Yes, You Should Know How to Fix a Flat Tire on Your Bicycle
As cyclists, we could all stand to be a bit more welcoming to newcomers. Like any tight-knit group of enthusiasts, we can, whether intentionally or unintentionally, be rather proprietary when it comes to our beloved pursuit. The ultimate example of our arrogance is the oft-quoted Velominati, which may or may not be tongue-in-cheek, but which induces douche chills either way, and is so cloyingly self-important it even makes me want to quit riding.
At the same time, while it is important to eliminate barriers to entry, the self-appointed gatekeepers of cycling do have something useful to offer beyond attitude and smarm: knowledge. Yet even this seems to be increasingly unwelcome. Recently, a popular bicycle-themed Twitter account, “Arleigh aka Bike Shop Girl (@bikeshopgirlcom) exhorted cyclists to “stop telling people they must know how to change a flat,” and was met with widespread approbation. If the reception on social media is any indication, this will now become a rule of thumb.
To be clear, I respect and understand the sentiment behind the tweet: people should certainly be free to discover the joys of cycling without having to first demonstrate proficiency in flat repair. Also, the more you ride the more you learn, and the very best way to learn something is by actually doing it. So it’s perfectly plausible that your flat-fix harange might be useless if not downright discouraging to someone who’s new to bikes, and that sometimes you may be better off biting your tongue since they’re probably going to learn it one way or another anyway.
Still, I wonder if de-emphasizing the importance of flat repair is fair to new riders. Most bicycles today are mechanically simple and robust; realistically, barring a bad crash or other mishap, they’re highly unlikely to leave you stranded. The exception to this is the tires: all it takes is a teeny bit of debris to work its way in there, and you’re completely immobilized. Meanwhile, in all but the most severe cases, the amount of skill and effort it takes to successfully repair the flat is minimal. Given this, it seems like a sin of omission not to tell someone they should attempt to familiarize themselves with the basics flat repair, given that a puncture can mean the difference between 15 minutes of roadside futzing and three hours of waiting for someone to come pick you up. I’ve helped innumerable flat-stranded cyclists over the years–everybody from commuters to fully-kitted roadies on $6,000 bicycles–and as I’ve done so I’ve generally tried to show them the process. Nobody has ever appeared offended by this. If anything, they’ve been deeply appreciate, and several have attempted to pay me.
So how much mechanical skill should you have in order to ride a bike regularly? Not much, but not nothing, either. In evaluating whether it’s reasonable to learn a repair skill, it’s useful to consider three factors: likelihood a thing’s gonna happen; the complexity involved in repairing said thing; and whether or not your inability to do so is going to leave you stranded and ruin your day. Certainly a high degree mechanical aptitude should not be a prerequisite for riding a bike; some people learn the workings of their bicycles inside and out, whereas others are simply not inclined in that area and will outsource most repairs to the local bike shop for as long as they ride. Each of these approaches is equally valid and merely a matter of personal preference. However, in terms of how fundamental flat repair is to riding a bicycle, I’d argue that it comes just after balancing on two wheels, operating your shifters, and adjusting your saddle height, in that for want of a patch kit the ride is lost. After flats, the “stranded” factor drops off precipitously, so I’d file most other repair tasks under “optional.”
The bikesplaning backlash is perfectly understandable: we’ve all been on the receiving end of admonishment and condescension delivered inside a Trojan horse of helpful advice. However, in veering too far the other way, we run the risk of undermining one of cycling’s very best attributes: its potential for self-sufficiency. To own a car is to surrender: you’re in thrall to the government, the bank, and the oil industry. You can’t go anywhere unless it’s been bulldozed, paved, and lined with fueling stations–and even then if there are too many other people trying to get to the same place you’ll be sitting in traffic indefinitely. Yes, some people have dominion over their cars and can service them and maintain them, but for the vast majority, a light on the dash sends them scurrying to the dealer or the mechanic, where they’ll surrender yet again. Changing a car tire was once a basic skill (I have hard data to back that up), but today most drivers will likely never lay eyes on their spare tires, instead calling for roadside assistance and creating more traffic. For that matter, plenty of drivers will spend years with a vehicle without ever opening the hood. Meanwhile, our roads are only growing more dangerous, and it’s tempting to wonder if our increasingly hands-off relationship with our motor vehicles results in a diminished sense of responsibility when it comes to operating them.
We shouldn’t scare people away from bikes by making them think they have to become grease-stained wretches, but we also shouldn’t let the bike go the way of the car. If bikes become less repairable and we don’t learn how to fix basic breaks, then we’re on a collision course with helplessness. The only thing more empowering than a bicycle is being able to keep a bicycle rolling without having to depend on the kindness of strangers, or to call someone with a car. Flat repair will reduce the odds of your having to do so to near zero. Seems worthwhile to me.