Every Day’s a School Day

March 2, 2022

You’d think that bike maintenance – and when I say ‘bike maintenance’, realistically I mean ‘fixing a flat tyre’ – would be a process of gradually improving and evolving skills. Given the number of punctures I get (hello, blackthorn), surely by now practice must have made perfect? Yet what it actually seems to be is an arms race between me and my bikes as I adopt increasingly ingenious measures to compensate for my mechanical ineptitude, and my bikes come up with increasingly ingenious ways to thwart my feeble progress.

Take, for example, this Monday. My new-to-me regenerated bike had developed a puncture on the way home from our latest adventure on Sunday. No problem: armed with my trusty tyre jack, the latest weapon in my flat-fixing armoury, I would have the wheel off, the hole found, and the inner tube patched in a jiffy, if by ‘jiffy’ we mean ‘about 30 minutes including swearing time’.

Tyre jack

Oh foolish me. Because as the new-to-me bike last had its wheels put on by someone with reasonably strong hands, and the wheel itself belonged to the old bike, with a rather old allen key fitting instead of a quick release (because one of the things I’ve learned along the way is that I don’t actually get on that well with quick release wheels), I ended up stripping out the the socket (or whatever you call the bit where you put the allen key) by impatiently trying to loosen the wheel. Gah.

On the plus side, another thing I have learned over the years is how to patch an innertube with the wheel in situ, and I’ve even got the time taken down to about 1.3 jiffies (those tyre jacks really do work, I can confirm).

As a sensible, responsible bike owner, obviously what I should absolutely not do next is leave the back wheel with its knackered skewer on the bike until such time as I really do need to get the back wheel off, probably somewhere very far from home on a day when the rain is travelling horizontally. So if anyone does want to make a helpful suggestion about getting the rear wheel off with a stripped out allen key socket I’m all ears. Other than ‘make it the bike shop’s problem’ of course.

I wonder what maintenance challenges my bikes will throw up next?

A Moment’s Silence, Please

November 21, 2021

Among the many other things on my after COP to do list has been a long standing item to deal with the damaged paint around my bike’s bottom bracket. I’d already had it checked at its last service to make sure that the signs of corrosion I’d started to notice weren’t anything too dangerous, and had been given a cautious all clear for now. But I wanted to make sure the frame would last so I picked up some paint for it, and this morning started by cleaning up the frame and taking off the kick stand so I could remove the flaking paint and touch it up.

Unfortunately, I found a bit more than I’d bargained for…

Bike frame with crack

Twitter, sadly, concurred

The consensus (in so far as Bike Twitter has a consensus about anything) is that the bike might be salvagable in the hands of a decent framebuilder (steel is real and all that) but for now it is not so much a bike as a death trap – if it goes, it will go suddenly and quite painfully for anyone on board.

So I’m left with a problem, or a number of problems. Whether I opt to get a new bike, get a new frame, or try and have the frame repaired, it’s not going to be a quick process. That means my main means of transport is now the Brompton, which is fine for heading into town and back (well, less so back, given I live up a sizeable hill) but I’m not sure I relish doing anything longer on it. Still, at least I have a good second bike so I’m not completely stranded (I did recently, out of curiosity, look at whether there was any usable bus to get me into town or back, and short of a three mile walk along a B road, there isn’t).

And then there’s what to do about my big bike. Just getting the frame repaired seems like the most attractive option right now. I don’t know anything about bike geometry, but I do know that the combination of that frame, my touring bars, and my Brooks saddle, I had something I could ride pretty much all day without any real discomfort. If it can’t be fixed, finding a similar frame, if such a thing can be found – and swapping over all the components would be almost as good and has a pleasing ‘my grandfather’s axe’ sense of continuity about it.

But then there’s the question of whether I really want to just replace my bike like for like. It has been suggested in certain quarters that it weighs more than a bike ought, and that there have been advances in technology that I might want to take advantage of, like brakes that actually stop the bike. I have long thought that my next bike would probably be an e-bike, but I was thinking that would be a decision I wouldn’t have to make for a while. I wasn’t sure I was ready to go electric, mostly because I know that once I do I would probably never go back. Although maybe after I’ve slogged the Brompton up our hill for a week I’ll be more than ready for any form of e-assist.

Either way, I am preparing myself for the fact that my bike – my faithful companion on so many adventures for over 12 years – may well have pedalled its last. It feels like the end of an era.

