Thursday was another beautiful summer-like day, and I wanted to make the most of it. After I got off work around 4:30, I spontaneously decided to check out a new all-vegetarian Ethiopian food cart I had heard about. Google Maps told me it would take about an hour to bike there. I thought, Sounds perfect! Having had a late Clif bar instead of lunch, I trusted that my appetite would be perfect by 5:30. The route was pretty much a straight shot, and pretty flat. I would be done with dinner by about 6:15, and should even be able to get home with some light left in the sky.
I wasn’t on the Brompton; my daily commuter bike remains my beloved red 1979 Free Spirit.
I enjoyed the ride to the cart pod, and savored my kik alicha at a picnic table in perfect weather. My (pre-sanitized) hands got pretty messy with the meal, but I knew I could wash them at home, about seven miles away.
I threw away my dinner trash and put on my helmet. But as I began to roll the bike, I noticed the chain had come off.
In the 24 years I’ve had that bike, this has happened probably only five or six times. It never occurs to me to worry about it. Partly for this reason—and partly because I’m just lazy and hate doing bike repairs, and partly because for the past two years I have been paying for bike roadside assistance through Better World Club—I haven’t bothered to carry any tools with me. And, as I soon noticed with dismay, even the grease-covered rag I normally carry in my backpack in case of such events had been removed in preparation for my North Carolina trip, and I had not yet replaced it. So, my stash of paper napkins was the extent of my bike-repair preparedness.
I sighed, and hoped I could easily put the chain back on with my hands.
Nope. (But now my hands were filthy.)
It was thoroughly jammed. Only once before had I encountered this problem so badly, about ten years ago. I was at my workplace at the time, and two coworkers helped me and struggled with it until they finally righted it.
Those two were nowhere to be seen at the cart pod. I looked around to see if there was someone I could ask for help, or to borrow a tool. I felt embarrassed. Vulnerable. Stupid for being so unprepared. In pre-COVID times, I would have thought nothing of simply walking the bike to a bus stop and making the (lengthy, two-bus) trip home that way. But these days I’m doing my best to avoid enclosed auto spaces.
My eyes fell on a father and daughter sitting at the next table over, waiting for their food. I stepped awkwardly toward them. (The pandemic makes every social interaction more fraught: I wanted to get close enough that the father could hear me through my mask, but not closer than six feet.) I asked if he had any sort of tool I could borrow, to put the chain back on. He said no, but that maybe he could help with his hands. I felt further chagrined as he interrupted his chat with his daughter to blacken and grease up his own hands, before concluding that he couldn’t get it to budge either. I thanked him for the effort, and decided to look up nearby bike shops. Could I find one still open?
Google Maps showed a dearth of such, but there did appear to be one a few miles away that claimed to offer mobile repair. Great! Who knows what I might shell out for this, but it was exactly what I needed. I called the number, but got a voicemail box. Dejected, I hung up. A few seconds later, I received a text:
“Thank you for contacting XYZ Bikes. Please send a text with your name and description of which bike or service you seek. Thanks!”
Hmmm… maybe this could still work?I sent a brief explanatory text, as well as a photo of the chain’s predicament and my location.
After about ten anxious minutes, I decided it was time to call Better World to redeem one of my two annual roadside-assistance service calls. Maybe this could be an important “trial run” for me, with very low stakes. Yes, actually, this was a good thing! I could get in some practice close to home, on a pleasant-weather evening with buses not too far if I needed them.
I needed to find a place to make the call, though. The cart pod was noisy: music on the loudspeakers mingled with the rush of traffic on the busy road, not to mention all the ambient conversation. I walked as far away from it all as I could, and looked up Better World Club on Google, grimacing as I realized that if I had a membership card or number, I didn’t have it on me. I found the phone number and called it.
What I heard in “answer” was an extremely jarring sound, which cranked up my existing tension by several notches.
I hadn’t known it was possible for a phone connection to sound like this in the 21st century. I flashed back to a 1999 quote by comedian Dave Barry: “What, exactly, is the Internet? Basically it is a global network exchanging digitized data in such a way that any computer, anywhere, that is equipped with a device called a ‘modem,’ can make a noise like a duck choking on a kazoo.”
The sound I was hearing through my iPhone could best be described as 90% kazoo-choking duck, plus 10% what sounded like a standard automated phone menu:
“Press 1 for…” I had turned up the volume as high as it would go, to try to compete with the cart pod sounds, and this static blaring into my ear was an assault on both my senses and my sanity.
Cranky, bewildered, and increasingly anxious, I wondered how to respond to this. I pressed a series of 1s, hoping to somehow reach a live operator. This had little apparent effect; the squealing static continued. I moved the phone away from my ear and glanced at the home screen, wondering if I should hang up and call back, or…?
I spotted a new text from Better World, an Arizona phone number: “Reply with your vehicle’s location in the following format: Street# StreetName, City, State or click the link to automatically locate you.”
