I broke a front-wheel spoke last week. There was a slightly resonant ‘bang’, like a stone flicking away from the rim, and the front wheel went out of true.
I stopped, fiddled a bit with a spoke key so that the rim would at least go through the brake blocks, and rode on home, feeling the front of the bike waving around a bit on the wonky rim.
I enjoyed the nostalgia. It’s years since I broke a spoke. Better rims and spokes, and better wheel-building (i.e. wheel-building in which my role is limited to handing over a credit card for the final product) has almost eliminated it. It reminded me of a simpler, much less competent time.
For example, never mind a tentative ride home, I once spent an entire winter riding on a wheel with a broken spoke. I was a student, and too feckless to fix it. It progressed to a wheel with two broken spokes, then three.
If it had been a front wheel I’d have stopped using it, but it was a rear, so I figured that the worst that would happen if it fell apart completely was that I’d land arse-first on top of the disintegrating spokes and end up with a backside like a metal porcupine. Compared with having to spend 30 minutes of my life fixing it, that seemed like a risk worth taking.
I did not stand out in the company I was keeping. Most of us were riding bikes that had things wrong with them. There was a man called Henry, whose front mech had broken. He took it off and threw it away, then developed a novel technique of kicking the chain from the big ring to the small with his heel. To go the other way, he moved it by hand.
This worked surprisingly well. Till one day we realised that if one of us threw in an attack at the top of a hill, at just the moment he was moving the chain to the big ring, he’d try to follow before he’d got his hand clear of the chain and chainring. The consequences were equal parts hilarity and gore.
Another, Steve, was a talented engineering student. Nonetheless his back brake lever was seized solid. Instead, he applied the brake by grabbing the inner cable running along the underside of the top tube, and pulling it sideways.
Difficult to control the bike while doing that, you might think. His mechanical neglect had the merit of being self-correcting. The return spring in the caliper was broken, so once he’d pulled the brake on, it stayed on until he reached back to manually pull the blocks apart again.
Sometimes we’d squeeze his brake on a little when he wasn’t paying attention, then chat happily among ourselves as he got increasingly breathless and appalled at his lack of fitness.
The most alarming bike of all belonged, unsurprisingly, to my friend Bernard. It had fallen off a roof rack once, and the top tube had been badly damaged by the bars twisting round. His ‘composite repair’ was always covered in a wrap of silver gaffer tape.
One day, overcome with curiosity, I removed the tape. What he’d done was hacksaw out the offending bit of tube, insert a bit of wood apparently sawn off the end of his grandmother’s walking stick, and epoxy the whole mess together.
It was a potentially lethal bodge. But more than anything else I wondered about his grandmother. Was she as useless as her grandson? Was she still using a walking stick that was 12 inches too short? And if so, which one of them was Bernard’s bike repair going to kill first?