So I'm sitting in a cafe in the middle of Ortygia — having just finished my little tour of the island — polishing off my hot choc and croissant, and having a pleasant chat with the locals. I get up from my table, dust off a few breadcrumbs, wave goodbye to my fellow patrons, and jump on my bike. The plan is to head straight out of Syracuse — having seen the city centre and its sights — and to make my way west into the Monti Iblei, for an afternoon of uphill riding, and an evening of rough mountain camping. Possibly to see the Syracuse archaeological park, and famous Greek theatre, along the way. But all those plans suddenly disappear out the window — and the day's cycling comes to an abrupt and premature end — when I start pedalling, and I realise that something is really, seriously wrong with my bike. Something far worse than the usual problems of squeaky brakes, unresponsive gears, or even flat tyres. I have a snapped axle.
I don't really know how it happened. An axle — the piece of metal that goes through the middle of a wheel, and that gives the wheel support and structure — generally snaps if you go over a big jump, plus if you have a very heavy weight on the bike. The combined impact of this can be too much for the axle to cope with. However, I haven't gone over any big jumps today, or really on any day of this trip — and although the cargo on the back of my bike is heavy, it's well below the weight that your average mountain bike should be able to handle: so I can only assume that the various bumpy roads I've travelled lately have weakened the back axle; and that this morning's cobbled streets in Ortygia were the final death blow.
When I rode away from the cafe, at about 12:30pm today, I immediately realised that something wasn't working on the bike. The back wheel was extremely wobbly, and (despite the tyre being fully pumped) it felt as though it could collapse under me at any time. I've experienced a snapped back axle once before — about 7 years ago, back in that fateful year of high school when I started riding my first mountain bike: my infamous and beloved "Nishiti". As such, I quickly recognised the feeling. In order to be sure that my suspicion was correct, and that the problem was indeed a snapped back axle, I stopped on the side of the street, and straightaway began removing the back wheel. Once I had the wheel off, I unscrewed the central shaft that houses the axle: and what do you know, out fell the two halves of (what was previously a single) solid metal rod, snapped clean in the middle.
I was just about to re-attach the back wheel, when a random old dude stopped next to me on the sidewalk, and asked what the problem was. I didn't know how to say "snapped axle" in Italian: but I pointed to the dismantled back wheel on the pavement, and to the snapped metal rod next to it; and he seemed to understand. Then he started talking rapidly in Italian: I got the gist that he was telling me he could fix my back wheel, and that I should follow him and bring my bike with. Only problem: not only was the back wheel of my bike dismantled, but my saddlebags and bucket were also strewn next to it on the pavement; and I wasn't going anywhere until I'd gotten the back wheel re-attached (snapped axle or not), and my bags replaced on the bike.
I tried explaining this to the guy, by gesticulating towards all my possessions sitting there on the pavement, and by communicating the rough message that: "this is all my stuff, I can't just wheel my bike away and leave it sitting here on the pavement, in the main street of frikking Syracuse — I have to pack it back onto the bike!" But he was having none of that — he started another Italian barrage, to the effect of: "we have to hurry, it's nearly lunchtime (fair point — lunch time is dead time in Sicily) — leave your bags there, they'll be fine for a few minutes". Err... no, they wouldn't be fine — they'd be frikking gone! Anyway, the old guy asked me to wait for him for five minutes, and assured me that he'd be back soon. He then promptly disappeared around the corner. I waited about ten minutes, but he was nowhere to be seen; by this time, I'd re-attached my back wheel, and reloaded all the gear onto the bike. So I decided to stuff the random old Syracuse guy, and to wheel my contraption away and to find a bicycle repair shop nearby.
Unfortunately, the one nearby repair shop that I found (luckily, it really was quite close — only 2 blocks away) closed for lunch at 1pm — I'd missed its morning business hours by 15 minutes. Bloody Sicilian siesta! So I had to wait around all afternoon, until the shop re-opened at 5pm. At this time, I returned with the damaged bike, and explained to the repair man what the problem was. For a very low €25, he not only replaced the entire back wheel (that's the only thing you can do, in the case of a snapped axle), but he also gave the bike quite a reasonable little semi-servicing. He oiled the gears and lubricated the chain; he fine-tuned the derailleur; and he tightened the brakes. Plus, he was happy for me to stand and watch as he did it all: it was very informative to see him at work — and most of the stuff I'd never actually seen done before, and previously had only a rough idea of how to perform.
The repair guy wasn't the most talkative chap: he just grunted when I wheeled the bike in and explained the problem; and he carried out most of his work in grumpy silence. However, he did comment on the fact that the old axle was poorly designed — instead of a single rod, it was two rods that screwed together in the middle — and that both the old axle and the whole old back wheel were plain iron; whereas on most decent bikes these days, it's all made of steel (or even of sturdier stuff).
Anyway, I now have a brand-new back wheel and axle; and my bike is now at least as good as new, if not better. It's a pity that this problem ended up wasting most of the day: but on the plus side, the bike probably needed some work (even had the axle not snapped today), and it's going to function much better for the remaining few days of my Great Sicilian Ride. Plus — since it seems likely that (due to its poor quality) it was only a matter of time before the back axle snapped — I guess it was actually very lucky that it decided to snap today, in the middle of Syracuse, two blocks from a competent bicycle repair shop. Because a snapped axle is a very serious problem — there's no way to repair the axle, you have to replace the entire affected wheel — so if it had happened to me out on the highway, miles from the nearest town, then I would have been well-and-truly f$#?ed. As it happened, I actually wasn't in any tremendous hurry, and the worst consequence of it was that it gave me the afternoon off. And oh, how difficult it was to endure a whole afternoon in Syracuse :P.