Thursday, November 29, 2007

Flat disaster

Date: Nov. 28
Mileage: 29.1
Hours: 2:30
November mileage: 691.4
Temperature upon departure: 30
Rainfall: 0

Well, I'm back from my camping experience, sans camping experience. I was feeling a bit despondent last night about the way in which I failed, failed before the cold settled in, failed before the darkness tightened its grip, failed before the lonliness gnawed at my sanity, failed before I had to gather water or eat food or even pull my sleeping bag out of its stuff sack. I failed. But it's a pretty funny story. Here's what happened.

I set out into the darkness with the evening rush hour traffic, swaddled in my best cold-weather clothing and hoisting what I estimate to be about 55 pounds of obese bicycle, food, water and winter camping gear. I was styling. A commuter passed me as I was climbing a short hill on the bike path, and then looked back as if to inquire whether I was going to give him chase. Excuse me? You try commuting with the necessities of life.

But the night settled in clear and cold, quickly dropping into the 20s, and I felt amazingly good. Better than good. I felt fresh and strong, like I had to hold myself back just because I didn't know what hardships lay ahead. All that energy conservation left me as relaxed as if I was at home sitting on the couch, and I was toasty and happy, a bit overdressed as I was. It seemed like no time at all had gone by, though it had in reality been about two and a half hours, when I felt that mood-plunging bouncing in my rear tire. Flat.

I pulled off to the side of the road and began to undo my set-up, pulling out the repair gear that I really didn't think I'd have to use. I had never bothered to practice changing a tire on the Pugsley (I know, not smart.) After wrestling with the wheel for about 10 minutes I finally just unbolted the caliper of the rear disc brake. I learned later that I have no choice but to do this anyway (curse you, Surly, and your horizontal dropouts!)

Tire off, I realized that the tube had snapped at the valve, a circular, unfixable hole (probably caused because I inflated the tires to full pressure before I left, after running them 15-20 psi for the past several rides, they were then up to the maximum 30.) So my Surly tube was history. I went to work installing my spare, which is a regular mountain bike tube, rated for tires 2.1"-2.5" (Endomorph tires are size 3.7") But I'd heard this works fine from credible sources. So I set it in place, took out my tiny hand pump, and pumped. And pumped and pumped and pumped and pumped and pumped. Fifteen minutes went by like this. I took breaks to rest my arms. I felt my fingers slowly losing circulation, estimating it was about 20 degrees out by now, and I had been trying to fix a flat with my bare hands for 45 minutes. One car went by in that entire time. They stopped to ask if I needed help. I said no.

So I pumped and pumped and pumped. And progress was being made. I was beginning to feel much more positive. Then everything deflated very quickly, literally. As the gush of air poured out of the valve, I screamed. No! No! No! No! All my hard work, torn asunder. I tore off the tire and squinted at the tube in the low light of my headlamp. A circular tear at the valve. I had managed to do the exact same thing. Two unfixable flats. No more spare tubes. (Geoff and I have probed the valve area extensively. We are still unable to figure out what made that happen twice.)

I began to assess my situation. I had a flat tire I could not fix, which meant I could not ride. But I was only two or three miles from my camping destination, and I could walk there if I needed to. But then I would only be stranding myself into the next day, when Geoff would be at work. I was out in the boonies. I had been out there one hour. I had seen one car go by.

As I mourned my bad luck and stupidity and everything else that left me in the bind I was in, another car went by, and kept going. Not a huge surprise. I don't expect everyone to stop. I got up and began to put my bike back together. I had seen a spattering of cabins along this road, and figured if I walked toward town, I would not have to walk more than five miles before finding someone who would let me use their phone. Just as I was doing this, a car approached me. It was the one that had passed me five minutes earlier. A woman stopped. "Do you need help?" she said. I asked her if she had a cell phone. "There's no reception out here," she said. "But I live a half mile down the road. You can come use my phone. I'll make you some tea."

