16th: After a day recovering from the drive down by the poolside, I dig out the bikes lurking at the back of the shed halfway down the garden, nestled between an apple tree and the olive trees all over the plot. They are both sturdy, and three out of their four tyres are still semi-inflated despite months of not being used.
There are boxes of cycle repair kits in the store room at the villa, and a variety of pumps. Jim brings these down to the shed, and we pump up the three good tyres so that they are nice and firm, and then turn our attention the one that is troublesome. We fill an old blue bowl with water, lever out the inner tube and pump it up, and then try to locate the source of the puncture. After a while, it becomes apparent that the problem is not with the tyre but with the valve, which seems to have got some grit in it that is letting out the air. We shoot air through it, and the water bubbles furiously as we dunk the valve under to clear it. We are both somewhat astonished when that seems to sort out the problem. We pump up the remining tyre, and put a cap on the valve from Jim’s toolbox.
Jim tells me that he purchased the bikes in the mid 1990s, and that they were already 15 years old when he bought them. So they are nearly 40 years old, and still working perfectly.
Imagine a car lasting that long! Somehow they remind me of the first car I ever owned, an ancient VW Beetle that I bought from a nurse for £400. Everything about this car was mechanical: you could change the oil, the lights, the spark plugs, and the various belts in the engine without ever needing a garage. I had various manuals that told you how to disassemble the whole engine and put a new one in, although I never tried it. My point is that, since then, in the name of progress, we have actually become ever more dependent. Every bit of the car has been worked over and redesigned so that it is an inaccessible mystery that only the high priests with their diagnostic programs can comprehend. Even changing a light-bulb requires a trip down to the garage, where someone with special tools will open up the headlight panel, as if with a magic key, and then charge you £40 for his labour. And if you have a puncture, most people will call on their roadside help organisation, rather than jack up the car and wield the spanner themselves.
It’s undeniable that bikes have also become more complicated. The derailer on my e-bike looks fearsomely intricate, for example. But at least it is accessible. If I were on the road, I would have a fighting chance of sorting out some problem if disaster struck. It felt more by luck than judgement but Jim and I had just sorted out a leaky valve.
This made me feel more connected. Unlike the disembodied bureaucracies that increasingly dominate our lives, the bike is like a clear lagoon of tangible reality. There is no mystery in it, but rather the reassurance of simple fact. A chain is broken. A tyre is punctured. The brake cable is loose. The valve leaks.
Of course, electricity takes things to a new level but there is still a reassuring familiarity about what is going on. You screw in a new bulb and the front light works. You plug in the battery and it charges.