The road swept left beneath the intersection for Veracruz. At the apex of the bend we flashed past a motorcyclist hunched over his machine. His luggage and various paraphernalia lay abandoned in the grass verge.
‘Maybe he needs help,’ I said, slamming on the anchors and reversing back up the hard shoulder.
I wandered back to where the guy fretted over the motorcycle’s drive chain, his face already streaked with grease. We exchanged names: René was riding his KTM 990 Adventure from Canada to Argentina.
‘Except now I have a puncture,’ he announced.
Finally releasing the drive chain from the rear sprocket, he pulled out the spindle and the rear wheel collapsed onto the road, along with a spacer and a couple of washers. We gathered them up, placing them on a scrap of cloth for later.
‘The problem,’ René said, ‘is that I have no tool to break the bead. Otherwise there is no problem, for I have another inner tube … a brand-new one.’
‘Ah, don’t worry about the bead,’ I said, leaping to my feet. ‘I have just the tool for breaking beads. I tell you, I had to repair a 4x4 tyre in Africa with this thing.’
I could see René looked pretty impressed, so I deemed it inappropriate to mention how long it had taken me to repair that tyre, nor how my first effort resulted in a second puncture, or even that the air was so blue, a couple of smallholders working a nearby field of maize snatched up their tools and scurried into the forest. It was all detail he didn’t need to hear. Besides, a motorcycle puncture is much easier to fix than one on a 4x4.
As I marched to the toolbox and hauled out the Tyrepliers, the Voice of Reason, Christine, said, ‘Why don’t we take it to a tyre repairer? There must be one down the road.’
‘No need for that,’ I replied. ‘I mean, imagine we’re in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni … then we’d just have to do it ourselves.’
‘But we’re on the motorway to Puebla,’ the VOR countered, so totally not getting it.
‘This is perfect,’ René called, catching sight of the Tyrepliers.
I adjusted the setting to fit the KTM’s wheel size; in no time we’d ratcheted the tyre from the rim. Simple. We got to our feet to snatch a breather, thumping our chests with our clubs and feeling pretty bloody clever.
‘Are you a mechanic?’ René asked.
For some reason the VOR deemed this an opportune moment to pipe in with, ‘I still think we should look for a tyre repairer.’
René and I ignored her. ‘It’ll be done in no time,’ we chorused.
My new friend hauled out the damaged inner tube and carefully inserted a new one.
‘I’ve seen this done on YouTube,’ he said.
I shot him a nervous glance. ‘You mean you’ve never actually mended a puncture on this bike?’
I swore silently over my left shoulder, for I was rather hoping René knew what he was doing.
A truck rumbled past, leaving us to sway in its vortex. It was only then I noticed how many black tyre marks led into the grass where we stood, evidence as to the number of vehicles skidding off the road exactly at this point. It was not encouraging. And then a second truck roared by, almost sucking us into its front wheel arch.
‘You won’t need that.’ I moved the hand pump to one side. ‘We’ll inflate it with the on-board compressor.’
‘Perfect,’ René said, working the tyre back on the rim with his mini tyre-irons.
‘I’ve got some bigger ones,’ I told him. ‘Just in case we need more leverage.’
At about the same time we both remembered how we needed to lubricate the tyre, to help it slide over the rim. How could we forget such a crucial element? The VOR knocked up a bowl of washing-up liquid which, for a while, worked a treat.
Then things started to get really tricky.
‘On the YouTube film, they had their tyre back on in no time,’ René divulged.
I proposed using my bigger tyre-irons. We changed position several times, stamped on the tyre once or twice and proceeded to hit it with a short piece of timber. I suggested trying something different and dragged a section of masonry from the undergrowth, to help get a better purchase. One hour had already lapsed. René made an alternative suggestion, which caused us to grunt and swear. We took off the tyre and started again, though it made not an iota of difference: the last eighth of the tyre steadfastly refused to slip over the rim.
A second hour drifted by.
‘Nearly there,’ I chirped.
But no. it was all bollocks.
‘I can’t do it,’ René gasped, looking rather puce.
Strips of wire reinforcement had sprung from a tear we’d inflicted on the tyre. He forlornly snipped them off with a pair of pliers. It was hopeless.
‘It’s knackered,’ I mumbled.
René and I retreated to our metaphoric cave and discussed the next course of action.
‘Luckily, I have another tyre,’ he said. ‘But I really don’t want it ending up like this one.’
I was with him all the way on that. Which, regrettably, left us with only one option.
I loaded the wheel and the good tyre into the back of the camper, leaving René to guard his bike and luggage. By now it was 4.30 on a Friday afternoon. Black, storm-bearing clouds raced towards us. Flabby drops of rain splattered on the windscreen.
Five minutes down the highway we found a tyre repair service. It was nothing impressive, merely a lean-to containing a lot of shredded tyres, a drum full of brackish water, a rusty compressor, a lethal array of metal bars and a rumpled bed.
‘I’m not sure about this place,’ I voiced. ‘What if he destroys René’s second tyre?’
At the smell of money, Tyre-man leapt from his bed.
‘No problem,’ he said, to every one of our questions. ‘I can mend everything from a bicycle to a truck.’
‘I’m sure it’ll be fine,’ said the VOR.
‘I’ll stay beside him … to make sure he knows what he’s doing.’
I cringed as Tyre-man removed the damaged tyre with a few spoke-ringing blows of his hammer.
‘You better check the inner tube,’ I told him.
Sure enough, we’d punctured it. In a whir of movement, the inner tube was scrubbed, glued and patched. Within half an hour, with the aid of a paintbrush, a hammer, two screwdrivers and a lot of good humour, René’s tyre was re-inflated and ready to roll.
I growled inwardly.
‘We should wait ten minutes,’ I muttered. ‘He’s bound to have nipped the inner tube.’
I hated this guy, though in truth I respected him deeply. It was such a beautifully fitted tyre.
As for the Voice of reason: of course, she was right from the start. Damn it!!
(This article first appeared in THE OVERLAND MAGAZINE)