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.