Tour de Failure

Here’s the cycling story The Big Issue ran a few weeks back under the headline Tour de Flat. (#540 30 June to 13 Jul7 2017). Cheers.

Flat tyres fill cyclist Vin Maskell with dread but he always gets back on his bike. Eventually.

I was stranded by the roadside, about eight kilometres from home.  Flat back tyre. A fellow cyclist pulled over. “Need a hand?”

“Yes.” And then apologetically, “I’ve got nothing.”

By which I meant, not only no spare tube, no levers and no pump, (and no phone) but no skills in basic bicycle maintenance, no confidence at all in repairing a flat tyre by the side of the road. (At home, in the garage, maybe – but even then it’s a slow, steep uphill battle between success and failure.)

The Good Samaritan cyclist did not hesitate. Pulled out his own spare tube, his levers, his pump. Ten minutes later I was back on the road and the kind stranger had disappeared into the distance. I’d thanked him, of course, but it hadn’t even occurred to me to offer to pay for his spare tube (not that I had my wallet on me). I had nothing.

Flat tyres deflate me. They defeat me. They are my nemesis and, given the amount of punctures I’ve had lately, Flat Tyres could be my namesake.

Cycling is in my blood. My father cycled until the day he died. (Not very far, but he was in his eighth decade.) Cycling is my preferred form of transport for short distances. It’s my preferred form of exercise (you’ll never find me in a gym). It’s one of my hobbies. And it’s the child inside the adult, still alive, still innocent.

And yet. I get a flat tyre and I almost fall to pieces. I am no mechanic, not even for as simple a machine as a bicycle. I’ve tried to fix punctures, I really have. I’ve tried to replace tubes. I’ve tried to be independent and grown-up and practical but more often than not I’ve failed, I’ve come up short. Very short.

Who knows how many hours I’ve wasted fiddling with patches and pumps and tyres and tubes and patience and common sense and found myself still standing there with a bicycle that’s not going anywhere?

Inept. Useless. Hopeless. Pathetic. I try not to be too hard on myself.

Eventually I have to ask for help. Sometimes my neighbour Richard (a serious, Lycra cyclist) gives me a hand. He can see I’m battling and is very tactful. He shows me what to do, he coaches me, he makes me feel I’ve actually done something when – really – I’ve looked on as he’s accomplished in ten minutes what I’ve failed to do in thirty.

But I don’t want to impose on Richard too much, so I often take my flat tyre and my flat self to the local bike-shop where John, also a tactful man, takes care of things. Twenty dollars later I’m on the road again.

I know I should do a short course in basic bicycle maintenance, or at least look up YouTube.

Some days I’m afraid to ride for fear of another flat. But not riding is like not breathing. It’s not really an option. (Yes, there’s the car in the driveway, and the train and the bus, but they are not a patch on –  so to speak  – the instinct to cycle.)

Of course, I’ve had periods, a year or two, with no problems. No punctures. No worries. Life can be like that sometimes. I also know there are more important issues to worry about than flat tyres.

I have to tell myself that the moment my tube loses all its air is only an accumulation of a series of microscopic, unfortunate events: a tiny shard of glass or a nail or a pin or a stone finds its way from the road and onto my tyre and through that tyre and into the tube. What are the chances?

I know this is not existential dread. This is not despair. This is not life without meaning.

It’s just a sudden but temporary loss of air.

Each year I watch the Tour de France. I don’t understand the tactics and strategies of cycling races but I do appreciate the gorgeous views of the European countryside, the fitness of the cyclists and, especially the resources and finesse of those support crews in their cars, loaded with spare wheels and spare bikes.

When Tour de France cyclists get a flat tyre it’s no big deal (unless they’re careening down a mountain at 100 kilometres an hour!). No, in a matter of seconds they’re back on the road, back in the race, back in the game of life.

My support crew is neighbour Richard, bike-shop John and a Good Samaritan. Without them I’ve got nothing.


Postscript: On the day I bought The Big Issue edition with this story I got a flat front tyre. Drawing pin.



  1. Most enjoyable. Particularly enjoyed:
    “Inept. Useless. Hopeless. Pathetic. I try not to be too hard on myself.”
    I sympathise but, not often riding, can’t really empathise. You see, I’ve never had a flat tyre.

  2. Vin, you forgot pathetic. Oh no, my mistake you’ve listed pathetic.

    At least you can take off in the ‘professional’ manner. You know, where you push off with your left foot and then throw your leg over (so to speak). I’ve always wanted to attempt it but feel i would somehow catch my foot on the back wheel and go hurtling on to someone’s nature strip.

    • So do you begin from a standing start? Astride (so to speak) the bar. I’ve never been game to try to push off with right foot, and swing the left leg over (so to speak). ‘Reckon I’d just fall over. That really would be pathetic. As well as laughable and ludicrous.

  3. Thanks for the lovely words, Vin. Might I humbly suggest investing in some marathon tyres. They are fairly good at resisting those nails, stone and shards of glass! Ride on comrade!

    • You’re the third person to recommend Marathon tyres. I should have added a postscript: on the day I bought The Big Issue edition with flat tyre story I got a flat tyre. Drawing pin in front wheel. Cheers.

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