Bike Journalist, Stopped by Bike Problems

After my tire popped, and I was far from the Metro Gold Line or bus that could get me to my destination on time, all I could do was look at my feet since I lost a chance to report on a story. Kris Fortin/LAStreetsblog

The pop sounded like a hollow gunshot. The sound came from behind me, and my bike immediately began slowing down. This is never a good sign, especially when I’m headed to a story.

Riding around on a bike, collecting stories, is a challenge. Making sure the bicycle is in working condition, having enough time to get to your destination, and, for emergencies, having money for the train or bus are important to make journalism and bicycling lifestyles work.

Yet, I learned Monday that I am still not skilled enough to remedy most bike problems.

I needed to arrive in Pasadena to cover a KPCC forum on Instagraming where local East LA celebrity Javier Guillen (@goeastlos) was going to talk about his social media photo skills. Since I had two hours to spare, and I was already in downtown, I stopped over at Bici Libre to align my spokes which I thought were loose.

Turned out one spoke broke off, so I needed to take off the freewheel and replace it with a spoke of the same size. I’ve replaced a spoke only twice before – I didn’t even know how to take off the freewheel, and I stripped the nipple on another spoke. Then, my delay is compounded when I find after I fix the spoke and put the rim and tire back on the inner tube gets a flat – you have to take out the inner tube when adjusting the bike tire.

I passed my two hour cushion, and now I was in a rush. I don’t know whether it was the hastened patch job I did on the inner tube, or my rushed attempt to pump my tire that led me to my deflated fate, but by the time I was in downtown (7:15 p.m.) I was roughly eight blocks from the Gold Line and nowhere near a bus that would get me to my destination in time.

Walking to my bus to take me home, I was torn on whether I should have stopped to replace the spoke. Would the bike have been fine if I didn’t fix it? Where the hell did the hole in my inner tube come from? I wasn’t prepared to quickly replace my spoke, and I couldn’t foresee a puncture in the inner tube happening when all I was doing was removing it from the tire.

Though my friends and family will use this example to tell me that this wouldn’t happen if I owned a car – like I could afford one – this is the first time my bike has required multiple repairs and prevented me from doing my job. There are a lot of things I could have done differently – not assume I could do a fix in a couple hours for one – but as I’m growing in my reporting, I’ll need to grow more savvy as a bicyclist.

  • Anonymous

    For bikes that need to be reliable and get ridden around LA all the time, i use goopy tubes (something like these: http://www.performancebike.com/bikes/Product_10052_10551_1034686_-1___ ) They weigh a touch more, but have saved me countless hours over the years. The trick is to just keep refilling them when you get a slow leak; unless you’ve got a pinch flat or a gash in the tube, it’ll stop leaking.

  • Ubrayj02

    If you owned a car – that piece of junk would have crapped out on you and left you with a huge bill for towing, repairs, etc.

    If you learn a small amount of bike maintenance, and ride with $30 to $40 in basic (compact) bike tools, you can handle most of what the road throws at you.

    I switched all the tires on my bikes over to Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. They are $54 each, but I haven’t had a flat in three years. On a racing bike, I can understand going with light weight stuff. When my job and life is dependent on a bike working, I try to make darn sure that it works.

    I don’t want to say, “I told you so!” You just need to get a small kit of tools and a few more bike skills together and you’ll be able to handle stuff like this in the future. We have all been there!

  • Davistrain

    This saga reminds me of those stories from 100 years ago of outings in them new-fangled horseless carriages.  There was even a song: “Get Out and Get Under” giving a musical twist to the perils of motoring in the bad old days. Since bicycles have been around even longer, one would think that the reliability problems have been solved by now.  Of 
    course, there are probably bikes that could be called “Two Wheeled Yugos”..

  • Ubrayj02

    There are plenty of two-wheeled Yugos out there that mar the idea of bicycling for transportation.

  • Broken spokes don’t need to be fixed immediately. If you have caliper brakes, you may need to open them wider so the rim doesn’t rub against the brake pad, but otherwise the bicycle should be safe enough to ride until you can get it to the shop. This is especially true if your wheels have more than, say, thirty spokes; those wheels have enough other support.

