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On the kindness of passing bike commuters when you have a flat

Ride enough miles and its inevitable: That hissing sound, followed by the sensation that you just started biking through wet cement. But it’s not the pavement. Your tire just went flat. Damn.

But while fixing your flat, something almost magical happens: Nearly every stranger biking by suddenly turns into a friendly roadside assistance service.

“You got everything you need?” “Everything ok?” “Need any help?”

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photo-3A reader sent me a note this morning about how people passing him near Fisherman’s Terminal not only offered him help, but also did their part to help clear the glass that caused his flat from the trail:

Hi Tom,

Ran over a big ol’ pile of glass this morning near Fisherman’s Terminal.  As I was changing the flat in the sun next to the poppies growing out of the retaining wall, I warned other riders as they approached and nearly all of them stopped, asked if I needed any tools, and picked up a few handfuls of glass and threw them to the side of the trail.  Seattle commuters are the coolest peeps.

Ted Quanstrom

This is not about extraordinary acts of kindness, it’s about some kind of inherently understood sense of duty that everyday people assume when they hop on a bike. It’s just like how residents who know their neighbors and feel a sense of ownership over their neighborhood are more likely to pick up litter or clear a clogged storm drain in front of a stranger’s house down the street.

It’s not that people on bikes are inherently better people than people in cars. Being on a bike simply makes a person part of their surroundings, whereas a car is a closed environment moving through a space (just ask Louis C.K. how that works out).

It’s why, when I get really down about humanity after reading a horrifying abduction story out of Cleveland or hearing a depressing story about a former military drone pilot’s emotional trauma, I hop on my bike and suddenly am filled with hope that everyday people are genuinely loving and helpful when given the chance.

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17 responses to “On the kindness of passing bike commuters when you have a flat”

  1. Anthony

    Great post for a Friday! Nice and uplifting, and so true. Today is about the only day I am driving to work this month since I have to go to BC later. I miss my bike, makes me feel light years better before I get to work and afterwards.

  2. Travis

    Thank you for a hilarious link. I’ve turned into that frustrated driver too many times.

  3. Gary

    My kid had a flat on the way to work, didn’t have it in them to repair it and was walking the bike to work alongside the road and a off duty Seattle Police officer stopped and then drove them to work!

    I always ask folks as I roll by too. It’s just good karma.

  4. A

    Puncture resistant tires are such a necessity. I’ve never been able to get outside two weeks without a flat on “normal” tires in the city, vs running puncture resist (I’m a fan of Schwalbe personally) until the tread is gone. Of course I always carry a spare tube, whether it be for myself or to help out someone on the path.

  5. Rachel McCaffrey

    Another story for your Friday:

    A year ago in mid-July I was biking home from a friend’s going away party in Ballard to my apartment in Wallingford a little after midnight. Heading east on the Burke Gilman, I was riding through the section of the trail with a handful of truck crossings just before you enter the Fremont Canal Park when I had the misfortune of missing the ramp, hitting the curb, and hearing not one but BOTH of my tubes hiss and deflate. I let out a few expletives and as I roll my bike to a stop, realize there is some kind of midnight party going on in the park. There are 30+ drunk shadows wandering around everywhere and there is an enormous – albeit illegal, I am sure – bonfire, and everyone is drunkenly reacting to my bike mishap with “oooooh” “uh-oh!” “did you blow your tires?” and on and on. Two miles from my apartment at midnight with a non-functioning road bike, I’m a little pissed at this point and resist any help at first. I dismounted my bike and started walking it but all these nighttime partiers are repeatedly asking me about my tubes and if I want help. I told them I was walking home, no big deal, and they keep asking me if they can help me and then someone shouts out asking for tubes and calling out the size of my wheels and they’re, like, seriously going to help me. I then took a step back as one guy led the four-person save-Rachel’s-night endeavor. It turned out to be a group of partying bike mechanics who handed me a cold Rainier and didn’t patch, but replaced both my tubes in under 5 minutes by bike light. I stood there holding my bike light for them and barely spoke because I was so confused and in shock, while these bike angels saved what could have been a very long night. They were bemoaning how I blew both tubes and I merely said it had already been a not-so-good-night, to which one of them yells “get this girl another beer!!!”

    I remember asking them who they were or what this occasion was and being told something in response but I’ve tried Googling them to no avail. Oh well. Whoever you all are, thanks. There is still, one year later, a big, round black mark in the westmost end of Fremont Canal Park from their bonfire that night and every time I bike or run by, it reminds me of my good fortune and a group of very friendly, happy, and generous bicyclists.