The bike the day I got it

Jacking it in

February 28, 2021

It is a well-known fact that any cycling purchase related to the ahem slight downsides of cycling life work a powerful but temporary magic: waterproofs, for instance, can usher in a few days of fine weather, longer if they’re really expensive ones, whereas we buy anything like sunscreen or warm-weather gear at our peril. And it seems the magic also works on the puncture fairy for it’s been a full two months since I got this Christmas gift from my nephew and I only had to get it out of its packaging today.

tyre jack

Regular readers will be aware that my cycle maintenance history is one long struggle with repairing punctures (and please, I’ve been blogging about this as a female on the internet for over a decade now, so you can be certain I have had ALL THE ADVICE I need on the subject, no, really, and that includes the video with the zip ties) and specifically the joy of the Marathon Plus tyre. Over time I have painfully learned how to get the damn tyres off (involves swearing), the importance of checking the inside of the tyre for what caused the puncture (and how to get an embedded Bastard Big Thorn out of a Marathon Plus tyre), the length of time you can let a slow puncture go without having to do the walk of shame home (N-1 days, where N is the number of days you will try and leave it for), the fact that sometimes you will have TWO holes in your inner tube, the need to wait much much longer than you think for the patch glue to dry (this is a good time to start looking for what caused the hole and then doing battle with the embedded Bastard Big Thorn), the fact that fixing a flat tyre is so much more civilised – and actually easier – inside in the warm rather than outside in the cold, and latterly the fact that puncturing a repaired inner tube while attempting to wrestle a Marathon Plus tyre back onto your wheel is the easiest way to break a cyclist’s heart and/or morale.

Which is where the tyre jack comes in. I only discovered such a thing existed last year after a couple of failed puncture repair attemptes, put it on my Christmas list, and today I got to try it out in anger. Or rather, I thought I would – the problem was that it came with no instructions – how you actually get a tyre back on with it is apparently self explanatory unless you’re me. I called the other half in to see if he could figure it out and then went to see if there was a helpful video somewhere on line.

I can confirm that the way a tyre jack works is that in the time it takes for the average YouTuber to stop talking about things that aren’t how tyre jacks work and get around to demonstrating how they do work, your less mechanically declined husband will have worked it out and got the tyre back on (this is in fact how all the best bike maintenance tools work).

Meanwhile, some friends have left a fresh supply of Bastard Big Thorns outside our front door: gooseberry bushes to be precise.

pots with gooseberry plants in them

I shall be planting them well away from anywhere I might be cycling. The tyre jack is neat and all, but it’s not magic …


January 15, 2021

After a week of work, grim weather and lockdown torpor I finally had an excuse to get on my bike today – meeting a friend for some outdoor exercise, fully within the lockdown rules (at least at the time of writing). The forecast was for it to be as decent as we could hope for in January: dry, relatively unwindy and not as bastarding cold as it’s been recently, so we grabbed the opportunity while it lasted.

foggy weather and trees

Unfortunately, while still within the letter of the forecast, the weather that greeted me this morning was not really in the spirit of ‘decent weather’ in that it was extremely foggy (and indeed, stayed that way all day) as well as a bit icy underfoot. Fortunately my ice tyres had no problem with the slippy stuff, but (as I’ve mentioned before), switching to my winter wheels means losing my hub dynamo so I had to take an improvised approach to fitting the Brompton’s front light onto the big bike, having not left enough time to switch the bracket over properly.

Bike light mounted onto other bike light using rubber bands

Amazingly, this worked, which is far more than I deserved.

Half fallen tree in forest, with snow
Snowy track and murky fog

Anyway, duly lit and shod, the bike and I made it safely to our rendezvous, we had a lovely and rather atmospheric (if less than scenic, in the sense of being able to see any actual scenery) walk and a natter, and just as I was moving the bike to head home we heard the ominous clatter of something that sounded important falling off the bike and found a sheared bolt.

After some head scratching about what it could possibly be, and even whether it had come off my bike at all (not to put too fine a point on it, it didn’t look either filthy or rusty enough to belong to my bike), I checked the moving parts over carefully, found nothing obviously loose or hanging off – and then attempted to mount my bike only to discover it had been the tensioning bolt of my Brooks saddle.

sheared off bolt

This made for an … interesting five-mile ride home, attempting not to put too much weight on the partly unmoored saddle. I’ve put a fair few miles into my bike’s saddle and I didn’t want to damage the leather if I could help it, as it’s reached sofa levels of comfiness.

