Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I've Lost My Tube-Patching Mojo, Baby!

I think it's finally time to admit it: I suck at patching tubes.

This dawned on me the other night. I'd smacked either a boulder or a canyon with my back wheel coming through Water Works Park. For non-locals, the name of this park was inspired by the following conversation between two city engineers:

Engineer 1: "I need a substance that, when applied regularly to asphalt and subjected to a freeze/thaw cycle, will turn said asphalt into a lunar surface guaranteed to pummel any cyclist silly enough to enter."

Engineer 2: "Water works!"

And so, we got a park in the wickedest part of the flood plain, where bikers usually need sealed and inflated "pontoon panniers" to get through during the Spring thaw. In the non-flood season, you get alligator-back asphalt and gaping potholes -- thus my guess above that I'd hit either a heaved-up hunk of asphalt or one of the pits it left behind.

I didn't just hit it, either. I smacked it good. At full (albeit laughably slow) speed. Hard enough that I fully expected to have a tasty rim taco for dinner. But all I got was the telltale hiss of a snakebite puncture.

So, in my very best "Dave Stohler as Little 500 Pit Crew" impersonation, I flipped the bike in the grass, slapped in a fresh tube, and went on my way, figuring that later that night, I could put a patch on the old one at my leisure.

No such luck. Because, in case you missed it above, I suck at patching tubes.

This is hard for me to grasp, because I was once a Supreme Bad-Arse of Butyl Repair. In my shop days (oh boy, there goes Grandpa again), I patched a TON of tubes. Not for customer bikes -- policy was, you sold a new tube (because the time it took to patch one cost the customer more in labor than the $4 we charged for a new one) and tossed the old one in the recycle box.

Aside: I don't know where those tubes went. They sure never hit our dumpster, but it wasn't like we had some kind of official recyclery. Every shop just had some local guy off the street who came in weekly/bi-weekly/monthly and picked them up. For all I know, each "tube guy" was secretly assembling a gigantic Wile E. Coyote ("Super Genius") slingshot from ACME Corporation in his garage, preparing to do battle with "tube guys" in the surrounding towns.

Of course, not ALL the tubes went to the tube guy. Do the math: You have a box of tubes that only need a patch, plus a staff of college kids who need tubes for their own bikes but would rather spend money on beer. So, we skimmed the ones that fit our bikes, patched them, and built stockpiles at home. I may have gone five years without actually purchasing a new tube. (Which is also why I'm the guy who looks hungrily at the dead tube you're about to toss out, like my Depression-era grandparents scolding me for wasting food -- "There are kids in China who don't even HAVE tubes with holes in them!") And in that time, I got damn good at patching. Straight-up nail puncture? Don't make me laugh. Snakebite on a skinny road tube? Interesting, but still no challenge. My proudest moment was the day that I cut a small X in the center of a patch so I could fit it over a presta valve and patch a hole at the BASE of the valve stem. I didn't need to... I just wanted to prove that I could. Even the Romanian judge had to respect the level of difficulty on that trick.

So it's even more painful for me to now admit that I don't think I've successfully patched a tube in maybe two years. I know the drill: Rough it up, lay the glue on thin and wide, let it dry, slap on the patch, burnish it down. But my stupid edges always peel up, or I get an unglued spot that bubbles until it finally leaks out the side of the patch, or I drop the patch on the garage floor and get schmutz all over it, or I can't get the dumb thing to lay down correctly around the circumference of a small tube, or I catch one side of the snakebite and miss the other. In short, I suck. So much so that I get nervous if all I'm carrying is a tube I patched. I need that shiny cardboard box around it as a security blanket, letting me know that I'm packing virgin rubber, unsullied by my own incompetence.

I want to blame the tubes ("Why, back in MY day, they knew how to make tubes right!"), but I know that's a lie. We used the same cheap, crappy, seam-crossed tubes back then that I'm buying today, and I used to patch those miserable things with the skill of a surgeon.

Guess I'll just have to keep buying 'em new (though -- here comes Grandpa again! -- they sure aren't $4 any more) and donating the punctured ones to recycle box so the "tube guy" can arm himself and the wrenches can keep their beer funds in the black.


john said...

I have recently been through a spate of bad luck as well. On the virgin ride of a new mtb, I pinch flatted a total of three times. Each time it involved a tube either Slimed or Stans'd. Patch kit and patience exhausted (patches don't work so well on the tubes with gunk spewing out of 'em) I ended walking the last mile and a half to a bike shop for some fresh tubes. Hold the Slime, thank you.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Oh, man, there is NOTHING worse than a Slime flat. I'll never forget the time I accidentally got a customer's Slimed tube pinched between the tire bead and the rim and had it blow in my face. I looked like Dan Akroyd in Ghostbusters. :-)

There was also some kind of nasty white "cheapo-slime" product that would fill the tire with what looked like milk when it failed, except it stunk of ammonia.

I do NOT miss those days.

Tarik Saleh said...

Heh, I had the worst time with patching for years as well. A few things helped turn me around, just this year.
1. No more rema patches (mostly), the riv little blue ones are much more forgiving.
Two, only patch at home if I can help it. Field patching equals dirt everywhere.
Three: On slimed tubes you can carefully squeeze all the air out, let the slime go to the other end and then clean with rubbing alcohol and it works fine and you can save those 10 dollar slimed tubes with stick holes in em. Unfortunately slimed tubes are pretty important here in NM.
Four, turns out rubbing alcohol seems to work great for cleaning all tubes and helping adhesion of patches subsequently. Even with the aforementioned rema patches. I swear they suck now, it is not me...
Five: Cutting big patches to fit around the seam is still better than using a patch over the seam. I used to use quarter patches in my cheapo student days. I think this only works when you actually need to be able to use a quarter patch. If you are just showing off, it will fail. I seem to remember fixing a multi pinch flat tube garnered on the streets of SF with two patches all cut up into 6 pieces, on the BART back to oakland and riding on home, such was my patch prowess. Alas, those days are gone, but it helps to just use a patch cut flat to but up against the seam.

Uh, Damn, this is a long comment, I shall steal it for a blog post later this week. Bwa ha ha ha.

Anonymous said...

One of the two tips I've come across that have made it worthwhile plowing through the threads: forget patches, use superglue. So much more reliable than patches, it's scary.