I can’t say that it was the power of suggestion, or even bad luck. I had, indeed , been reading a cyclist’s essay this morning about enjoying a long, solo ride until that dreaded hissing sound one never wants to hear on any ride inspired a surge of repair incompetence anxiety in the essayist over whether or not he could properly fix the flat and then get on home. As it turned out, it was a cycling related incident that caused this morning’s disruption to the flow, although it was an incomplete truck trip after transporting Wendy to the dock with her bike that is the inspiration for this particular arrangement of words.
There had been some minor flourishes of dramatic foreshadowing for this situation, both times just after leaving my driveway in my truck in the past two days. Yesterday it choked as I attempted to accelerate toward town, but there was an almost immediate recovery, which lead me to believe that all was right with the world, at least in the small circle where my motorized Island transport was concerned. It choked again this morning as we pulled onto the Highway and headed toward the dock, but there were those sounds coming from beneath the hood that suggested that this time a recovery was not in the offing. I motored on, as the reason for this excursion was that Wendy was late and the only way for her to make the proper boat was to be driven to the dock with her bike stashed in the back. I listened as the engine gagged us northward, waiting for a cleared-throat sound that never came. We did manage to gain enough speed to pass someone who was obviously not on the same mission of urgency as we were, but a new sound arose from this effort- a pinging that suggested something more sinister was at work.
I took it as a good sign that the engine didn’t die altogether when I stopped to let Wendy and bike off at the bottom of parking lot hill, but the chatter from beneath the hood as I headed back up the hill past the line of off-Island commuters was sounding more dire by the minute, although the regained momentum provided by downshifting from third to second gear gave me hope that the four miles to home could be successfully transited in the luxury of this gas powered vehicle. There was that odor though- the smell of something combusting that was not supposed to be in one or any of the four cylinders. I reached the top of the hill, but the pinging was now getting worse, and shifting down and up was beginning to have less and less of a positive effect on movement forward. Finally, just to see what would happen, I let my foot off the gas pedal, and the choking and gagging sound combined with a rapid deceleration in my progress homeward, so I began to scan for a roadside, semi-permanent resting place. There was open gravel beyond the paved shoulder up ahead, so I put on my turn signal and punched in the clutch. It was more difficult as I braked and steered onto the shoulder, as the engine died almost immediately when the clutch engaged, and the assistance from both the power steering and brakes was no longer an available option. The smell from the engine compartment, the inability to restart the truck and the steam coming from beneath the hood all suggested perhaps a blown head gasket. I got out, locked the door and started to walk home.
As I crossed the Highway to make my way homeward, I began to think of the flat tire article I had finished reading just a short time earlier, and how the relative ease of fixing a blown bike tube was no comparison with a blown head gasket. There are probably gearheads out there who can McGiver themselves out of this or any automotive mechanical mishap- I am not one of them. That is not to say that I wouldn’t try. What comes to mind is a solo road trip I made years ago from western Massachusetts, where I was in school, to central upstate New York, where my cousin was getting married. When I went to pull off at a highway exit I pushed in the clutch pedal only to feel it go without resistance to the firewall. I jerked the car out of gear and coasted to the shoulder and assessed the situation. After popping the hood I found that a small, plastic donut that was supposed to be attached to the firewall to keep the clutch cable housing from moving had broken. Once I understood what was wrong I started looking through the car to see what I had with me. I always keep a few tools in any vehicle I drive, and that day I believe I had a pair of pliers and perhaps a screwdriver- the pliers were the key- that and a few bottle caps that were under the seat. I flattened out the bottle caps with the pliers, and with my trusty Swiss army knife- the can opener implement, specifically- I made a radius cut in two flat bottle caps from the outer edge to the center, which allowed me to slide in and wedge a bottle cap under the plastic donut on both sides of the firewall- I never had any more trouble with the clutch and I think I sold the car that way. Blown head gaskets offer no such a range of options, at least for me.
Flat tires on bikes are in an entirely different league from most car-related, roadside dilemmas. If you ride a bike very much at all you should have a spare tube, some tire irons and a small bike pump with you wherever you go. That way, you will almost never have to walk home. If you don’t know how to fix a flat, and if you are looking for a little entertainment as well, just google “Lance Armstrong fixes a flat”. While for the most part, pro bike racers almost never have to do race day repairs, as they have a team car with spare wheels and spare bikes and a mechanic to see that their unintended roadside stops are as short as possible, they do know something about bikes. There is some self-effacement and humor in this two minute how to, and it’s worth it just to see Lance in a bike shop apron. I just watched it again to make sure it was still there, and it seems to be up in a number of places, so it’s not hard to find, and the ease with which Lance performs this task should help with any flat repair demystification. I may ride my bike back to the truck to see if I can coax a few more miles out of it, but I have a feeling that this fix will not be easy.