"Ride Interrupted", or "There She Blows Again"

bandit-march-001The mercury cleared 50 degrees in my Minnesota city just before the sun broke through the hazy sky. It was early afternoon and a breeze blew lightly from the west. The road called, so I put away my lawn rake and pulled on my riding gear.

I tossed my camera backpack in my Givi top case with the intention of taking some photos. It fit nicely and wouldn’t slide around too much. In my tank bag were some maps and a first aid kit along with a tire gauge and other resident gizmos. I had been refreshing my memory on the use of my tire plug kit that morning, and had grabbed it off the counter on my way out the door. I tossed it in the tank bag and slid the GPS unit into its cradle. I only planned on riding a few hours in an area I know fairly well, but sometimes it’s nice to know where you ended up for later reference.

By the time I was loaded the sun was out and strong. I had gotten overheated pulling on my riding pants, jacket, boots, gloves and helmet. Time to generate some cooling effect with speed. I rolled out the alley and headed west and north toward the only respectable twisty road in the area. It was about a half-hour away, and I cruised toward it on county roads in a relaxed mood, taking in the sun and the air. The bike hummed smoothly and powerfully below me. It was good to be on it.

I passed through the town that marked the start of my destination road and turned east. I soon realized that I’d turned too soon, and was riding another straight county road between farm fields. This was not what I’d come for. Feeling adventurous, I turned north again on a gravel road, hoping to intersect the other. The bike’s street tires jinked and squirmed on the loose surface, but I kept a relaxed grip on the bars and rode it out. Gravel isn’t so bad if you let it do its thing.

bandit-march-002I came upon a rare summit in a generally flat region. A radio tower with a decaying shed beneath it stood off to my right as I passed. Something told me that it might offer a good photo opportunity. I eased to the side of the road and through a u-turn. I took a few shots and rolled back down the two-track access road, continuing on gravel.

Soon I encountered a narrow, paved road running east and west. I recognized it as the one I had planned to take earlier. I eased over the sand that had been pulled from the shoulders by pickup trucks and rolled on the throttle.

Knowing I’d shortly come upon some very tight 90 degree turns, I studied the condition of the pavement to assess the available tire grip. It appeared gray and rough, like it had recently been sealcoated. Strange, since that would’ve had to have been done before winter. The loose material should’ve been driven off by now. Even stranger was the presence of frequent tar “snakes”, apparently over the top of the sealcoat. It didn’t make sense, but feedback from my tires convinced me that this was the case. Loose pea gravel made my tires wiggle just a tiny bit as I worked the handlebars. I took the first 90 with due caution.

Something was wrong. The questions about the sealcoat poked at my mind. I eased through one more corner and saw a stop sign ahead. At the same moment, another possibility came to me. Tire pressure. I had never experienced a flat on a bike before, but I had felt a very soft one after one winter’s storage. I pulled off the pavement at the stop sign and put my sidestand down on the road’s edge.

I dismounted and walked to the back of the bike. One press of my thumb on the tire cleared the whole matter up. It hadn’t been sealcoat on the road but was just the winter’s leftover salt making it look gray. My thumb dented the tire a good quarter inch, which it didn’t do with 36 pounds of air pressure in it. I had a flat.

A sudden thought prompted a little smile behind my helmet. I had remembered to throw in my plug kit. I was experiencing a mechanical failure, but I was prepared! This was actually going to be fun. I idled across the intersection to where a building sat just off the highway. There was a small section of pavement where I could work. I shut the bike off, pulled it onto its centerstand, and took off my jacket, gloves and helmet. The sun was warm, but a cool breeze raised goosebumps where my shirt was damp with sweat. Ahh, spring!

Across the road a number of adults and a few children talked and played around a fire in an old barrel. They glanced over from time to time, but none approached. Apparently I looked as though I had the situation well in hand (or they just didn’t care). I spread out the plug kit on my jacket and went to work, not needing the instruction card thanks to my morning practice with the tool. In five minutes I had a plugged tire. I used the four CO2 cartridges from the kit to fill the tire with about 20 pounds of air. It would be enough to get me to a compressor. A little dab of saliva on the plug area confirmed that the seal was good.

By this time a couple and their son had come over to what turned out to be their home. It looked like a converted fuel station, but was now apparently a residence with an asphalt lawn. As I packed up my tools, the woman said to her son, “It’s a nice bike but, heh-heh… ours is niiiiicerrr.” She drug the last word out as if to indicate that this went without saying, even though she had. I just listened and kept picking up tools. It was obvious she was really talking to me. “It’s nice, though,” she said about my machine. Perhaps sensing that I didn’t appreciate her conceit, she had tried to recover some of it.

Her husband picked up her cue and told me how their bike was up north, but there was still too much salt on the roads. It was pretty nice, though. In my mind, my eyes rolled. I had little doubt that this was a “Harley family”, the type who believed that a Harley Davidson was the pinnacle of motorcycling excellence, and that everything else was below it a notch or two. I also suspected that they probably tried hard to get a few hundred miles in each season, but only on the sunniest days, and not when it’s too cold or too windy. You don’t want to get your chrome dusty, after all.

I responded simply with, “Yeah, but a bike’s only nice when you’re riding it.” He mumbled in agreement and they wandered away. I stood up and walked over to where they had congregated with the other adults from the fire gathering. “Are you folks from around here?” I asked. “Yeah. This is our place,” the woman said, pointing at the converted gas station. “Oh, ok,” I said. “Does anyone have an air compressor?”

Another guy said he did, and he’d go turn it on for me. I grabbed up my gear and rode across to his shed. He was friendly. He said he thought my bike looked nice and asked about its fuel economy. He told me his wife had been on exactly three rides in her life before they were married, each of which ended in crashes. That was why he didn’t own one. I suggested that maybe she had simply chosen the wrong men to ride behind. He thought so, too. I thanked him for the air with a handshake and pulled on my helmet, proud that I’d conquered adversity with such ease.

A few miles further I pulled off and checked the tire. The pressure was where I’d left it, so I rode on, stopping once for a photo. I had no reason to think the plug wouldn’t get me home.

It didn’t.

About an hour later I pulled out onto a road from a stop sign and felt the bike whip sideways under me. I had cockily disregarded the leftover winter sand that lay in a ribbon across my path. The driven rear tire spun immediately and shifted a foot to the left. Had the sand patch been wider, I almost certainly would’ve gone down. As it was, clean pavement caught me and I rolled out without issue.

As I accelerated around the next bend, I felt a familiar wiggle. I pulled over and swung off the bike. A kick to the rear tire confirmed my suspicion. Perhaps the jolt on the sand had broken the seal, and now the plugged hole was leaking. I recalled how the puncture looked like a tiny ‘Y’ rather than a single dot. It must have been more of a cut than a single point. At any rate, I was stranded. I had used up all my portable air for the repair. I had conquered adversity single handedly, but the victory was short-lived. Out came the mobile phone.

“Hi, honey. I need a little help.”


Author’s followup: After removing the tire for replacement, I discovered that I hadn’t seated the mushroom plug fully. It was protruding into the tire about 1/2″. Had I pulled a bit harder and snugged it against the carcass it likely would’ve sealed the leak nicely.