I hastily clicked the link, and the squealing-static automated voice blessedly gave way to the call ringing to an actual person.
This person was not much help. She asked if I were sitting in the vehicle. I explained it was a bicycle, and she seemed to understand, but then asked several questions that indicated she thought I meant a motorcycle.
I was not enjoying this customer-service experience.
Eventually she transferred me to the “bicycle division.”
A woman with a Southern accent and matching slow-paced demeanor answered, assuring me that she was happy to be providing me service this evening. By this time I had burrowed myself behind a closed food cart, next to a building wall, to get as far away from the noise as possible. The daylight was quickly fading, and I was losing patience: All I needed was a tow. Why was this so complicated? Why did this agent seem completely unconcerned with the urgency of my predicament?
I strained to stay polite and explain that I needed a tow for my bicycle.
This seemed to please her, and she continued to speak slowly but enthusiastically: “Oh! This is my first experience with a bicycle issue. I may need to ask my supervisor for help.”
“OK.” [Really? Does no other bicyclist use this service?]
She asked the “make and model” of my bike. [Again, really? I knew that the only service they would provide would be to send a tow truck. How much detail did they need?] I explained that it was a Free Spirit, a Sears. I didn’t know the model; it was from 1979.
“OK… now wait… did you say 1979, or 1976?”
[Are you freaking kidding me???]
“Haha, OK, that’s what I thought you said. But I just wanted to make sure.”
The conversation continued along these lines for probably another ten minutes. At one point she read out loud from her list of “vehicle options,” wondering if my bike might qualify as a “recreational vehicle”? [Please, no, this is not an RV.] At another point, she happily assured me that she had found my location on the map: “Buckman Field!” No, I told her—struggling to un-grit my teeth—that was seven miles west. “Ohhh… haha, OK, the street number is 15700, not 1500!” [I’m glad one of us is enjoying this conversation, ma’am.]
Her last question was whether I would prefer to receive a text or a phone call from the towing company—once she could locate one—to let me know when to expect them.
“How about both, to be on the safe side?”
“OK, sounds good…”
We got off the phone at 7:15. It had been 45 minutes since I had discovered the problem with the chain.
I walked back to my bike and sat in the waning light. I watched the workers at the Ethiopian cart close up shop.
Argh. This had started out as such a pleasant evening. How long was this ordeal going to last?
And what if I were on the top of a mountain right now, in Southern Oregon, in the dark and the rain? Or how about the middle of the highway in New Mexico, miles away from any tow trucks, or possibly even cell service?
What on earth am I getting myself into here?
How can I rely on people to help if I need it?
I guess I really do need to brush up on my bike-repair skills.
7:30. I get an automated call from Better World, telling me that ABC towing company, in Vancouver, Washington, was going to respond to my call, “in 120 minutes.”
Two more hours?
I mentally repeated the above hypothetical scenarios. If Portland, Oregon can’t produce bike roadside assistance faster than three hours, what hope do I have elsewhere?
I thought, There is no way I’m sitting in this nearly empty food cart pod at the edge of town for another two hours. I’ll walk to the bus, and cancel the tow.
Right then, the Ethiopian cart guy who had taken my order approached and asked if I was OK, if there was something wrong with my bike. He offered me a ride home, on his way home from work, and I was touched and humbled by his generosity.
But this was clearly my problem, not his, and I did not want to sully his car with my greasy bike. I thanked him for the offer, and indicated I would take the bus.
I set out to walk the 14 blocks to the bus stop. The road was unpaved and potholed, and I thought with a chuckle, Well, I guess my bike tour’s adventures are already beginning!
I felt dejected. Morose. This experience had shaken the sense of security that I had allowed myself to feel after enrolling in the roadside-assistance plan.
Clearly, though, this was all surmountable. I hadn’t even left Portland and its city-bus range! The evening was warm, and dry. I had options.
And… I know that I will always have options. I will undoubtedly face much more difficult obstacles once I begin the tour. And, I will find some way around each one. It will be an adventure, and that means there will be lots of fun, plus some big challenges and difficult times.
People do this.
I can do this.
The gravel under my feet turned to pavement, and the level road gave way to a slight downhill. I thought, Hey, maybe I can’t pedal, but at least I can coast, eh? I hopped up on the saddle and rolled about half a block. I even tried pedaling for a second, just to feel how badly the chain was stuck.
And… the pedal seemed to work.
I pedaled again. The gears engaged.
This wasn’t possible. The chain was hopelessly jammed. Was I dreaming? Had this entire scenario been an elaborate anxiety nightmare?
I hopped off the bike just as I hit Burnside Street. Pulled onto the sidewalk, and examined the cassette.
The chain was on. Like nothing ever happened.
What in the ever-loving…??? What??
OK… I’ll take it…?
And I rode all the way home.