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by James Huang
November 24, 2017
Photography by James Huang
The routine is pretty well established at this point.
I wait until my daughter is in bed, I head out into the garage to retrieve the pile of punctured tubes, a patch kit, and a pump, and then I plop down on the living room floor in front of the coffee table. It’s probably snowing outside, and more likely than not, there’s some random show playing on the television. There’s a mug of hot tea on the table. I then spend the next half-hour or so repairing the remnants of the previous year’s interrupted rides.
It’s the same process for every tube: inflate, find the hole, mark the hole, lightly sand the spot, apply the glue, wait for it to dry, apply the patch. I’ve gotten awfully good at it, too, and can’t remember the last time I had a patched tube fail on me (pro tip: use Rema Tip Top patches, which are available in bulk). After the tubes are all repaired, I carefully wrap every one into a tight little bundle so it takes up as little room as possible in a pocket or saddle pack. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always admired the efficient use of space.
One might wonder why I would bother to spend a winter evening patching inner tubes.
Few people would consider the task to be particularly fun, and to an outside observer, it might even seem downright tedious. Indeed, time is more precious to me than ever these days — ah, grown-up life — and it would be so much easier to just toss the punctured tubes away. Fresh tubes show up all the time as a byproduct of my job, after all, and they’re in such plentiful supply that I give away far more of them than I ever use.
When it comes to patches, accept nothing less than the best. Rema Tip Top FTW!
I didn’t always have a box of pristine inner tubes at my disposal, though, and while it’s been nearly three decades now that I’ve considered myself an avid cyclist, I still hold dear some of the beliefs I established early on. One of the very first things I learned was that it was almost always cheaper to fix what you have than to buy a replacement. When it came to flats, the math was simple — patches cost way less than new tubes. And I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t exactly flush with cash when I was kid.
That attitude carried through to my 14 years as a shop mechanic, and I credit it for shaping how I look at bike products today. When you merely replace something that’s broken, you learn little about why it malfunctioned, or how it was supposed to work. But when you take the time to dissect a part or system to diagnose a problem, you understand so much more.
Suffice to say, the same goes for non-cycling items, too. Our old clothes dryer? All it took was a few bucks in parts, a bit of online research, and some basic tools. My daughter’s hopelessly knotted and clogged toy fishing pole? Yep, took that apart, too. The broken shelf in the fridge? A section of aluminum tubing and silicone glue made it better than new.
You get the point.
That said, there’s little to be gleaned from an inner tube that has a hole in it, and there are other options I could choose these days instead of sitting down with a pile of tangled butyl rubber. For example, several outfits upcycle used inner tubes into other items like messenger bags, panniers, and the like. My local recycling facility will take old inner tubes for free. And needless to say, Pinterest is awash in creative ideas (including a suit of armor — seriously).
After all the patches are completed, I squeeze the air out of each tube and wrap them into a tight bundle. Yep, it takes a bit of extra time, but it makes for a much more compact package.
But I persist nevertheless, and this annual ritual is now almost cathartic for me. My brain is so inundated with thoughts that the luxury of being able to shut down for a few minutes with a mindless activity could hardly be more valuable. When I’m sitting with that pile of tubes before me, there is nothing going through my head at all. It’s restful. Restorative. Peaceful.
In fact, I sometimes compare it to why I ride bikes in the first place. Some people head out to be alone with their thoughts, to have a moment to process, to contemplate.
Me? I ride so that I don’t have to think about anything at all.
Granted, patching tubes is hardly the same as riding a bike, but you get the point. Maybe it’s just the fumes from the glue, but I find my state of mind in that moment to be oddly similar regardless.
The fact that I always choose the middle of winter to do this hasn’t been lost on me, either. The darkness comes early and there’s often little motivation to head outside. Winter naturally seems like a good time to hit the reset button, and this process of repair in some ways feels like I’m drawing the season to a close and getting ready to start a new one. That hook in the garage finally sits empty again, and the tangled mess of entropy is once again a neatly wrapped pile, ready to start anew.
I’m not quite ready to dig into that pile just yet this year. Winter hasn’t really arrived here in Boulder, and the midday sun still burns warm and bright. But that pile stares at me every time I walk into the workshop, and the day is coming.
I’m almost looking forward to it.