Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why do Bike Rides Always Entail Repairs?

By Kevin

Last weekend we went on another long bike ride with students. If you remember reading about our long bike ride last semester, there were a lot of similarities.

We waited our friend June at the front gate at 1:30 p.m. Fifteen minutes later she arrived. "I can't find a bike," she declared. She'd also brought along one other friend with no bike.

"Maybe we can take a bus and meet you there," she said.

"Where are we riding to?" we asked.

"There is a dam outside the city," she said.

"How far away is it?"

"About an hour."

"Is it uphill?"

"A little bit."

After some negotiation, we decided we'd ride our bikes halfway there, with the two smallest girls being toted on the racks on the back of the bikes Wes and another guy rode. Then they'd ride a bus up the hill leading to the reservoir.

So we left. After huffing and puffing for awhile, we wound up walking the bikes up part of the hill, making a spectacle for several other Chinese bikers who began to walk their bikes up the 15 percent grade. On the hilltop, there was a large Buddhist Temple right before we reached the hazy lake.

Unfortunately the sun didn't clear away the haze until we were riding back home.

Several of us sat on the top of the dam while Ruth, Christina and several students hiked down the steep incline and wandered around fishing pools at the base. I gazed into the haze and tried to make out the details of the surrounding landscape. The temple, which was maybe a mile away was almost engulfed in haze, as were the terraced hillsides and the "lake" created by the dam. Couples sat on the steep incline, picnicking. Families flew kites together. Motorcycles whizzed by, leaving trails of dust for us to cough on.

We learned that one of the students, a senior, spent the last semester teaching in Tibet.

Then we began riding further up the road into the reservoir-side villages.

That's when things began to go downhill.

And I don't mean the incline of the mountain. First my chain came loose. But that wasn't too bad. With a little cajoling and some greasy fingers, a student and I managed to get it back in place within a few minutes.

Not much longer, my entire right pedal clanked to the ground. If this is beginning to sound familiar, that's because it was. These same things happened on our ride to the river in the fall. I picked up the metal part and began to search for the nut, which had come loose and fell to the ground.

We backtracked a bit, then saw it in the middle of the road.

It was about this time that I realized I should have brought some tools.

While we struggled to hammer on the pedal with a brick we found by the roadside, Christina had spotted a cute toddler playing next to her grandmother, who sat on her
front porch, garden tool in hand. "Maybe we can ask them if they have tools," I suggested. The grandmother wore a traditional silk shirt. The wrinkles in her face told of a long life. The child was swaddled in the thick clothing Chinese children always seem to be covered with. On her feet, she wore fancy traditional, likely handmade shoes.

Our caravan approached the man and explained our predicament. Soon, while the girls oogled the child, the woman's husband, wearing a simple blue Mao suit, walked into his home and returned with a screwdriver. Not exactly what I had in mind. We needed a hammer and a ratchet, or at least some sort of pliers if we were going to get this bike working right. Nonetheless, the student jammed the flathead screwdriver into the area next to the bolt and attempted to tighten it. The man suggested we continue on to the bicycle repairman, further up the road. We smiled and thanked him and went on our way.

When we got to the repair shop, the repairman wasn't there. Just two young boys sitting in front of a television watching a Chinese drama program. The student asked if he could borrow some tools, then began digging through the cardboard box. He found a hammer, which helped us push the pedal on further. Screwdrivers, wrenches. Finally, he found a bent, mashed socket. Unfortunately it was too small. Then another. Too big. How could they not have one that fit this nut? I decided I'd just get the nut as tight as I could with my fingers, then tighten it again when it loosened.

"Is it better?" a student asked.

"Not really. I think I'm going to need to go back," I explained.

Without complaint, we set back down the hill.

Less than five minutes later, I felt the pedal began to wobble again, then clank to the ground.

I searched for the fallen nut, found a brick, hammered it back on, then tightened it with my fingers. "This is going to be a long ride home," I realized.

"Is it better?" another student asked.

