There were many things that I worried about in preparation for my 1000+mile cycling trip around Ireland. My trusty Tubus steel rack was looking a little worse for wear after five winters of commuting, so was promptly upgraded to a corrosion resistant titanium one. I had a last minute panic to replace the rear derailleur hours before I set off because it was a bit stiff and not changing properly, an issue that just days ago I thought would be fine with the help of some WD40.
I’d already done a chain and cassette swap to make sure the drivetrain was fresh and running as sweet as possible, but thought a cable service was overkill as they were only a year old and how often do cables really snap anyway? A change of brake pads and new tyres and I was confident all would be fine.
My back wheel was the only other concern really, but the tiniest bit of (winter commuting) corrosion on the spoke nipples had made the year old Mavic Aksium (disc brake model) more than a little troublesome to take care of. The straight pull spokes just wanted to spin in the hub so they wouldn’t tighten. My attempts at holding the spokes with pliers hadn’t managed to tighten them either and had just removed the black paint in a perfect pliers width strip of bare steel. The loosest ones I cut out and replaced. Done, I thought. But that didn’t stop me worrying if only in a minor way. I was still looking at buying a replacement wheel the day before I left, but it seemed a little extravagant. I did a couple of fully loaded rides to test it out and get used to the weight, and all felt good. Nothing unusual, no weird noises; a bit wobbly but straight pull steel spokes are strong and I was packing light so it’ll be ok right? I’ll just take a few spares and when they snap I’ll replace them.
The question I should have really asked myself was “Will the problem get better or worse as the trip progresses?” because this was the question I immediately asked myself when I was a long drive, a ferry and a few hours train ride away from home. Fully committed to my decisions and hoping for the best.
A short evening blast out of Cork and onward to a campsite ready for the real cycling to start tomorrow. It was as I arrived at the campsite and the approximately 20-25% gradient road that I heard it. In my lowest gears, pedalling – accelerating and pulling the spokes one way, and gravity decelerating me and pulling the spokes back the other way; the opposing movements causing the most unnerving creaking/clicking noises. The seed had been planted,
“What was that noise? – Is it the sound of spokes/rim/hub giving way through abrasion/fatigue/loading unevenly”
Paranoia would be in my cycling thoughts every pedal stroke of the next 1000+ miles unless I could fix this. I was committed at this point, but I hadn’t even started. Oops! I thought to myself.
So the next day I started, heading out with a target of about 90-100 miles to do and my thoughts finding it difficult to switch off and enjoy the ride. “Yeah I think it’ll be fine” would be replaced by: “Why did I not buy a new wheel when I had the chance? This is a disaster!” as soon as it got a bit steep, and it seemed to be getting worse quickly. Before I knew it I wasn’t cycling through Ireland, I was limping. I didn’t dare push hard on the ups or on the downs. I would wince as I hit rough ground and I was trying not to use the back brake at all to stop loading the spokes in opposite directions. I could cope with a few broken spokes, but this was taking over my whole enjoyment of the trip.
I overtook a middle aged local on his Trek Madone and started to chat.
“Is there a bike shop near here?” I asked
“I’ll take you to one and there is another in a town a few miles further on” was the very helpful and friendly reply.
As we pulled up to the closest bike shop, it was clear that it wasn’t the Mavic service centre I was hoping for. I thanked my guide before he left and I ventured into the shop. A range of children’s and basic bikes lined the walls along with more budget spare parts. The elderly shop owner emerged from the back room and ventured out to inspect the bike. I demonstrated the noise by holding the back brake on and rocking it back and forwards. With no disc brake wheels to sell me it immediately seemed like a pointless conversation. “It’s your brake that’s making that noise – that’s your problem. I’ve been doing this for 47 years, I know what I’m talking about. I’ll bet you a fiver I’m right” was how it started. After about 20 minutes of me disagreeing and the suggestion of jamming something in my spokes to see if he could stop the wheel without the brake I’d had enough, this was heading off in the completely wrong direction. I started the next sentence with “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve really got to go…”
So my next option was to find the next bike shop with my recently acquired directions. Next major town (Skibbereen), off the main car park and there it was, Roycroft Cycles, my new hope. I pulled in, demonstrated the noise. “Are you sure it’s the spokes and not the brake?”
“Yes, positive” I replied
“Ok, come back in one hour I’ll fix it by then”
Two hours later (after a huge lunch and a whole packet of chocolate brownies) and we’re both working on it; me using both hands to clamp the spokes with the biggest pair of pliers known to man, and the mechanic on the spoke wrench. Several road tests and some further adjustments later and a “That’ll do, it’s much better than it was” came out of my mouth. I could ride again with confidence thanks to this very patient man and probably the world’s best pair of pliers.
There were a few pings over the next few days as everything settled into place, but I could stop worrying and start enjoying. Focusing on the scenery, the friendly welcome from the locals (who will beep and wave at you from their cars to say “Welcome to my part of the world”), and the joys of cycling towards the horizon.
Approximately 1000 miles later, the back wheel is still going strong and I’m on my final full day of cycling. I’m in Northern Ireland, heading for the Giants Causeway. The sun is out and I have a bit of a tail wind, all is well. I change up a gear, the lever goes light and I’m dropped into my hardest gear. The cable has snapped at the shifter! Time to start asking about bike shops again.
The moral of the story? It could be to make sure your equipment is 100% before you set off, or that there will be people to help you along the way. I’ll leave that up to your interpretation (or to think about how scarce spare parts will be where you’re heading).