Sep 30 2014

Swapping Tires and Changing Tubes Made Easy (Well, Easier, Anyway)

I don’t get many flats, so about the only time I have to change tubes is when I swap my utility bike’s Conti Town & Country rubber for my Innova Tundra Wolf studded tires. And because I get so little practice, I neglect two fundamental steps in the process almost every time I do the job: (1) I forget to deflate the front tire before starting work, and (2) I fail to release the cable on the linear brake. The result? I can’t get the wheel off. It doesn’t take me long to put things right, of course, but I reached a point where I didn’t want to continue repeating these two blunders. So I made a checklist to guide me in future. Here it is:

Size Matters  All inner tube are not created equal, and I recently discoverd that, although I’d been carrying a correctly sized spare tube for my Surly Long Haul Trucker’s 26-inch Alex wheels, the tube had a Schrader valve, not the required Presta valve. Luckily, I made this discovery at home, not 50 miles down the road. Had I gotten a flat somewhere back of beyond, and had it been impossible to patch the tube, I would have faced a long walk back. Why? Simple. While it’s possible to fit Presta valves in rims drilled for Schraders, you can’t squeeze a fat Schrader valve through the hole for a skinny Presta, and my rims are drilled for Presta valves.

Valve Comparison

Don’t Forget to Loosen the Brake Quick-Release  OK. This isn’t rocket science, I know, but I find that I almost invariably forget to do it, especially if more than a couple of months has elapsed since I last removed a wheel. But at least it’s an easy oversight to correct.

Brake Release

Deflate Before Removing  Not a problem if you’ve just had a flat, obviously. But easy to forget if you’re swapping a tire. Skinny tires usually slide through the gap between brake blocks easily—if you’ve remembered to loosen the quick-release, that is—but fat tires often bind.

Glove Up  This is most important if you’re working on a rear wheel. Chains and cogs are dirty, and you’ll be handling both. The grime doesn’t stay put, either. It will quickly transfer itself to your bars, shifters, and clothes. A pair of vinyl or latex gloves keeps your hands (and your clothes) clean. Carry them in a sandwich bag with a square of paper towel. When you’ve finished the job, just wipe the gloves with the towel, peel them off your hands (wiping them first minimizes the amount of grime transfered to your fingers in the process), and then place both gloves and towel in the sandwich bag for disposal at home.

Shift Into High Gear  When you’re working on the rear wheel of a derailleur-equipped bike, things go a lot more smoothly if you shift onto the small cog before you remove the wheel. (It often helps to be on the small chainring, too. This isn’t a combination you’ll want to use while riding, but it gives you the greatest amount of slack to work with when removing the wheel.) Once you’ve got the chain on the small cog and loosened the wheel’s quick-release, just ease the derailleur cage back out of the way with one hand while pulling the wheel free from the dropouts with the other. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but as with most things, practice makes perfect.

A Little Puff Will Do You  When you’re ready to fit a repaired tube or a spare on a wheel, give it a couple of puffs with your pump first. Don’t overdo this, though. You just want the tube to have a little shape.

Alignment is Critical  When inserting the tube, make sure the valve is perpendicular to the rim. Then make certain it stays that way as you inflate it.

Don’t Pinch!  It’s best to mount tires on rims without using levers. And never allow any part of the tube to be trapped between the tire bead and the rim. (There’s no better way to get more practice fixing flats.) To make sure that everything is as it should be, squeeze the tire sidewalls toward the central well and eyeball the junction between tire and rim on both sides—before you begin inflating the tire.

Give 'em a Pinch All Round

Easy Does It  It’s best to inflate a tire just enough to hold its shape before replacing it in the dropouts. Finish the job only after you’ve tightened the axle quick-releases. Wide tires often won’t fit between the brake blocks when fully inflated, even if you do remember to loosen the brakes fully. Then you’ll have to let almost all the air out, fit the tire, and pump it up again. This isn’t a happy prospect if you’re 50 miles from home. Just ask Farwell. He had to go through the whole drill two times, halfway into a century. (He says he’s a slow learner.)

Pump It Up Just a Little

Weighty Matters  After you’ve fitted a new or repaired tire and inflated it, loosen the axle quick-release just a little and put your weight on the wheel. Then tighten the quick-release again. This seats the axle and centers the wheel between the brake blocks. Done? It’s time to…

Put It to the Test  Close the brake quick-release, lift the bike, and spin the wheel. It should rotate freely, without rubbing on brake blocks or frame tubes. If it does rub, however, just loosen the quick-release and re-center the wheel. Everything OK? Then…

Pack Up  Tuck the sandwich bag with your grimy gloves away in jersey pocket for later disposal. Roll up the leaky tube and stick it in another pocket. (You can patch it later and reuse it.) Look around to make sure you haven’t left anything—pump, water bottle, tire levers—on the ground. Now…

Roll Away  You’re good to go. But be sure to test your brakes before you need them.

Bike Lots!