Old saddle
Brooks in happier times. If anything, it has become even more hammock-like since

Anyway, Twitter has confirmed that this is a known thing with Brooks saddles, that a replacement bolt can easily be purchased for a fiver, and that fitting it requires much swearing and the sort of mechanical ingenuity that someone who can’t even work out which way round her tyres should be put on (even when there is an arrow on the tyre to show her) is ever going to muster. So although I have ordered the bolt, I will be taking it and the saddle down to the bike shop as soon as it arrives. Some things are just best left to the professionals.


September 29, 2020

I suppose I should have guessed when I got my back wheel off, tyre off, whipped on a new inner tube, and got it all back together again in record time on Saturday that I was riding for a fall…

Rewind to Friday afternoon, when I had decided to tackle the slow puncture in the back wheel which had been evident for a week. Being a grown up cyclist who doesn’t ignore problems in the hopes that they will go away *ahem*, I felt that showing up for our first group ride in six months with a tyre that needed to be pumped up every morning was a bad example, so I gritted my teeth, took off the back wheel and brought it inside and surprised myself by taking less than an hour to fix the puncture, even though it did take me two patches and much cursing of the declining quality of puncture repair kits in this modern throwaway age (or possibly it was user error – you all knew you weren’t supposed to peel the plastic film off the top of the patch, right?) and/or my increasing impatience with the glue drying process. I wasn’t entirely happy with the resulting repair but thought I’d got the tube air tight, got the tyre back on with a minimum of fuss and … woke up on Saturday to a flat tyre again.

By this time I was out of patches and out of spare inner tubes for that wheel (because for reasons which have got lost in the mists of time I have a front wheel which takes Schraeder valves and a back wheel that takes presta valves and even though I’ve since replaced the back wheel and specifically asked the bike shop to sort this out I still do) so I pumped up the tyre again in the hopes it would hold and cycled down to the bike shop to buy a new inner tube and a sheet of patching material, only having to top up the air once, cycled back, and efficiently swapped inner tubes before my afternoon coffee had got cold.

Of course what I hadn’t done was my normal test ride (essential whenever I’ve been anywhere near the bike with any sort of maintenance attempt) so when I set off on Sunday for the ride, my bike was doing the sort of ‘badum badum badum’ thing that suggests a wheel that is not perfectly round (there’s a pedestrian and cycle bridge in Bigtown that has been surfaced in such a way that it does the same thing, and you can tell if someone doesn’t regularly cycle over it by the slightly worried expression on their faces as they try and work out what expensive thing has gone wrong …). A quick inspection revealed that I had not properly seated the tyre at the valve so I sorted that out, happily escorted some families around the back roads and byways of Bigtown, cycled home, and was greeted the next day by a completely flat tyre…

No problem – by this time I’m a dab hand at getting wheels off and tyres off (if not on) so off comes the back wheel, tube inspected and it’s a mess (really, don’t ride on a poorly seated tyre, it’s very bad for expensive new inner tubes) and after two patches have failed to sort it out I revert to the old inner tube which I had been meaning to repatch and keep as a spare. Which is now, mysteriously, holding air again … (does the Puncture Fairy have a helpful cousin the Patch Fairy, who recognises when a cyclist is at the end of her tether, and slips into bike sheds to fix things?).

So that is now on the bike (with the other half’s help to get the tyre reseated) and was fine this morning and fingers crossed that it will stay that way at least until the next Bastard Big Thorn comes along. In which case, I might just revert to my previous tactic of keeping the thorn in place and pumping the tyre up every morning because honestly, it seems more effective than my efforts to sort things out properly have been to date.

Only another five months of hedge-cutting season to go …

Never Mind Self-Care …

January 6, 2020

dirty bike
… time for some bike care.

I had absolutely no plans to go anywhere by bike today but I did have some bike-related business to take care of. It’s been a wet and muddy autumn and winter so far and in recent weeks my bike had crossed the border from ‘showing that I’m not a fair weather cyclist’ to ‘active bike neglect’. This is not just the superficial matter of surface muck – I’m not that fussed whether you can tell what colour my bike is or not, but I do know that a little bit of attention to the drive train would undoubtedly make the bike work better and probably reduce my maintenance bills to boot.* I did go through a phase of at least running a wet wipe round the chain and re-oiling it every so often (and yes, I know about wet wipes but I put them in the bin, not down the drain) but somehow that has fallen by the wayside as I come home wet and tired and decide that the bike can probably wait. I know, it’s a terrible way to treat the one you love …

