Few things are more dispiriting for the cyclist than a puncture – especially in the back wheel. A sudden, spongy vagueness in the handling is swiftly followed by the soul-sapping burble of metal rim and flaccid rubber on pavement, which sounds suspiciously like deep, mocking laughter. At best, you’re looking at lost time and some strenuous, messy alfresco toil; at worst, a long walk, or the ignominy of having to be rescued.
To observe and accept this turn of events without judgement demands a singular effort of will, the more so if it’s raining. (For me, acceptance comes after an involuntary exclamation of shock and disappointment, and a few good, deep breaths.) However, I’ve slowly learned that a flat can be a kind of meditation, and bring new and positive insights into the cycling life.
For instance, consider how amazingly frequently punctures don’t happen. In a typical year, I’ll get about three; an average of one every 90 rides or so. I’ll take those odds. A few millimetres of rubber stand between the precious, pressurized air that makes cycling possible, and the numberless sharp objects trying to rob us of it.
That these often unseen enemies succeed so rarely is almost miraculous – yet we take our tyres’ ability to repel them almost entirely for granted.
Meditation on a puncture
Prevention is, of course, vastly preferable to cure. We must be aware of, then avoid where possible, the flints, thorns, nails, potholes, raised edges, bits of glass and other agents of woe that await us. It’s to hear the distant whine and clang of the farmer’s rotary flail hedge cutter, and seek another way; to run good tyres, properly inflated, and change them if they’re cut, cracked or threadbare.
Above all, it’s to ride with eyes and ears wide open. And when (not if) the dreaded moment arrives, framing what follows as a meditation can draw at least some of the sting.
Removing a wheel is a chance to reacquaint ourselves with a bike’s vital components, which meld simplicity and robustness with intricacy and precision so elegantly that one can almost forgive them their grease and grime. It also reveals otherwise hidden parts of the frame; an ideal moment to inspect for damage or accumulated dirt to address at greater leisure.
Plus, we can appreciate anew the wheel itself – in engineering terms, the strongest structure ever invented, able to support more than 100 times its own weight, and resist huge lateral and torsional forces generated in accelerating, braking and turning.
Perhaps most importantly, dealing with a puncture restores a sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency we’re rapidly losing in today’s hi-tech world. Any automotive problem more serious than a flat battery usually means a trip to the local garage: similarly, if something shuts down or goes haywire in your phone, computer or washing-machine, it almost inevitably requires professional intervention.
A puncture is one thing we’re still able to fix ourselves, using basic tools and inexpensive parts we can carry with us. Sore thumbs, oil-stains and arriving home a bit later than planned are a small price to pay for the warm sense of self-sufficiency that comes from getting yourself and your faithful companion back on the road.
From disaster, triumph; from defeat, victory; from despair, hope and faith renewed.
The kindness of strangers
But not all of us have the tools, strength, aptitude or inclination to be our own mechanic. I dread flats on my vintage bike, since removing a wheel means entirely disconnecting, then reconnecting, the brakes (the hub gear too, if it’s the rear) and requires three separate spanners in three different sizes.
And most long-haul cyclists (myself included) can ruefully recall the day they suffered three punctures, having set off cheerfully thinking two spare inner-tubes would be plenty…
On such occasions, the bicycle prompts us to reach out to family and friends – or to trust in the kindness of strangers. In the time I spent waiting for my father to arrive with car and bike rack after a recent puncture on my vintage machine (thanks, Dad), two riders pulled over and offered their help.
Any cyclist worthy of the name will do the same, even if it’s just to hold your bike, pass you things and provide moral support while you put in the hard graft. Even in the cauldron of professional racing, riders will wait and allow a rival to rejoin the fray after a crash, flat or mechanical incident.
As cyclists, we are all part of a family of millions – and are also keenly aware that the situation may be reversed one day.
Punctures are an inevitable, if unwelcome, part of cycling. But regarded mindfully, they are opportunities for learning and growth, keeping us – literally – grounded, and in touch with the realities of cycling life.
Extract taken from Mindful Thoughts for Cyclists: Finding Balance on Two Wheels by Nick Moore; Published by Leaping Hare Press, RRP £5.99. Photography by Eric Kane, Abigail Keenan, Chris Barbalis and Alisa Anton on Unsplash.