decide to ride out. It’s what cyclists would call a recovery ride. I have another purpose in mind though: despite having survived the back-and-forth trip yesterday (and has even broken the record set by its predecessor by 2 seconds, again without me even trying), I am still not quite confident with my work’s reliability. I reason that it had better fail in a controlled environment, rather than be caught by surprise when I least expect it to.

I ride to that nearby park where, last year, I observed the Comet Neowise. It has gravelly paths, comparable to those at Winterhude Stadtpark. I do a couple of laps and notice that the rear brake feels different. I wouldn’t classify it a hazard—I still get to a complete stop—but the bite is weaker than I remember. I make a mental note to learn how rim brakes work.

Still tired but satisfied, I ride back home. It is cloudy, portentous, perhaps, of next week’s weather. But through the clouds, a beautiful sunset just couldn’t hide itself.

Sunset

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