Anyway, yesterday my comeuppance came as I realised that not only was my chain looking a bit neglected, but that it had actively started to seize up making it almost impossible to oil the damn thing without three hands – it wouldn’t let me turn the cranks backwards to run the chain around the mechanism so I was reduced to holding the bike saddle with one hand, pressing down the pedal with the other, and wheeling the bike round in a big circle to get the chain back onto the ring. Naturally, having got enough oil on to get the bike going again, I took it out in the rain and the muck and then chucked it back in the garage unwashed. So today, I made amends, and in a gap in the rain, gave it a good wash and properly cleaned and oiled the chain.

cleaned bike

A quick test run suggests it’s still long overdue for its annual service but at least it won’t be embarrassing to take it into the shop. Although given the continuing state of the roads and the forecast, I expect it won’t stay looking respectable for long.

How often do you clean your bikes?

* In another life, I’d be regularly measuring the chain wear – probably during its weekly cleaning and oiling, haha – and replacing the chain so as to avoid wearing out the chainset quite as frequently as I do now but I’m not in that life now and if I’m honest I’m not sure I ever will be.

Testing, Testing

November 28, 2019

I have to admit that the last few days have proved testing to my commitment to making my bike my main mode of transport. It’s not just been the rain, or the dark, or the cold, or the fact that I have three evening engagements this week, one of which involved climbing back into my still damp things and heading out back into the rain and the dark only a couple of hours after I had arrived home – but if they’re giving out climate-saving medals, I would like one for that, please. No, I think the low point came yesterday evening as I was heading to New Nearest Village to find out more about the Coonsil’s declaration of a Climate Emergency.* Just as I crested the hill for the downhill run into the village (the topography of New Nearest Village somehow manages to be uphill in all directions, coming and going), my chain fell off. As it was pitch dark, I discovered the downside of having an amazing hub dynamo set up – that you can’t then point your wonderfully bright (even when stopped) but firmly attached front light at any part of the bike to sort it out (yes, yes, I know, you all carry spare lights for just this contingency). I was reduced to waiting for passing cars – not to stop and offer help, but to shine enough light to briefly work by. After about the fourth four-by-four had raced past (I’m going to assume not on the way to the climate meeting, but you never know) I’d managed to free the chain with a minimum of swearing and even managed to make it to the meeting without transferring any chain oil onto my face, which is a first.**

There are upsides too, of course, she says hastily. Mainly when the rain stops and it’s late enough that it’s just me out there on the road, with the odd owl for company. Or – as happened on Tuesday night – a Hercules lumbering slowly overhead at what felt like chimney height. I actually experienced a temperature inversion as the air warmed as I climbed out of the fog in the river valley and up our road. It doesn’t *quite* make up for foolishly choosing to live on a Cat 3 climb, but it is something to have your school geography lessons actually brought to life.

Tonight it’s my final social engagement of the week (well, my writers’ group) and I’ve only got a lift on the way home, so it will shortly be time to tear myself away from the fireside, find the least damp of my pairs of gloves, and set off again into the cold and the dark, saving the planet one bike ride at a time.

I hope the Coonsil appreciates me doing my bit.

* Actually slightly less greenwashy than I thought it would be, but they would appear to have a slightly different definition of ’emergency’ than most people.

** At least, if I did, nobody mentioned it.

Winter Ready

January 30, 2019

This was the scene that greeted me as I stepped out this morning – and with a meeting to go to, there was no question, it was time to get the ice tyres on the bike again.

ice and snow on road

Despite my love-hate relationship with bike maintenance and my general inability to do anything bike-related quickly (and that includes riding the thing), I did have the weird sensation this morning of actually feeling as if I knew what I was doing. Not only did I efficiently take my tools out of my saddle bag before I’d turned the bike over (top tip!) and remember where I’d put them down, get the wheels on and off with a minimum of fuss, remember to check they were centred and running freely before tightening the bolts, and smoothly adjust the brake pads, but I also took the opportunity to clean and oil the chain and give the bolt on my Brooks a turn or two while I was at it (although I’m still not 100% sure I’m turning it in the right direction because nowhere does it say which way you need to be facing when you decide if you’re turning it clockwise or not). This sensation even survived the discovery that I’d efficiently put the front wheel on the wrong way round, despite having a 50% chance of getting it right AND carefully comparing it with the back wheel before doing so. Indeed, such are my spatial skills, this might actually have reduced my chance of getting it right than if I had left it to chance.