  6. I’ve been on both ends of cycling roadside help, and I suspect anyone that rides long enough will be. Aside from mechanical issues, I’m asked for directions to places pretty often. This is one great advantage of building for walking and biking everywhere — if everyone around is in cars it’s hard to get directions, but in every place I’ve ever lived I’ve been asked for directions while out running, biking, walking, or catching the bus.

    I’ve had some pretty bad direction failures, of course… once I encountered someone that drove her car up onto the BGT in confusion near Gas Works, and was trying to find a location on Fairview (probably in SLU or Eastlake, as I realized later). For some reason I couldn’t remember where Fairview Street was, and was pretty useless in helping her. Then there was the guy that needed help getting to Lake City from Wallingford, and I couldn’t remember how to get going north toward Lake City Way from 45th (since turning left onto 11th is not allowed) so I sent him all the way down Sand Point Way, as if I-5 didn’t exist at all! If only!

  7. Ben Morris

    Great post, Tom!
    And synchronicity for me, as last Sunday afternoon I got a flat by Ravenna park/woods – in that alley paralleling. Multiple people riding by asked if I had everything or needed assistance – I keep EVERYTHING in my bike-bag, but thanks everyone! (I also discovered that a lot of people use that shortcut.)
    Previously, I had not a flat ‘on the road’ in about two years. Just lucky I guess! Of-course I’ve had ‘next-morning’ flats and slow leaking flats that I’ve managed to make it home on.

  8. Stopping to help definitely pays back in being helped later when you need it. I’d still like to thank the fast lady on the pink Davidson who helped me with flat at the WS bridge when I’d switched bike and forgot my tools and pump. And just a couple weeks ago I stopped at Judkins Park skate park where a young guy with a BMX and bike tatoos was pounding his chain with two rocks trying to get it together. Didn’t know if he’d want help from an old guy on a touring bike wearing helmet, safety vest etc. But as he tried my pliers he was identifying every Campy component in my drive drain by year and type, and he turned me on to Branford bike shop where he works and now I have a new resource for experts and parts.

  9. Gary


  10. Gary

    Lets hope that Branford bike shop has more than rocks in the tool department!

  11. Breadbaker

    One of my colleagues, who had bike-bused into work was talking about how he was going to ride the whole way from downtown to Mill Creek home. I got an email from him last night saying he had taken two hours to cover it (excellent time) but that that included stopping to help someone who had a flat by giving him an extra tube. Good karma, indeed!

  12. Doug

    Interesting. I’ve been running lightweight unarmored tires for all my uses — including daily commuting — for over a year now. I can count punctures on one hand.

    I think there’s more to flat tires than the tires themselves.

    1. @Doug: There’s certainly more to flats than the tires. With experience you learn to keep your air pressure high enough to avoid pinch flats, to scan the road ahead for debris and nasty pavement, and to ride light over bumps, to check your tires for embedded debris.

      Before I knew any of this I bought a road bike and my first few sets of tires were lightweight unarmored tires. I flatted maybe five times in a little less than a year before trying some tougher tires, on which I went years between flats despite still riding like an idiot. And gradually I’ve gained the knowledge that would have allowed me to get better results out of the lighter tires. I really should have started on the tough ones and moved toward the light ones instead of the other way around!

  13. Lindsay

    Great story, made me smile. thanks for sharing!

  14. @Rachel: Great!!!!!!

  15. A

    Got to love the over the top smugness of a roadie suggesting people get flats because they are “idiots”. The other end of the bike attitude spectrum from the subject of this article. Of course if you ride primarily in the burbs you pretty much don’t know what you’re talking about.

    1. Huh. I never thought calling myself an idiot would be interpreted as over the top smugness. To be sure, that wasn’t my intent, and like I said earlier, I’ve both helped people and been helped on the way, with various degrees of success. I definitely rode like an idiot for a few years, those being the first few years I rode with any speed (I grew up on bikes but apparently in a town with unusually good road and trail conditions). Generally it would be a good thing if more riders were steered toward lower-maintenance equipment — I certainly would have appreciated it!

      I wouldn’t say I ride primarily in the ‘burbs unless you’re one of those people that thinks pretty much all of Seattle is the ‘burbs (that’s not an unreasonable line of thought), but… anyway the suburbs hardly have perfect roads. Actually on my main commuter/utility ride I threw on Armadillos this past winter because of rough and debris-laden road conditions near the 520 construction on the eastside when I was working in Kirkland and frequently rode home in the rain at night. Thoroughly suburban Silicon Valley has mostly smooth roads but they pretty much sweep road debris into the bike lanes.

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