When I first started cycling I could not fix a puncture. I didn’t have a clue.
If I did get a puncture it would take me hours to figure out how to get the tyre off the wheel and then get the inner tube out. It seemed like too much hassle to try and find the hole and patch it, so I would always resort to putting in a new inner tube. More often than not I would get this wrong and end up bursting the inner tube! I could easily go through two or three inner tubes before I achieved success.
I was hopeless!
I became paranoid about getting a puncture and developed an obsession with continually stopping to check my tyres. Every time I went over a bump or stone or something on the ground I could not help but glance at the tyres to see if there was any damage.
Most of my earliest cycling trips tended to be a few miles along the Forth and Clyde canal path in central Scotland. I lived very close to the canal and when I got a puncture I still managed to cycle back home with a flat tyre because it was not far. I politely said “thank you” to the dog walkers and other cyclists that thought they were being helpful by saying “you’ve got a flat mate.” It was embarrassing, but I preferred to limp home to try to fix the tyre because I knew it would take me hours and it was better to do this at home than alongside the canal.
When I started going on long distance trips with my cycling buddy Paul I relied on luck not to get a puncture. He had a mountain bike with indestructible tyres and I am sure has never had a puncture in all the years we have been cycling together. My thin tyres were much more vulnerable, but the first few trips we did together my bike survived unscathed. Luck held out.
That was until a ride from Culrain to Ullapool, in the north-west Highlands of Scotland.
This is probably one of the worst places to get a puncture and not be able to fix it because the road is so isolated. About the only place marked on the map is the Oykel Bridge Hotel and this is where we pulled in to try to fix the problem.
It was a nightmare. I used up my two spare inner tubes by bursting them. As I was inflating the inner tube I did not notice some of the tube started spilling out the sides of the tyre and this caused it to pop. This happened twice!
It was also cold with a chilly wind blowing across the hotel’s car park and I remember having to frequently rub my hands together to stop them going numb.
The hotel owner must have thought we were fools for coming all this distance into the wilderness without a clue as to how to fix a puncture. He offered us the use of a bowl and water so that we could try to find the hole in the original inner tube from the bubbles and then patch it up. This is the classic way to fix a puncture which I had never tried before. With no spare inner tubes remaining there was no option but to try this.
Celebrate with bubbles
It was a moment of celebration when we saw the bubbles coming from the hole in the inner tube. Found it! The tiniest hole it was too. And this is what had caused us such an enormous hassle! I kept a finger on the hole so as not to lose where it was and then removed the tube from the bowl.
I used the little puncture repair kit with the tube of glue and patches to cover the hole. I was very delicate with it, following the instructions precisely and leaving plenty of time for the glue to dry. I was very well aware that this was our only chance to ensure the continuation of this cycling trip. Would this work?
I cautiously filled the inner tube with air. I put my ear to the repair patch and could hear no air escaping. Yes! This was good, but I still had to get the inner tube into the tyre which is where it all went wrong before.
Once I had the tyre back on the wheel rim I triple checked that there was no bits of inner tube spilling out. Then I slowly used the pump, checking that the tube was still not spilling out.
It worked a treat and at last we were able to say goodbye to the owner of the hotel and start cycling again. It took a while to get warmed up because knees and legs had become frozen in all the hours we had spent outside in the cold.
Without the puncture we would have been due to arrive into Ullapool at 5pm, a nice civilized time to look around town and then have dinner. The four hour (I am embarrassed to admit that it took this long!) puncture stop meant we arrived at the decidedly silly time of 9pm.
Our bed and breakfast owner said that there was nowhere serving dinner at this time and our best bet was the fish and chip shop. The food tasted so amzing that I can still recall the perfect crispiness of the chips to this day. This is not just because the Seaforth is an award winning fish and chip restaurant, but becase we felt we really had to earn our dinner. When you come very close to disaster and manage to get yourself out of it the meal you have afterwards will never be forgotten.
Not being able to fix a puncture stopped me going off on my own on the bike. I was afraid that I would get one and then not have the moral support of my friend, so I did not want to take off on my own.
I have come a long way since then.
Fixing a puncture is now second nature for me. I don’t fear it like I used to. It is simply a fact of cycling. It no longer stops me from cycling on my own. I still prefer to carry spare inner tubes to replace broken ones than spend time trying to locate the hole and using repair patches. But I can do it this way, if needs be.
It takes me less than twenty minutes to replace an inner tube, which is probably quite a long time compared to most seasoned cyclists, but at least it is not four hours like it used to be!
I have had to make repairs in some pretty lonely places and during some horrific weather. I have had to do it when I am really tired and just want to get home to a warm bed. However, it is very satisfying once the repair is done and I can continue on my way. I always feel that there is a large element of self-reliance when cycling alone and getting a puncture is one of the best ways to understand how much you are dependant on yourself and nobody else.
My advice to pass on is that you must be able to fix a puncture if you are doing serious cycling that takes you far from population centres and assistance. Once you know how to fix a puncture you will become much more confident about setting off on your own.
Puncture repair videos
There are plenty of videos showing you how to fix a puncture. This is a good one from local bike shop Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op:
I tried to put a bit of air into my front tyre, but the pump had the reverse effect and all the air hissed out. Something pinged out of the top of the pump and fell over the ledge of the platform. Whatever this small thing was its disappearance permanently malfunctioned the pump.
My bike was out of action and I hadn’t even started cycling! I was waiting for the 5.33am train from Edinburgh Haymarket to Aberdeen to take me to the start of my route and now I had a limp tyre and no means to fix it. In fact, this was a triple disaster! It was pouring with rain and I was dripping wet, even though it was almost July.
Sometimes travel does not turn out the way that you planned for, but there is almost always a way to rescue it.
At first I was miserable and almost gave up. I thought there was no point in getting on the train if I couldn’t actually cycle once I arrived. What possible pleasure could be derived from cycling in heavy rain anyway? But I conjured up plan B, thanks to the miracle of mobile Internet. Whilst on the train I tracked down a shop near to the station that had bicycle pumps in stock. It was not the perfect plan B, they never are perfect- I would have to wait 40 minutes for the shop to open and I would miss my connecting train to my final destination, Dyce.
In Aberdeen Station seagulls swooped and squawked. Through the glass canopy I caught glimpses of the granite buildings that this city is famous for. I killed time with a coffee and very dry, bland blueberry muffin. Then I pushed my wounded bicycle to Union Street as commuters rushed by with hoods and umbrellas and buses splashed through puddles.
I was the first customer of the day at the store. I think the staff could detect my desperation when I asked for a bicycle pump- I was walked straight to the product’s location, rather than being given directions. On the way I made small talk about the weather and said I hoped that it would stop raining for my bike ride. The woman’s cheery voice was at odds with her prediction, “Oh, I doubt that. It’ll be pouring all day!”
I had to wait almost one hour for the next train to Dyce. A long wait for the sake of a short ten minute train journey, but my bike was back in action and that was the main thing. At Dyce I started on the Formartine and Buchan cycle way, each peddle stroke all the sweeter because Plan B had worked out.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.