I explained that I can't get the nut tight enough without tools, but they didn't really understand. I just hoped that since it was mostly downhill, I wouldn't have to stop every five minutes to reattach the pedal.

In the distance, we saw a funeral procession making its way down the road. A group of men and women wearing white mourning clothes that look a bit like labcoats walked as a group down the road. Boys, perhaps the oldest sons or grandsons, carried colorful wreaths at the front of the procession, followed by perhaps 10 other mourners.

As I rode past them, I hoped that my pedal would make it far enough down the road that I wouldn't completely disrupt their mourning. Then again, that had probably already happened, when they saw no less than four foreigners riding bikes through their quaint village.

After one more stop, we made it to the long, steep section of the hill. I figured that coasting would be easy here.

About halfway down, I realized that my tires were whining strangely. But I didn't dare stop.

At the bottom, I realized the problem - my tire had somehow gone completely flat during the incline. Maybe the increased pressure from the high speeds?

Even more, the chain on Ruth's bike had also come loose. So we reattached it.

Since the sun was getting closer to the horizon, I decided I'd just ride on it. "Who cares if it ruins the tire," I thought. Realizing we were almost back in town, I said, "Surely there's a repair shop ahead."

So I began pedaling. Within minutes, the pedal fell to the ground yet again. Then I spotted a shop with a tire hanging on the side. We asked if we could use their pump and filled the tire. Across the street, a group of three young men sat on top of a rooftop playing rock music on acoustic guitars.

Less than a minute after we resumed our ride, it was flat again.

"I guess next time I'll have to get it patched or buy a new tube," I explained. Wes wondered if I could just hail a cab and have the cabbie bring me back with the bike in the trunk.

Soon we spotted a motorcycle repairman fixing a flat on a motorcycle.

He agreed to fix my flat and reattach my pedal with proper tools. With weathered hands, he pried my tire loose and began dipping it in water, searching for the hole. Spotting the steady stream of leaking air, he scuffed up an old piece of rubber and rubber cemented it over the hole. It reminded me of when I learned how to fix a flat from my dad all those years ago. After a good 15 minutes, he'd fixed the hole in the tube and reattached the pedal. But he explained that, somehow the tube inside the tire was too big. That's why it went flat. "Should we get a smaller tube?" I wondered aloud to the guys who were translating. "You can get that fixed at the school." They replied. "What about between now and then, I wondered to myself, hoping that the temporary fix would get the job done, realizing that the Chinese ethic of "if it can still be used, you shouldn't throw it away" was probably at play. So I played along. We handed the man five kuai and hit the road again.

Less than five minutes later, the pedal fell off. Again.

I was getting ticked off by this point.

We found yet another repairman. This time I convinced the student that we needed to replace the nut because the threads intended to lock it shut were worn. It clearly wasn't staying in place. But he didn't have nuts, just tools. "Can we borrow the tools," the student asked. He figured we could save 1 RMB and do the tightening job ourselves this time.

It lasted for three blocks. Again, it came loose.

Again we asked if they had the nut. "No. But you can use the tools."

I put my weight into the pedal and tightened. "We can have the repairman at school fix it," the student assured me. I just hoped we wouldn't have to stop again (we were maybe a mile away by this point).

Thankfully we made it back just before sunset.

The students laughed at the experience. Wes suggested I leave "Tank" (my bike) somewhere where a thief might steal it. "All the problems they'd get with it would be their punishment," he suggested. I seriously considered his plan. Unfortunately, the person stealing it likely wouldn't keep it. They'd sell it.

"I think before I ride again, I'm going to make sure I have all the tools I need to fix it myself," I told him. "Gotta bring a tool kit along on these rides from now on."

Again, I guess this is what you get with a secondhand bike in China.


Molly J. said...

you are all smiles in the picture--it must be taken before all the problems began!

KFell said...

adventures in china!

Kevin said...

Actually the last photo was from the middle. Kinda smiles of "I can't believe all of this is happening."