The cyclist slows just a bit before passing me. I don't look up from the wheel I have in my hand. I just make a fist with my thumb up in the air.
"Have everything you need?"I wave him on and continue to unscrew the knurled nut from the valve stem of my new tube. I retrieve my two foot long silver hand pump from where it sits in my frame's seat stay and, after threading one end of the flex hose into the end of the pump and the other onto the presta valve, I retract and compress the pump handle 10 times. The tube fills out a bit. I remove the pump from the valve and toss the tube aside.
Rummaging in my handlebar bag I bring out my tire levers and shove first one, between the tan sidewall of the tire and the inside wall of the rim, then the other. Working with one lever to move aside the tire and prying with the other under the tire bead, I apply pressure till a section of the bead is pealed out from under the hooked edge and pulled to the outside of the rim. I hook the back end of the lever to a spoke and work the other lever under the bead next to the hooked tire lever. I run the lever along the entire bead till one side is off the rim.
The two levers slip and fall to the ground. Streaks of moisture, grease and road grime show up on my bib shorts where I wipe my hands. I undo the knurled nut on the presta valve stem and pulling aside the tire near it, press the stem back through it's hole into the rim. I pull the useless thing out and toss it in the opposite direction of the inflated tube. I bend at the waist with the tire and rim in my hand and between my legs, turning the wheel in place probing my fingers inside the tire, going centimeter by centimeter. I smooth as much of the tire between my thumb, fore and middle fingers as I can with each swipe, checking for imperfections. The herring bone tread on the sides is missing in some places, the ribbing on the center strip has completely disappeared, some threads of the tires casing are broken and frayed. In some places, there are cuts in the tread that look vulnerable at first, but, upon closer inspection are nothing to worry about.
I pull the piece of glass from the tire. No bigger than a rice grain, you can barely tell what it is until the light catches it. For an instant, against a tar-black hand, it becomes a tiny ball of fire, that catches on the small lines of a palm that identifies you and no one else. It sears a mark that runs up the veins of a sweat stained wrist, along your ulnar nerve in your forearm, through your olecranon, around the back of your tricep, under your scapula, up your spine, jumping from vertebrae to vertebrae and colliding at the base of your skull. Your jaw clenches. I look at you standing there, your jaw clenched. I put a hand on your shoulder. I ask you who we should blame. We both shrug. I let go and pick up the tube I had inflated minutes before. Alone on the side of the road.
It isn't inflated anymore.