Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Michelin Wire: A Tire's Tiny Foe

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The pneumatic bicycle tire is one of humankind's great clever inventions but there are perils in this world ready to deflate our inflated egos and puncture our pneumatic joy. Ironically, one tiny, sharp and stealthy foe is born from the death of other tires. It is called the Michelin Wire.

You may have seen the carcasses by the roadside, the blown bits of some truck tire, looking like flattened alligators. Monsieur Michelin invented the steel-belted radial tire that the world adopted but nothing lasts forever and some will always push their equipment far past the point of prudence. Thus the roadside is littered with black bits, carcasses that even carrion crows refuse to feast upon.

The sun shines down and the wind blows and the rains come. With time the rubber bits crumble and rot away but the tiny threads, the stiff and stubbly wires, remain. Broken bits void of will or malice but drawn by something not entirely unlike magnetism or gravity toward the rubber treads rolling beneath the unsuspecting cyclist.

I know them far too well, these Michelin Wires. They strike most often on the darkest nights, when the rain is falling, when rider and machine are united in a common desire to be home or at the very least be in a clean, dry, and well-lighted place. But rider and machine are still far from home and comfort, they are out in the damp, unsuspecting.

The attacker is so small it is impossible to notice, impossible to avoid. It is subtle, slow and certain. At first the machine seems just ever so slightly sluggish and the rider persists. A bit further on the rear tire (for it's always the rear) is definitely going soft and suspicion grows in the rider's mind. The puncture is subtle, but in the time it takes a human mind to go through denial and bargaining, at least half the air is lost.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find the breach of pneumatic integrity within the skin of the rain-slicked tire. Fingers probe the inner surface, hoping for sharp pain to reveal the slow assassin. The rider tempts the tiny serpent to bite again, knowing brief certain pain is preferable to slow and relentless doom.

Luck may give the rider that certainty or prudence may have led the rider to carry not only a spare tube but a spare folding tire as well (Michelin Wires are a common cause for prudence among the most experienced randonneurs). If the rider is not so fortunate or prudent, the damp rain and the long ride with many pauses to re-inflate a slowly leaking tire will give ample time for reflection.

In the clear light of a dry, well-lit place, the tiny source of sadness may be located, extracted, examined and perhaps even photographed.
Image taken in my dry, well-lit kitchen

One can curse the Michelin Wires or perhaps take their existence as a reminder that small things can and do matter. The Dalai Lama said it best, "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito."
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