About fifteen miles south of Culpeper, VA (not spelled incorrectly), I started to hear the little pops of gravel kicking off of my front tire and into my fender. This surprised me a bit, as I was riding along the "shoulder" of VA-15, a paved highway with no gravel and little debris. Shoulder is in quotes, as the width of the space that I rode in did not quite span the distance across an infant's shoulders. A few miles later, it sounded as though the issue was not gravel, instead VDOT had in fact laid down a thick cover of invisible cinders to prepare the roads for the invisible snowstorm that was on its way. I hadn't realized that VA's DOT had such a large budget, as invisible cinders, custom made as they are, tend to be on the expensive side, but who am I to tell a commonwealth how to spend it's tax dollars. Anyway, while I didn't find the notion of invisible cinders that odd, I did find it unbelievable that a blizzard was on its way. It had been in the 90's all week, and I was almost certain that it does not snow while the temperature is that high.
Based on that meteorological assumption, I decided to pull over to see what was causing the racket. Upon my initial inspection, I noticed a small zip-tie hanging from my frame near my front rim. I wasn't sure what it had been connected to, but it probably held a cable or wire in place, so I pulled it off and then inspected my wheel for loose hanging bits that could be clanging off of my spoke into my fender. Nothing. I hoped it was just the loose zip-tie and continued on my way.
It wasn't the zip-tie! It wasn't a cable-tie either, if you had been silently correcting me from zip to cable. My hope at that point was to just ignore it and hope that the sound ceased on its own, an optimistic if not realistic approach to problem solving. With around ten miles of highway separating me from the city missing a 'P', the sound of gravel kicking off of my fenders finally stopped, but it was replaced by the sound of pebbles kicking off of my spokes. Invisible pebbles, as you all well know, are where I draw the line. It was time for drastic measures.
Drastic measures, in this case, meant pulling off of the highway entirely to give a thorough inspection of my front wheel. Stated like that, it doesn't sound like a drastic measure, but it most definitely was not something I was looking forward to, as the only place to pull over off of the highway was into the thigh-high grass alongside the micro-shoulder. The tall grass was also a tall, soaking wet grass, as it had been drenched by the steady drizzle of rain that had been falling for the past two days straight and was, at the time, still falling. Additionally, the sun had already disappeared from the sky, forcing me to find the headlamp I had stowed in a rear pannier. Dark, wet, roadside repairs were hardly something to look forward to.
Lamped-up as car zipped by just feet away, I lifted up the front of my bike and gave the wheel a spin. After little over half of a rotation, the wheel wobbled to a stop. My front hub was a dynamo hub (Shimano Alfine), and the wobble was the magnets within the hub fighting to get the wheel to stop in a specific polar groove. The wobble wasn't the problem, it was the lack of desire to rotate. The amount of resistance my hub was exerting meant that this wasn't going to be something that could be fixed with a little grease. It meant I needed a shop. I didn't have a shop, so I did the next best thing, which was to pretend nothing was wrong and keep riding.
So ride I did. For the next ten miles I listened to my poor hub degrade from little pops, to moderate pings, and finally giving way to a loud grinding noise with scattered snaps and cracks. Along with the advent of the grinding came a steady side-to-side wobble to the wheel and a flickering of my dynamo headlight. The reason I was on VA-15 was to avoid the hilly side-roads. There was no way to avoid the hills entirely, though, and every time I reached a downhill stretch, my heart raced as I gained gravity-augmented speed, expecting my front wheel to entirely collapse, tossing me into the highway underneath an F150 with a raised suspension and stars n' bars bumper sticker.
I couldn't have been more relieved to see the glowing sign above the Red Carpet Inn at the southern tip of town. The front office smelled of home cooking and body odor, a scent profile I'd have found more disconcerting in less inauspicious circumstances. After checking in, I headed to my room, which was one of the last rooms in the hotel, making it one of the last rooms in the whole town as well as some of its neighboring villages for reasons I still can't imagine. Less a motel room and more an ashtray with a roof, opening the door released an exhalation of smoke leaving me to wonder if the designation of "Smoking Room" meant that people were allowed to smoke within its confines, or if the room itself actually smoked, and if the latter, where would a hotel room even buy cigarettes?
Stripping out of my wet clothing as quickly as possible, I grabbed a quick, hot shower before bothering to look at what I by now assumed was a thoroughly demolished hub. Clean and dry, I popped all of the panniers off of Bionic Tibor and then removed my front wheel. I could barely make it budge without a strong tug. After 10,000+ miles, my hub had finally given out. You done well, partner.
It was the last day of September, and I had ridden over 1,100 miles since Jackson, MS a couple weeks prior. With less than 250 miles to my final destination, I called it a tour. I wasn't going anywhere without a wheel and I wasn't getting a wheel in Culpeper, VA. If they couldn't even spell the name of their town right, how could I trust them with a proper wheel build?