winter ready bike

Suited and booted

This strange sensation lasted approximately 10 minutes, whereupon I suddenly couldn’t turn a pedal and my first thought was ‘oh what have I done to it NOW?’ Fortunately this turned out to be the chain getting snagged on the bolt of my rack because the cogs at the back are slightly closer to the chainstay – a problem, but not actually one of my causing. It means I may be down to just four gears but the two I can’t use are the top ones, so it’s survivable until the current icy weather eases and I can go back to my normal wheels.

sun through winter trees

Meanwhile, I’ll just carry on enjoying the sparkly weather and the all but deserted roads and the unaccustomed feeling of mechanical semi competence. We have to take our satisfactions where we find them, these days.

frost and fog ahead

Let the Record Show …

December 29, 2018

…That I have successfully patched the slow puncture on my bike – something that involved removing and replacing a fairly new Marathon Plus tyre (and by ‘fairly new’ I mean ‘replaced this year’ – I like to get my money’s worth out of a bike component). Not only that but I did it with a minimum of swearing, sighing and looking around for A Man To Help. In fact, the tyre was actually the easy part (I may have been watching a few YouTube videos on the subject) – the difficulty came in getting the back wheel back into the dropouts and (embarrassingly) trying to pump the wretched thing up again afterwards. The other half did wander past at that point, heard me muttering something about why presta valves are even allowed to exist,* and beat a tactical retreat. The whole thing still took an hour, but that did include the whole ritual of waiting for the glue to get almost dry on the patch and washing approximately half a kilo of mud out of my mudguard.

Anyway, it doesn’t exactly count as ‘getting the hang of bike maintenance’ in 2018 but it has at least convinced me that I’m not going backwards. Next step – the unassisted roadside repair. Hopefully not any time soon though …

* despite explicit instructions to the bike shop to the contrary, I still have one wheel with a schraeder valve and one wheel with a presta valve although someone has now shown me how to turn my bike pump inside out so it can handle both kinds. I’m still unconvinced that whatever benefits there are to a presta valve are worth their tendency to just dump all the air out of the tyre in an instant if you look at them funny while detaching the pump. But no doubt there’s a YouTube video that will enlighten me…

Squeaky Wheel

October 15, 2018

So, one of my aspirations for this year was to get better at bike maintenance, which – unlike my other aspiration of regularly baking sourdough bread which is going swimmingly – has not progressed markedly beyond some vague and, as it turned out, unfulfilled plans to get some practice at taking my Marathon Pluses on and off my wheels. Today though, which was as fine and still and sunny a day as anyone could hope for in October, I took advantage of a gap in the work schedule and the nice weather to at least clean and re-oil my chain prior to riding down to fetch the paper.* This, I hoped, would sort out the intermittent squeak which had developed when I was pedalling with any sort of determination, and hopefully also the fact that the last time I’ve been out with the other half I’ve been badly dropped on all the hills.

Oiling done, I set off with the the light heart of one who has done a necessary chore and, more importantly Not Ignored a New Noise and who will shortly be enjoying the silkiness of a smoothly running drivetrain on her bike. Whereupon the bike started squeaking again, and now not just when pedalling hard. By the time I’d got to the bottom of the hill, it was now squeaking more or less all the time, so I got off and investigated a bit more thoroughly. Front wheel spinning fine and silently, back wheel spinning fine and silently, brakes clear of the rims, no sticks (or kittens) stuck in any of the spokes. Weird. Back on the bike, squeaking resumes. Eventually, I look again at my back wheel and discover that it is in fact skewiff and almost resting against the chain guard. With the bike unloaded, the wheel was spinning fine, but once I was on it and pedalling it was pressing against the frame, hence the squeaking. This, in retrospect, might go some way to explain my speed wobble the other day, which is also a little reassuring.

Now this is an easy problem to fix, one even I can do – but that’s when I also discovered that I have lost the allen key I need to loosen the wheel and reseat it. After a brief tussle between laziness (top tip: when your bike develops a New Noise, investigate at the top of the descent not the bottom) and common sense (the only thing worse than a New Noise is a Worsening New Noise), I have a stern word with myself and turn around and pedal, squeakily, back up the hill, raid the other half’s allen key collection and straighten the wheel.

sunshine in October

Still – there were worse days to have to add an extra 3 miles or so onto your ride down for the paper. And, in related news, I have discovered that a bike gets one hell of a lot easier to pedal when its back wheel is on straight. More findings from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious as they emerge.

sunny road

* and, er, lunch, as the sourdough bread baking schedule had broken down somewhat after a weekend away in Duns.