The road sweeps left beneath the intersection for Veracruz. At the apex of the bend we flash past a motorcyclist hunched over his machine. His luggage and various paraphernalia stand abandoned in the grass verge. ‘Maybe he needs help,’ I say, slamming on the anchors and reversing back up the hard shoulder. I wander back to where the guy is fretting with the drive chain, his face already streaked with grease.
We exchange names: René is riding his KTM Adventure from Canada to Argentina. ‘Except now I have a puncture,’ he says, finally releasing the drive chain from the rear sprocket. He pulls out the spindle and the wheel collapses on the road, along with a spacer and a couple of washers. We gather them up and place them on some cloth for later. ‘ The problem’, René says, ‘ is that I have no tool to break the bead of the tyre. Otherwise there is no problem, for I have another inner-tube…a brand-new one.’ ‘Aah, don’t worry about that.’ I leap to my feet. ‘I have just the tool. I tell you, I had to change a 4×4 tyre in Africa with this thing.’ I can see René’s looking pretty impressed with this nugget of information, yet I don’t feel it’s quite the right moment to mention how long it took me to change 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 near-by field of maize snatched up their tools and scurried into the forest. It’s all detail he doesn’t need to hear right now. And anyway, this is a motorcycle puncture…much easier to mend than a 4×4 puncture. As I march to the tool box and haul out the Tyrepliers the Voice of Reason, Christine, says, ‘Why don’t we take it to a tyre repairer to get it fixed? There must be one down the road.’ ‘No need,’ I reply. ‘I mean, imagine if right now we were in the middle of the Sahara Desert…then we’d just have to do it ourselves.’ ‘But we’re on the motorway to Puebla,’ the VOR replies, so totally not grasping the point. ‘ This is perfect,’ René calls as he catches sight of the Tyrepliers. I adjust the setting to fit the KTM’s wheel size and in no time we’ve ratcheted the tyre off the rim. Simple. ‘They make these in Australia,’ I tell him. We get to our feet to take a breather, thumping our chests with our clubs and feeling pretty bloody clever. ‘Are you a mechanic,’ René asks. ‘Oh, not really,’ I mumble. The VOR pops up and repeats, ‘I still think it would be easier to look for a tyre shop.’ We ignore her with a hearty chorus of, ‘It’ll be back together in no time.’ René hauls out the damaged inner-tube and carefully inserts the new one. ‘I’ve seen this done on Youtube,’ he mutters. I shoot him a nervous glance. ‘What…you mean you’ve never mended a puncture on this bike before?’ ‘No,’ he says. (Oh, shit!). I’m rather hoping he knows what to do. A heavy truck roars past and we rock in its vortex. It’s only now I notice how many black marks lead into the grass where we’re standing, evidence of the number of vehicles that have skidded off the road exactly at this point. A second truck roars past, almost sucking René and I into its wheel arch. ‘You won’t need that,’ I say, removing René’s hand pump to one side. ‘We’ll blow it up with the on-board compressor.’ ‘Great,’ he says, working the tyre back on the rim with his tyre-irons. ‘I’ve got some bigger ones,’ I tell him. ‘Just in case we need greater leverage.’ At about the same time we both remember how we need to lubricate the tyre to help it slide over the rim. How could we forget such a crucial element? The VOR knocks up a bowl of washing-up liquid which, for a while, works a treat. Then things start to get really tricky. ‘On Youtube they had this thing back on in no time,’ René’s saying. I propose using the bigger tyre-irons. We change position several times, stamp on the tyre once or twice and then proceed to hit it with a short piece of timber. I suggest trying something different and we drag a section of masonry from the undergrowth, to help get a better purchase. One hour has already lapsed. René suggests trying something else. We grunt a bit and the first swear words become audible. We take the tyre off and start again, though it doesn’t make an iota of difference: the last eighth of the tyre steadfastly refuses to slip over the rim. ‘I don’t want to nip the inner-tube,’ René says. A second hour drifts by. ‘Nearly there,’ I chirp. But no. It’s bollocks. It’s quite clear this just isn’t going to work. ‘I can’t do it,’ Rene finally gasps, looking rather puce. ‘Look at it,’ he says. Strips of wire reinforcement have sprung from a tear in the tyre. ‘I think we’ve knackered it.’ I hum softly. ‘Yes, I think we might have.’ René and I retreat to our metaphoric cave and discuss our next course of action. ‘Luckily, I have another tyre,’ he says. Black, storm-bearing clouds scud towards us. And it’s now 4.30 on a Friday afternoon. René can’t spend the night here, not beside this motorway with these crazy truckers. It starts to rain.
‘I can’t believe we couldn’t do it,’ I moan, still reluctant to concede defeat. ‘I don’t want to damage the second tyre,’ René declares. I’m with him all the way on that one. Which leaves us with one alternative: we have to find a tyre repairer. René guards his bike and luggage whilst the VOR and I take his wheel and new tyre in search of help. Five minutes down the motorway and we find a tyre repair service at the service station. It’s nothing too impressive, merely a lean-to containing a lot of shredded tyres, half a forty-gallon oil drum full of brackish water, a rusty compressor, a lethal array of metal bars and a bed. ‘I’m not sure about this place,’ I voice. ‘What if he destroys René’s second tyre?’ At the smell of money the tyre-man leaps from his bed. ‘No problem,’ he says in reply to all of our questions. ‘I can mend everything from a bicycle to a truck.’ But when I ask, ‘Where are the tools?’, he merely holds up his hands and beams. ‘I’m sure it’ ll be fine,’ says the VOR. ‘All the same, I think I should stay beside him and make sure he knows what he’s doing.’ I cringe as Tyre-man removes the damaged tyre with a few blows of his hammer. ‘You better check that inner-tube,’ I tell him. Sure enough, we’ve punctured it. In a whir of movement it’s scrubbed, glued and patched. Rather grudgingly I’m beginning to think this guy’s a bit of a gem. Within half an hour, with the aid of a paintbrush, a hammer and two screwdrivers René’s rear tyre is inflated and ready to roll. I growl inwardly. I’ve just spent the best part of two hours grovelling over that thing. ‘I think we should wait ten minutes,’ I mutter to the VOR. ‘He’s bound to have nipped the inner-tube.’ I hate this guy, though in truth I respect him deeply, for it’s such a beautifully fitted tyre. As for the Voice of Reason. Of course…she was right from the the start. Bugger!!