"Getting a flat tire"... a nice framework for thinking about the fine art of problem solving.

There is a realization that comes with uttering the words, "Oh-oh, I think I have a flat" when you ride a bicycle; literally your journey has come to a complete halt and emotionally you have just come face to face with something that is 100% yours - Your flat, your bike, your problem to fix.

Don't get me wrong, fellow riders are always concerned for your safety and willing to help, but there is an expectation you should know how to deal with your own tires (for no other reason then one day you may be all alone and unlike your car, a bike offers no shelter from the elements as you wait for CAA or AAA to arrive). Recently, one of the riders I train with experienced back to back flat tires; this not only allowed him to practice changing a tire but also illustrated a nice framework for thinking about the fine art of problem solving... all very transferable outside the world of amateur cycling. 

It is probably worth offering a quick overview of changing a tire, as it will help with the colourful illustrations regarding problem solving that are to come (feel free to skip this part if you are all too familiar with fixing flats): 

After you find yourself uttering the phase "Oh-oh, I think I have a flat", it's important to pull over to the side of the road and assess the situation - Is the tire completely flat, partially flat and could you get to your destination (without damaging your rim) by simply pumping up your tube? If the answer is "no" and you will need to repair the tire, the following is needed: a spare tube, tire levers, a pump and a sunny day (the latter is preferred but not mandatory). The steps for repairing a flat tire go something like this:

  1. Remove the wheel from your bike. The front wheel is easier than the rear because you don't have to deal with the chain (and far less messy).
  2. Remove the round nut that secures the value to the rim.
  3. Using the tire levers pry the tire away from the rim and fully separate one side of the tire from the rim enabling you to get at the tube. This will require two levers, some muscle, and the knowledge you will get better with practice.
  4.  Pull the damaged tube away from the rim and tire (you don't have to be gentle as it's already damaged). Put the round nut back on the value and keep the tube to be repaired later.
  5.  Remove the round nut from the valve of your replacement tube and put it to the side. Inflate the tube slightly and then insert the value in the hole in the rim while pushing the rest of the tube around the rim under the tire. Finish by putting the round nut back on the valve. 
  6. Now for the tricky part - Fit the tire back onto the rim so the tube is inside the tire using your hands. Some people can do this just using their hands, but I need the levers to get the whole tire back on the rim because there is always part that needs some extra help to fold it over the rim. If you are not careful here, you can "pinch" the tube and put a hole in the tube.
  7. Inflate the tire and hope the tube didn't get pinched or the tire valve isn't faulty. Tighten the round valve bolt so it is against the rim. If this doesn't go well you will need to go back to step 2 and repeat. If this happens, hopefully you know someone close by who has a spare or you happen to be carrying a second tube. 
  8. Enjoy the rest of your ride.
  9. Once you get back repair the hole in your old tube or buy a new one before you ride again.
  10. Check the tire you repaired before you ride again... just in case

I've included the link to a video that outlines the fine art of fixing a flat.

These were the steps I watched a couple of times while offering moral support, the odd piece of advice, and experienced a nice framework for thinking about the fine art of problem solving.

Sooner or later problems will occur; they are inevitable: Problems will happen, and as much as you may be able to prevent some of them, you can't control the unexpected and unforeseen (you may be able to avoid the glass but not a faulty valve that decided to leak 20 kilometres into your ride) - Problems will happen so deal with them intellectually and not emotionally (screaming at the cycling gods serves no one).

Anticipate and prepare for problems to the best of your ability: It is a given that if you ride a bike you will get a flat tire so carry a spare tube, a pump, the levers to fix it, and ensure you've watched a Youtube video on "fixing a flat". If you are an active rider you probably should have a chain tool as chains break too - Spend time understanding the problems that could occur and prepare yourself as best you can; it will get you back on your bike sooner.

Evaluate the problem in context with your situation and determine the best course of action: A slow leak may afford the short term fix of just pumping up the tire so you can get back home before it rains; changing a tire in a dry garage is preferable to being on the side of the road in the rain - Sometimes there are a number of "fixes" available before you eventually solve the problem.

Problems always find better solutions when more people are involved: Although getting a flat does occur, it doesn't happen that often so it's easy to forget how to be efficient at fixing it. Having others around who may have more experience and offer advice is helpful, as well as having the ability to borrow another tube when you realize your spare is defective - Take advantage of the resources around you to solve your problem quicker.

Problem solving usually consists of a number of steps, each of which can create their own problems: A lever breaks, you lose the round valve nut or it turns out your pump isn't working - Don't underestimate how the simplest of solutions can turn complex very quickly.

The more problems you deal with, the better you get at dealing with them: The more you fix a flat tire the better you will get... and better understand the mechanics of your bicycle for that matter - Don't be afraid to take on situations and the inevitable problems that come with them; they will make you more capable.

Learn from your problems and try not to repeat them; with that said, be prepared to deal with them again in the future: Try to understand why you got the flat. Did you ride over something sharp and need to be more attentive, or are you buying a poor make of tube and need to change manufactures? - Use problems as opportunities to learn for the "next time" and make sure you have have a new replacement tube.

The ride is well worth all the problems that may come your way: It is a beautiful thing to ride a country road on a hot summer day; well worth any problem that may come your way - Don't let problems stand in the way of your goals. Deal with them head on, get them behind you, and enjoy the ride.

My next ride is this coming weekend and hopefully it's not my turn to get a flat. Although it's an easy problem to solve, it's still a pain in the ass.


PS: I would be remiss if I didn't include a link to "A shameless plea to support a very noble purpose (with an endearing story included as a thank you)", as it is one of the reasons we risk all of those flat tires.