By the time I arrived at her house, she had already brewed up some wicked good Chai, called Geoff, who was not home, and left a message explaining my predicament and whereabouts. We talked for a while. Her name was Rebecca and she once lived in Fairbanks, and now lived in a cabin with her husband on the outskirts of the Juneau Borough. Her husband was in Anchorage. She had rented a movie to pass the cold night away, "Hairspray," and asked if I wanted to watch it with her. I did.

We laughed and giggled at the silly movie like girlfriends, sipping our tea and making jokes. I found out she once toured cross-country on a bicycle, and she did a fair amount of skiing in Fairbanks, and she told me, before I set out on the Iditarod trail, that I really need to read "To Build A Fire." I also need to learn how to change a flat, I remarked.

Geoff arrived shortly after the movie ended. His timing was perfect. I thanked Rebecca for her unconditional generosity and we set out into the cold night. The night was still not without its casualties. I had torn two tubes, broken the mount to my headlight, lost one of the bolts to my brake caliper, accidentally left my sleeping bag at Rebecca's house, and managed to completely wreck my first winter camping bicycle experience before it even started. But when all was said and done, it wasn't a bad night. I walked out of it laughing. And I will try again. Oh yes, I will try again. And when I do, I will be one flat experience wiser.


  1. I've lost a bolt in the past on my surly because of the brake arrangement.

    I'm not sure what happened to the tube, but have a look around the valve hole and see if there's a sharp edge.

    You could try fitting a small peice of old tube with a hole in it over the valve before you put it though the rim so there's extra rubber there.

    And, finally, you're carrying a shed load of kit already, perhaps you could get a proper sized pump, which would make pumping up tyres about 3x quicker, or co2 cartridges *not sure how they'd work in sub zero temps though*

    When's your next attempt?

  2. Good for Rebecca, and good for you too. A new friend is worth a lot of flats.

    Was it John Waters or John Travolta?

    I like them both.

  3. That Rebecca is amazingly nice. So not everyone who picks up hitchhikers is the Zodiac, eh?

  4. It occurs to me that I always seem to meet the most amazing people when I'm on my bike, stranded or not. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. That reminds me, I need to practice taking my Endomorphs off and putting them back on.

    Concerning the vertical drop-outs. I contacted Surly to find out what kind of brake caliper mount I needed to buy because I couldn't get my wheel off without loosening up the caliper. I discovered what you did, I have the right mount, but I still need to loosen the caliper everytime I want to remove the rear wheel. I love my Pugsley, but it's those moments when I covet Dave Byer's Wildfire with it's "normal" drop-outs.

    Sounds like it wasn't the trip you had planned, but was a valuable and injury free learning experience.

  6. Jill, you should learn how to build a fire, and I'm sure that all of your 2N friends would be more than happy to teach you how - however Craig may be the closest one to actually do so. And I looked at your assortment of power bars. You need to try Lara bar and your life will be transformed.


  7. When you use a small hand pump, you have to be especially careful not to pull on the valve as you're pumping. As you pump, the valve basically gets pulled against the hole and cut. Use a floor pump at home, and as someone else suggested, get a full size, high volume frame pump that delivers more air per stroke when riding. The other thing that may be causing this is the tire/tube are slipping on the rim. I've seen loose beads run at low pressures do this. The tire/tube turns independent of the rim and cuts the valve. The solution is to apply some tubular glue or contact cement to one (and only one) bead to prevent slippage (make sure you remember which bead is glued and change tubes by removing the other bead).

  8. Telford has a great point about damaging the valve stem when using pumps that attach directly to the stem. Especially with a tube the size of the Puglsley's. I use Topeak Roadmorph pumps because they have a long flexible tube that attaches to the valve stem and you won't damage the tube when you use this pump.

    Sounds like things turned out okay and you had a good time despite the set backs.

  9. Too bad your night didn't go better but it'll make you more prepared when it really matters.

  10. Just another idea and not one I have tried on a Pugsley so YMMV.

    A thin coating of talc on the tube stops it getting dragged round with the tyre if the bead slips and helps avoid ripped valves.

    Running Presta valves in Schrader drilled rims with the little rubber reducers also works well...not sure if you can get presta Endomorph tubes though!


