Breakdown and Repair: the Master of Nanning

This blog post is for all you gearheads and amateur bike mechanics out there (you know who you are). I'm also sharing this with the folks at Bike Friday who built my bicycle and trailer, so they can learn from what happened to me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my bike broke down in the mountains of rural Guanxi province, on the sixth day of an 8-day trip from Guilin to Nanning. I had already biked about 50 mountainous miles of rough road that day, and I was resting in a rural bus shelter before the final push to the next town, where I hoped to find a hotel and food. It was about 10 miles away. After eating, drinking and staring vacantly at a trail of ants for a few minutes, I made myself get up. I knew the town wasn't much further, but the hill in front of me looked steep, and the day was getting late. I didn't want to be pedaling out here in the dark. I put away the food and started pushing my bike back toward the lip of the asphalt.

That's when I noticed the nose of the bike trailer dragging in the gravel. Uh oh. I bent down to look closer, and realized that that rigid metal frame on the underside of the trailer was no longer… rigid. A joint near the front of the trailer had failed, the two metal tubes no longer fitting together snugly. They were still connected, but loosely, and the wobble meant the trailer's nose was hovering just centimeters above the level road bed — and striking ground every time I went over a bump. I knew that if the joint bent any further, I would be stuck. The trailer carries all my stuff – clothes, water, food, spare parts. Aside from a small daypack attached to the seatpost, I don't have any panniers.

I had brought a huge assortment of tools and spare parts, but no welding equipment. And there was nothing around for miles. I used some duct tape and sticks to make a pathetic little splint around the busted joint — it made me feel better, if nothing else — and then I continued slowly on my way. The steep hill in front of me went on and on and ON — turns out it was the biggest pass I climbed that day. The town was at the base of the pass, on the other side. I was riding the brake all the way down the hill, wincing every time I hit a bump, waiting for the trailer to come crashing down behind me. But it held.

When I got to the edge of town, a motorcyclist waved at me from the side of the road. It was a solo tourist from Wuzhou that I'd met earlier that day at my lunch stop. Once he realized my situation, he was incredibly helpful and kind. We found a mechanic just before it got dark. The mechanic replaced my wooden splint with a metal one. It was a definite improvement, but I could still feel the joint wobbling inside the split. I didn't trust it to hold for long. I went to sleep that night wondering if my bike journey was over.

The next day I decided not to risk it, so I caught a bus to Nanning where I had been planning to end this leg of the trip. The family of my father's wife live there, and we'd been corresponding about my visit. I was three days early. “Uncle Wu” met me at the bus station and I showed him the situation with my bike trailer.

“Don't worry,” said Wu, who speaks a little English. “We can find fix.”

The next morning, we took the trailer to a motorcycle mechanic near Wu's house. After we explained the situation, the mechanic walked away and got on his phone. Then he sat down, lit a cigarette, and stared out at the road.

Wu explained that the mechanic didn't know how to fix my bike trailer, so he had called his “master.” Wu sat down and lit a cigarette too.”What's he doing?” I asked Wu. “Why is he just sitting there?”

About 30 minutes later, a guy rolled up on a motorcycle, flip flops on his feet, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Everyone jumped up when he entered. Wu and the other mechanic yammered at him while he gazed at my bike trailer and occasionally muttered a few words. He picked up a bolt about six inches long and turned it slowly in his hands. Then he set to work.

First he inserted the bolt into the hollow metal tube of the frame, hammering the end until it fit snugly inside. Then he ground away the head of the bolt.

Next he soldered the bolt in place, to make sure it stayed put. A pair of cheap ladies sunglasses was his only nod to safety equipment.

Then he drilled a hole into the other end of the bolt, so that it could be secured into the other piece of the frame. What do you think he used to hold the part in place while he drilled it? Why, his flip-flops, of course.


By this time, about ten people had gathered around to watch the Master at work. Here's the final product, side by side with a similar bolt.

Before and after


Another view of the newly improved piece, with the trailer case in the background.


This piece fits snugly into the other piece of the frame, secured by an (original) bolt that holds the joint together and attaches the frame to the trailercase itself. When I put it all together again, it was rock solid. Since the repair I've biked hundreds of miles across northern Thailand, and it hasn't budged.

Guess how much the Master asked me for this repair? About $6. This guy had salvaged my whole trip, for the price of a burrito. I gave him the equivalent of $20 and told him to keep the change.



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