The Age Old Battle, Tim Dawson (2009)
First published The Sunday Times 27 July 2009
My legs had just hit that ecstatic point when they feel like they could carry on pedalling forever. The delicious hum as I tore over the tarmac provided the counterpoint to the rhythm of my thighs. I had reached that moment when my bicycle becomes natural extension of my body. We were as one, flying over the road’s surface.
And then there was a wobble beneath; a squirm, and an unexpected shudder transmitted though the frame. I pulled to an abrupt stop to hear an angry hiss. The pressurised air that a moment ago was the very wings on my wheels, was now bubbling away thanks to a tiny flint embedded in the tread.
I started to perform the timeless ritual: bicycle upside down, wheels in the air; tyre levers, prizing the rubber from the rim; roughening around the hole and then applying the glue – and then the five minute wait for the glue to dry sufficiently for the patch to instantly adhere.
A moment for reflection.
No mistake, it’s infuriating when your tyres spring a leak. The repair is always more flesh-scrapingly fiddly by the roadside. Your muscles cool and stiffen as your hands get covered in murky deposits. But worst of all, your roadside performance provides succour to those who disdain bicycles ‘because they couldn’t stand the punctures’, or maddening well-wishers who enquire how you cope with an unexpected flat?
But there is another perspective. And even as big raindrops started to splash around my upturned bike, it was this that warmed me.
Repairing anything today is subversive. Pay a visit to your nearest municipal tip if you doubt me. Washing machines, televisions, lawnmowers and bicycles are, skipfull-by-skipfull, relegated to landfill – many having been scarcely used.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to see that shopping is a phenomenon increasingly detached from actual need. We acquire more and more things, without ever really using them. After the thrill of purchase, it is all too easy to lose interest in your possessions – a mechanical problem causes us to cast them aside forever.
Repair shops have disappeared from most high streets. Goods are absurdly cheap and frequently don’t lend themselves to mending; meanwhile the skilled labour needed to coax anything back from mechanical failure is prohibitively expensive.
None of that applies, however, to inner tubes. The maddening need for, and process of, fixing a puncture has changed little since the arrival inflatable tyres in the 1890s.
But transform your useless flat-tyred mount, into one on which you can complete your journey, and you truly make that bike your own. In that moment, a journeyman traveller becomes a master of the road. Turning base metals into gold might make you a rich – but mending a puncture is a site more useful if you don’t want a long walk home.
It was that act of magic on which I tried to dwell as I pressed my wooden legs into action again. That, and the relief that since the advent of Kevlar tyres, such alchemy is very infrequently required these days.
Note: this version is slightly different to that which The Sunday Times published