Home Front  When changing tires back at base, take time to clean the hard-to-reach places. I run a clean rag between the cogs of the freewheel or cassette, as well as scraping any gunge that’s accumulated around the gap between the freewheel and the axle.

Clean Gear Cluster

I also wipe off the hub and spokes, and clean the dropouts. And while I’m at it, I check the cones for excessive play or binding, making any necessary adjustments. If I feel grit in the hubs when I spin the wheel while holding the ends of the axle, I know it’s time for an overhaul. Oh, happy day…

Check Cones

A word of warning: I wrote up this checklist to help me avoid mistakes I’ve made in the past. It’s not intended as a comprehensive guide. The best way to learn the art of fixing flats (or changing tires) is to do it under the watchful eye of a competent mechanic. And it’s a skill every cyclist should acquire early on in his (or her) career. You can’t call AAA for help if you get a flat on the road, can you? So you’re on your own. Luckily, that’s the way most cyclists like it. For us, every day is Independence Day.

Bottom's Up

This article was originally published, in slightly different form, on January 11, 2011.

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Sep 29 2014

Bike Monday for September 29, 2014: Scat!

Rural byways have many hazards — the longitudinal cracks that some wag christened the “valleys of death,” sharp-edged potholes deep enough to bend a rim (or send you over the bars), and (of course) the much-cosseted family pooch, running free and looking for a cyclist to sink his teeth into. But there are other things on the road, as well, things that, while not dangerous in themselves, serve to warn of trouble ahead. Like this bear scat, for instance. I came across it near a heavily laden wild apple tree. It was obviously fresh, and I could see that it was full of partially digested apple.

That was enough. I bore bruin no ill will, and I certainly didn’t want to disturb his meal, so I didn’t linger.

What Do Bears Do in the Road?

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Sep 27 2014

What Happened to Main Street? A Cyclist’s Perspective

If you read the editorial pages of small-town America’s local papers or scan the websites of rural chambers of commerce — an exercise that will appeal to only a tiny minority of masochists, I’d imagine — you’ll encounter a lot of conspicuous lamentation about the decline of Main Street. The villain is usually the latest big-box store to pave over a wetland just outside the town limits. Or else it’s the Internet, that deadly Web spun by corporate spiders for the sole purpose of entrapping innocent citizens in its sticky meshes. If these evil forces didn’t exist, Main Street would be free to flower once again. Or so the boosters’ argument goes.

A mischievous critic might be tempted to ask why the feckless locals abandoned their friendly, accommdating Main Street merchants to rush off to the big-box stores and online retailers in the first place. Lower prices played their part, of course, as did convenience. How many working couples really looked forward to spending half their weekend trudging from shop to shop in search of the necessities of life — and paying through the nose for the privilege, into the bargain? But this certainly wasn’t the whole story. Anyway, it’s much too big a question for me to tackle here, now or ever.

Instead, I’m going to look at a single case study: Myberry, the little college town where I do much of my shopping. Or where I would do most of my shopping, if (1) the shops sold what I need to buy (it may seem strange, but I can go for years without feeling the urge to buy a bong, a scented candle, or a hand-dipped chocolate truffle), (2) I could afford the prices for the few everyday necessities that are still offered for sale on Main Street, and (3) I could find a place to park. Mind you, there are plenty of parking spaces to be had. But they’re for cars, not bikes. And I do a lot of my shopping on a bike. (Yes, even in winter.)

Here’s one example of the way the local business community welcomes cyclist-shoppers:

Abused and Chained

This interesting piece of surrealist art occupied a prominent place on Main Street for days — in front of a bike shop, no less. It reminded me of the “Here Be Dragons” tag that medieval mapmakers occasionally placed at the edge of their mappae mundi, as a warning to any traveler foolish enough to contemplate exchanging the security of the known world for the dangers of trackless, uncharted lands. Or maybe the bike shop owner intended it as a tribute to Salvador Dali. In either case, the display smacked more of warning than welcome.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t have to be that way. When I was still a girl, and my parents were weighing the pros and cons of opening a roadside restaurant, my grandfather offered this sage advice: “If you give them a place to park, they’ll come.” He wasn’t thinking about bikes, of course. But his advice should nonetheless be heeded by any business hoping to attract cyclists as customers. Give us a place to park — and something more than scented candles and bongs to buy — and you’ll see us shopping on Main Street once again.

I’m waiting for Myberry to recognize this, though I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, it should be said that not all of small-town America is clueless. Even some big cites are coming round. Communities from Portland, Oregon, to Schuylerville, New York, are shining examples of what can be done to encourage two-wheeled travel — and save Main Street from itself, as well.

Will Myberry and others like it heed the clarion call? Who knows? But until they do, don’t expect me to feel much sympathy when the next round of hand-wringing over the “decline of Main Street” begins. The gods help those who help themselves, after all. Give us a place to park and we’ll come. Or not. The choice, ladies and gentlemen of the chambers of commerce, is yours.

Anthony T. Jancek Snow Parking



Further Reading

This article was originally published on March 26, 2013.

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