  11. Alaskans are special because of stories like that! I love it! Cool.

  12. What a great experience! I dare say I'd never experience that kind of hospitality down here in Georgia. I'm sorry your camping trip didn't work out as planned, but you definitely had some awesome karma wafting your way.

  13. You are less likely to flat on snow, but I heard tubes can freeze in extreme cold. Motorcycle tubes might work.
    Shifting the rear derailuer to the smallest cog helps when removeing the rear wheel. The caliber bolts do not need to come out just loosened enough to move the caliber. Probably a blessing in disguise. Good leanring experience.

  14. Jill,

    Lots of good advice on here. I also have horizontal drops on my Surly KM. If you position the brake caliper perfectly, you can pull the wheel out without loosening the bolts. However as one person said. The caliper does not need to come off it just needs to be loosened a tiny bit so it can slide around.

    There are some mini pumps that "act like" a floor pump. They work very well. I would not trust CO2 in extreme conditions, PERIOD. I would carry two pumps on a ultra-experience. I have had mini pumps break many times.

    Awesome learning experience!! You do a great job of staying positive.


  15. It appears you are running presta tubes. Be sure you use the nut that comes with the tube. This helps the valve stem not move around while pumping. The rubber reducers work well if rims drilled for Schrader.

    I'd also opt for a larger pump. Whats a few more ounces.

    Keep up the good work!!!!

  16. I'm pretty shocked that you haven't read "To Build a Fire." Definitely a must.

  17. I have a wheel that likes to do that to my tubes, and the edge doesn't seem particularly sharp. Sharp enough though, obviously, so what I did was tape some electrical tape over the hole in the rim (on the inside, over the rim tape), then just punched the valve through the hole. The electrical tape gets pushed in, coating the edges, so more popped tubes. Has worked really well.

    Good luck!

  18. when you bring a stove its really easy to start fires, even just for fun... the cops love it.

  19. You can download "To Build a Fire" onto your iPod from iTunes. I use this to teach it to my class. Cool story.

  20. I agree with Vik - I have that topeak pump and it saved my ass in remote western australia after so many flats. Being able to use that pump on the ground makes a world of difference.

  21. Another ageement to change to Topeak Morph Pump but get the mountain version. I broke too many valves on pumps without flexible hoses, and they pump faster. Fast enough that I could do away with the big floor pump at home.

    Long ago I spent a winter in central Alaska. Two weeks it was -40. I had several problems.
    1.The sleeping pad froze stiff and broke unrolling it. 2.Sandwhiches froze unless next to skin. 3.taking gloves off to do something you only have a minute or so. What your plans for that?

  22. I agree that it was great seredipity to meet Rebecca. She and I meshed really well. It's wonderful when bad situations work out so well. But I'm surprised how often people stop to help here in Juneau. I think there may be comradery in living in an isolated outcropping of civilization. We feel like we're all in it together.

    And thanks for all the good advice on the tube situation. Full-sized pump, check. I actually carried the little one because it fits right inside my coat, which is where I've been advised to keep important plastic things that I don't want to break (not that it would break in temperatures in the 20s, but I was testing how it felt.) Anyway, I should probably start carrying the little one in my coat and a full-sized one in my camelpack. And maybe more than one tube. Probably worth it. It sucks being stranded by a flat tire.

    I actually did read To Build A Fire, once, back in high school. I'll have to refresh sometime soon.

    Mzungu, interesting thoughts. I have never before heard of a sleeping pad actually breaking. I'm really hoping to use an air matteress, which may cause some of its own problems. I continue to research gear.

    As for your other questions, PBJ sandwiches taste great frozen. The spaces next to my skin and probably for more important things like a lighter and bike pump, but I'm sure I'll stuff cliff bars below my coat as well.

    I also need to learn how to change a tube in gloves, pump up the tire, feed myself and set up camp. I still need a lot of practice.

  23. I think living in remote areas definitely would make me more likely to offer help. Honestly, here in NC if someone is walking a bike down the road they just have a long boring walk ahead of them, or at least a walk to the next house. If I drove by someone in remote AK I would certainly be thinking "wow...he/she could die out here!".


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