One of the Worst Things That Can Happen (to a bicycle) Finally Does, and It’s Not All That Bad

Before leaving Korea, I made sure to prepare for just about any and all possible road eventualities.  I have shirts for different situations and temperatures.  I have Tupperware for my leftovers.  I have a spare tube and not one but TWO pumps.  Several extra pairs of brake pads, brake cables, and gear cables.  A decoy wallet filled with expired cards.  Beastly tires that can roll right on over shards of glass.  A Steripen © UV Water Sterlizer.  And so on. 
One thing I didn’t furnish myself with, though, was extra spokes.  Primarily because I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them, and also because I figured the chance of needing them would be pretty low – after all, how many people are even aware that the spokes do anything, anyway?  That negligence came back today and gave me a big, swift kick in the junk.
Like any other day, I was riding along taking delight in the scenery.  I’m currently roaming around Fujian, a province of China that I had never seen on a menu and so never knew existed until I realized I had to pass through it.  Nothing against the other provinces, of course, but the Fujian countryside really is wonderful.  It’s full of hills, which means that it’s underdeveloped and underpopulated and what buildings there are small enough that they don’t overshadow their surroundings.  The hills all max out at about 300 meters, so the climbs are short and not too intense.   All the wet and warmth of the subtropical climate make plants go wild; whereas the forests up North were all pretty clearly man-planted, the ones down here are lush and varied and overflowing and awe-inspiring.  Slender, solitary bamboo stalks shooting ten meters up into the air, Banyan trees lowering their tentacles, Banana tree leaves bigger than my body.  And a river runs through it, too: the Minjiang, as wide as the parts of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers that I saw, but clearer and with less traffic.  My belly was full of chow mein, the previous day’s rainclouds had vanished, and the cars were few and far between.  In other words, it was a perfect day. 
(I wish I had taken more pictures of the scenery, but I thought I had all day ahead of me…)
Until I heard a giant TWANG! Like a piano string snapping.  I knew immediately what had happened, since there’s only one part on the bicycle that can make that noise.  A quick look down confirmed it: sure enough, one of the spokes on my rear wheel had snapped off at the socket.  Actually, while giving my breaks a tune up before setting out, I had noticed that my rim wasn’t quite straight.  I had hoped that it could hold out another 500km until I got to Taiwan and visited a bike shop near my friends’ house where the owner speaks good English.  No such luck. 
Not good.  
Worse than that, since all the spokes work together to hold the weight of the bike, losing one is like pulling a block out from the lowest rung of a Jenga tower.  All the extra slack has to be taken up by the other spokes, which are therefore more likely to dislodge or bend or break, again and again in a vicious cycle.  I don’t even know what would happen if half or more of the spokes broke.  Would I even be able to push the bicycle along?
Totally at a loss, I dismounted myself and all my bags and sat down on the side of the road for a few minutes.   A road-cleaning crew came by and informed me that my only choice was to double back to a village about 5km down the mountain I had been climbing. I really didn’t want to get back on the bike for fear of doing permanent damage to the rim, but aside from taking my chance with hitchhiking for the next 120 km, I didn’t see what I could do.  I popped back on and just as I made it to the village a second TWANG rang out.  Another spoke had snapped and then managed to get itself twisted around inside of the rear gear cassette.  Fortunately, I was right in front of a police station and was able to get directions to a bike shop nearby.  Unfortunately, the mechanic didn’t have any spokes.  Least fortunately, she also told me that the only bus to Fuzhou, the capital of the province, left at 7:30 the following morning.
I would prefer it if this spoke were: a)straight and b) attached to my rim, please. 
That’s not right.
I pushed the bike ever-so-gingerly back to the police station to ask what to do next.  Eager to help, one of the officers brought out a pair of pliers and suggested that I take one of the snapped spokes and twist it around the functioning ones.  Surely that would do the trick and allow me to ride all the way to Fuzhou.  Once I had convinced him that I couldn’t even ride the bicycle for one kilometer in that state, he told me that I had no choice but to hitchhike.
Thankfully, within about thirty minutes a guy with an empty minivan came by and offered to take me to the next town with bus service to Fuzhou, about 40km away.  Some heated bartering ensued as I heartlessly talked him down to 70Y from his initial offer of 100, and then some awkward riding time as he responded to my comments about the scenery by screaming and cackling and doing his best “mad gunman at the top of the mountain shooting randomly at the villagers below” impression, if that’s what it was.  He dropped me off where he said he would, though, and didn’t give me any trouble about the price in the end.  I resumed my hitchhiking until the luxury bus came by and charged me another 80Y (more than the price of my 450km train journey two nights before!).  
Not pictured: my despair.
Might as well have a good time, eh?
A few hours later the bus reached Fuzhou, and after about an hour of pushing my bike around following the Chinese version of GoogleMaps, I finally found a bicycle shop that could help me out.  I had a little chat with the boss, received a lesson on spoke maintenance from the mechanic, got my back gears a much needed cleaning, and only had to pay a pittance (20Y) for parts – calling me “Xiongdi” (brother) they comped the labor, even though the job they did would have cost me at least 30 bucks in Korea!  
So, now I’m here, having spent more in one day than in an average week on the road, and yet I still probably came out ahead money-wise.  Better yet, I’m ahead of schedule and my bike that feels newer than the day I bought it.  I’ve also got a few more “brothers,” even more love for China, a bit more knowledge about the bike, and some more spare parts to see me through my next emergency.  And, lastly, the confidence that comes from seeing a nightmare come true but working through it and making it to the other side unscathed.  Lesson learned.


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5 Responses to One of the Worst Things That Can Happen (to a bicycle) Finally Does, and It’s Not All That Bad

  1. chris green says:

    I’ve never read a story of a spoke breaking. Your articulation of the event made it seem not merely surmountable, but exciting to confront whatever comes in life with an openness to learn and embrace the difficulty for all it has to offer. Glad there wasn’t any permanent damage to the ride bro.

  2. AZ says:

    That must have been quite spo(o)ky! I’m glad you “spoke” to people who were able to help you.
    Bad punnily yours,

  3. Mike says:

    CG: When you ride with 30kg for 5000km, something is bound to break, I suppose! That sort of minor catastrophe really builds confidence though. Now it seems like no matter what happens (with a few exceptions, of course), I’ll be able to get out of the mess for less than twenty bucks. Totally not worth worrying about until it happens!

    AZ: One more bad pun and I’m going to sPoke your eyes out.

  4. Would it be non-environ(mental)ly friendly to suggest a new set of wheels for the cycle?

  5. Mike says:

    If it were really necessary, I’d bite the bullet and do it. For the moment, though, everything is working fine. The mechanics all say there’s no problem with the rim. The best solution is for me to learn a little more about maintenance so I can catch spoke issues early.