    If you find yourself with many breaking spokes, you might consider getting another wheel. Spokes should not fail frequently, and (almost) never on commuter bicycles, with their high and heavy spoke counts.

  • Mid-City rider

    I feel your pain. Back wheel spokes are a bear and the whole thing (including truing the wheel) takes more time than you think. Consider spending a few hours tuning up/replacing parts on your bike so you know what to do when you have a problem on the road.

    I’ve ridden for days on a broken spoke (1 of 36). The wheel wobbles but it’s doable.

  • Eric W

    Ahh – carry a spare tube.

    How about buy a new one, put it in, patch the one that was in there, and carry that as your spare? I’ve seen someone change a tube in less than a minute – it just takes practise.

    Not to mention a minimal set of tools – tire iron (or two or not), a pump, a patch kit, multitool for all the nut bolts or whatewer that hold your bike together. In addition, just in case I need to fix something, I carry a toe strap (my bike doesn’t use toe straps) and some duct tape wrapped around the afore mentioned tire iron, a bandaid, $5 cash. QAll fits in an under the seat bag. Your milage may vary…

  • Fbfree

    + 1 for the Schwalbe Marathon Plus.  I’ve ridden over 4000 miles without a flat, and +1 also for possibly needing a new wheel.  Some spokes develop corrosion cracking at the hub end, especially on the drive-side rear wheel.  I you get any more breaks, it’s either time to rebuild the wheel with new spokes (more work than it’s worth for a cheap wheel, but worth the experience), or get a new wheel.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, this stuff makes me crazy. I hate – HATE – bike maintenance. I know there are a lot of gearheads out there who really dig it, but I just want the damn bike to work, and I get annoyed when it doesn’t. I resent the idea that I have to have some crazy, obscure mechanical knowledge just to ride, and I think that attitude is a real barrier to new cyclists. I’ve been riding for twenty-five years, and yeah, I’ve had my fair share of broken spokes and flat tires, but I fix the flats and take the busted wheels to a paid professional. I don’t want to screw around with that shit. I’ll just ride it home unless it doesn’t roll at all.

    The only time I’ve ever been stopped and unable to fix what’s wrong has been tire-related: twice I’ve had epic, catastrophic flats that have rent ginormous, gaping holes through the tire that no boot or amount of duct tape will fix. Twice in twenty-five years. Not a bad track record for someone who has never adjusted the brake calipers in her entire life.

    I’d just chalk this one up to shit luck and keep rolling. It’s gonna happen from time to time, but there are only so many variables you can control in a day.

  • Surprise maintenance blindsides are a part of biking so “hating” it is an option, but one for me that doesn’t accomplish anything. So rather than just wanting the damn bike to work, I do my best to accept when it doesn’t and try my best to be prepared to get it back in pedal-able order.

    I’m no gearhead, but I’ve replaced spokes on the street and countless flats. I’ve had chains snap and brakes break, and I’ve found work-arounds. I take a measure of pride in such self-sufficiency. Not that I haven’t had my share of catastrophic fails that have left at a standstill; cranks that have broken in two and flats so bad it looked as if Freddy Kreuger had slashed through the tire. On those rare occasions when I couldn’t get rolling again, I don’t sit there wallowing in anger or self pity. I simply walk my bike onward.

  • Anonymous

    I love all this advice! I started out riding and reporting with only my journalism savvy in top form. The bicycle mechanics have been slow, but I’ve been working on it. The only thing that I need to figure out now is how to maintain a budget for maintenance fees , which would mainly include the parts for my bike, and the donations I would give to a co-op to have them teach me. Living in the San Gabriel Valley, the closest bike co-op is the bicycle kitchen, but these lessons in bicycle mechanics usually take a day if I want to get anything out of it. With my schedule centered around work, and with the limited budget I have, it always takes weeks or a month for me to make small upgrades. One day, I hope to be able to ride without worrying my bike will fail me (or I fail my bike), but I think I’m getting there.

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