Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bike breakdown, bike repair, repeat

So, maybe we should have known from the start that it was going to be a rough ride.

When I went to adjust Ruth's bike seat before we set off to meet students on our ride to the Wei River, the bolt wouldn't tighten. After a few minutes of attempting to tighten and re-tighten it, I struggled to get it loose. The blot finally fell on the floor, threads were completely stripped. The nut seemed to be the wrong size. “This isn't going to go back on,” I said. I guess this is what you get when you buy a used bike in China.

So I hurried back into the apartment and scrounged through a jar of old nuts and bolts until I found something that would make due. It was a little smallish, but with a washer, it did the trick.

A bit late, we met Wes, Christina and eight students at the front gate on campus. We were off. I was chatting with a senior from Guizhou named Edward. As he shared about his minority, THUNK, my foot hit the ground. The entire left pedal, rod and all clanked along the ground as I slammed on my brakes. Blood dripped into my sock from a three-inch gash that sliced my calf (it really wasn't too bad, just bled a lot at first).

I attempted to hammer the pedal back onto my bike, but it didn't seem like it was going to stay on very long. Besides, the pedal itself was falling apart as well. I guess this is what you get with a used bike in China.

So Edward, Wes, Tim (another student) and I hurried back to a bicycle repairman, who nonchalantly attached a new pedal, tightened the rod, filled the air in my tires and sold me a bolt for Ruth's seat for 4 RMB (about 60 cents). After a quick stop by the pharmacy (thankfully, it seems like there's one every other block in this city), we set off again. After about 10 minutes of riding, we caught up with the girls, who had ridden ahead.

I learned that Edward was an avid cyclist. In fact, two years ago, he went on a 2-week bike trip to Henan province, covering more than 1,500 km and that he and some buddies from the campus bike club have been thinking about riding from here to Tibet. Insane.

Just as we set off after our reunion, CRACK, my pedal fell off again. Mind you, the rod stayed in place. The plastic pedal, however, proved that sometimes you get what you pay for. I decided to continue riding without the pedal, since I seemed to be able to do so just fine.

We rode through a toll booth on the road, admiring freshly shucked corn laid out to dry, filling half the lane on the low-traffic road, then turned into a village because the road ahead was being repaired.

Just as we started to climb a slight incline, CA-CHUNG. Ruth's chain broke. Unfortunately, we were far from the city and the bicycle repairmen who set up shop every few blocks. We put the chain into a small bag and started walking toward the village, where we asked around and found out that there was indeed a repairman in the village not far ahead.

We approached a man at the roadside with a little truck, hoping that he might be able to bring us with the bike to the repairman, who was apparently 5-10 minutes away. Instead, he said he could explain how to fix it, though. He inspected the chain, and said that a piece was missing, though.

So Edward and I hurried back to the place Ruth's chain broke, a little bit worried that finding the tiny missing part might be like finding a needle in a haystack. But within about a minute, he pointed and declared, “here it is. I found it.”

Edward then set about fixing the chain, with the help of the man we met on the road. Thankfully, I'd brought a crescent wrench and vice grip in case Ruth's seat didn't hold together. Edward, hands covered in bike grease, used the vice to fasten the chain back together.

Unfortunately, it didn't last.

“I'm trying not to pedal too hard,” Ruth said with a grimmace.

“Well, if you make it up this hill, we might be good to go,” I replied. Within seconds, CLANG, her chain fell off again. Only this time, it broke into a few pieces.

After a brief discussion, Edward and Tim decided that they'd bring the bike to the repairman while we waited.

As we waited, Wes struck up a conversation with a family that was out in their yard shucking corn. He asked if he could join them. “Why not?” I thought to myself. I join them as well. Soon, Ruth and Christina joined in, along with a couple students. The others looked at us skeptically, seeming to wonder why we would do something like this. But eventually, they too joined us. Wes explained the parables about the son gathering people like gathering crops. By the time Edward and Tim returned with the fixed bike, all of us and all of the students who were waiting were helping these farmers to shuck corn, which they said was used by both people and animals (they don't have two separate varieties of corn in China like in America – just one).

It was a great “Real China” moment.

Overhead in the village, workers clanged and hammered away, building the raised platform for the high-speed railroad that is being built from Xi'an to Zhengzhou onto Beijing. Supposedly it will go about 300 km per hour and cut the trip to Beijing from about 12 hours to 5 hours.

As we rode to the river, we followed a dirt path between cornfields that ran underneath sections of seemingly completed railway track. Unfortunately, the soil at times was a little unforgiving. It was thin loess soil (I believe we live on China's famed Loess Plateau) that poofed up as we rode through it, almost like silty volcanic ash.

Needless to say, it was tough to keep riding through it, but it was thinner than beach sand, so as long as we were moving fast enough, we seemed to be able to keep our balance and avoid most of the plumes of silt that rose into the air whenever a mini-truck loaded with freshly harvested corn or a tractor passed us by.

After about 15 minutes, we reached the river. It was a bit disappointing after all the obstacles that had to be overcome before we made it. “It's not an adventure if nothing goes wrong along the way,” I told a couple of students. “It is unforgettable,” one replied.

"Anyone ready for a swim," I joked, after pointing to the floating pieces of styrofoam, which floated down the river in a constant stream like tiny iceburgs. Apparently we were downriver from some sort of factory.

A couple girls laughed nervously, wondering if I was serious. "Ok, I might come out looking brown, maybe I won't swim."

Unfortunately, by the time we'd made it home, my pedal-less bike rod had worn a hole in my shoe.

By the time we made it back to our apartments, we'd been gone for more than four hours. We were grimy and drained. But, in spite of the obstacles, it was worthwhile. Another good bonding experience.

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