Guest Article: What You Don’t Know Will Eventually Kill You

Indian Bicycle Mechanic. photo: Sue Darlow
Indian Bicycle Mechanic. photo: Sue Darlow

@prowrench is throwing down the greasy gauntlet. There is truth in his words. We already understand the gap between the professional cyclist and us civilians extends somewhere over the horizon. We can ride the bikes, wear nice kit and ride the race routes but that’s about as close as we can get. No one is paying us to ride. We are not Pros. But we can work on our own bikes can’t we?

Please also see the required supplemental reading, All You Bike Pricks.

VLVV, Gianni

You got a new bike a few years ago and something magical happened. You realized that when your legs aren’t languishing under a desk at the office or basking under the blue glare of the television that, by some unknown miracle, they can propel you to astounding speeds on your bicycle. You took heart, rode some more and you got quick. You joined a club, subscribed to every magazine and every blog, you learned The Rules and quickly ascended to the ranks of the initiated cyclist. Good for you!

You, the tinkerer, are one savvy fellow. You have examined the simple steed beneath you and with your god given mechanical prowess turned a few screws, fiddled with some barrel adjusters, squirted some lube here and there and tamed a few squeaks and calmed the wild mis-shifts that embarrassed you in front of your friends. You maintain your bike, your brother-in-law’s bike, your neighbor’s bike and the kids’ bikes from the neighborhood. Fueled with a few small successes and powered by the unlimited knowledge bestowed upon you by YouTube University and several forums you are now an expert mechanic. You can turn a wrench with the best of them…right?

Let me introduce you to an idea that may not have crossed your mind: You can’t.

Before you take offense, lend me your ear and I will try to help you to comprehend the vastness of all that you don’t know. As a professional mechanic of 12 years, I would like to introduce you to the subject of bicycle maintenance repair from the point of view of the greasy handed elitists who you have come to defy and will avoid paying at all costs.

Every morning I wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed and go to work; just like you. When I get to work, however, I am greeted by the aroma of tires and a spacious shop filled with expensive specialty tools and all manner of bikes. From the wobbly beginners’ bike to the bike you wish you had but probably never will, I work on them all, every day. Your hobby is my bread and butter.

I have installed thousands upon thousands of tires and tubes and threaded countless cables through more shifters and brake levers than you can begin to imagine. I have turned a million spoke nipples and skillfully negotiated the careful equilibrium of the perfectly trued wheel more times that you have tied your shoes. I remember to meticulously check the tension of every nut and bolt on your bike with precisely calibrated torque wrenches: a thought that you wish had occurred to you and a tool you wish you had. I wrap handlebars with confidence and great care so that the tape overlaps with an even, artful twist and tightens as you grip it instead of unraveling after your first few rides. I obsessively position every component just as it ought to be because every bike deserves to be in tip top shape and it is my livelihood to make it so.

I know you think you understand how your bike works. How hard could it be right? There is nothing hidden. Your bicycle sits before you baring all and yet you could take your bike to your neighborhood shop right now and they could find a thousand things wrong with it and just as many ways to charge you in order to fix it. There is a reason for that and the explanation is on its way.

It has taken me years to hone the skills involved in my craft. I can hear when your rear derailleur hanger is out of alignment by a degree or two and that has only come after listening to thousands of derailleurs ticking away in my work stand. You may as well be stone deaf when it comes to that. I know that dropping your front derailleur a millimeter or so and twisting it out just a hair will help it decisively slam and lock your chain to the big ring in the blink of an eye. You might as well be trying to pilot a spacecraft through an asteroid field with a blindfold on. The mechanics at your local shop have paid the price for the precious knowledge which you have supposed could come so easily. Rather than beleaguer you with further examples of how I am right and you are wrong, I will endeavor to make the process of outsourcing the sacred task of maintaining your bike a smooth and painless one.

Bridging The Gap

Successfully communicating with your local mechanics will be key to finding happiness in this process. Mechanics are a fickle bunch and if you haven’t figured it out by reading thus far, some of us might be a tad egotistical and maybe a touch insecure. I will do my best to set you up for success as you repent and and take your bike in for its first much needed, legitimate service.

First, take everything that you have come to know about working on bikes and stick it in your pocket. Mechanics know how to work on bikes and they don’t care much for hearing what you think it entails. From the moment the mechanic lays eyes on your bike, seeing your terrible attempt at wrapping bars, your grossly over lubed drivetrain or the hack job that you did running and ugly web of too long or too short cables and housing all over your bike, he will know, and it will go without saying, what it is that you have been up to. Don’t be too proud of your work because it will only result in heartbreak.

Second, bear in mind that time and expertise are never on closeout and it will cost you to have the pros lay their hands on your beloved bike and resuscitate it to full health. It will be important for your mental well-being to consult with your cohorts and settle on a mechanic that everyone can agree bills repair work fairly and is worth the money that you’ll spend. Since you have been maintaining your bike, you have been letting basic things go through the cracks. The mechanic will want to fix all of these before you get your bike back so your first visit could cost a small fortune. Take heart though, because once this is out of the way, subsequent visits will consist of simple adjustments mainly and will be relatively inexpensive.

Thirdly and most importantly, be kind. I provide whatever service is due to every customer based on what they pay, even if they treat me like scum. For the nice customer however, I always go above and beyond. As the owner of my shop always says, “It is nice to be nice to the nice”. Kindness is currency but even more importantly, currency is currency. A little gratuity goes a long long way at the bike shop. Cash or beer are customary.

Taking your bike to the shop can be a hard step for the committed and self-assured home mechanic. Before the sum of what you don’t know piles up and results in your untimely mid-club-ride death, consider my words and come to the light! Hang up your mail order toy toolset and take your bike to the pros. You deserve it. Your bike deserves it. A-Merckx.

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162 Replies to “Guest Article: What You Don’t Know Will Eventually Kill You”

  1. @moondance

    @wiscot

    Man, this article reminds me of the time I did some part time wrenching in a bike shop in Terre Haute.

    Wiscot, I am sorry to hear you lived in Terre Haute at one time. Seeing as how you were employed, you were not doing time at the federal penitentiary, I’m guessing. Did you work at TH Cycling at 7th & Springhill? I myself only escaped there 5 or so years ago after 18 years of exile (job, you know). Glad you made it out alive!

    Did you get lured to ISU?

    Ch. 1 Five hellish years of my childhood were spent in NW Indiana, in exile from northern California. I don’t think I ever really recovered.

    Ch. 2 Then, years later, I moved my family to the western suburbs of Chicago for a piss-poor academic job in the city. It beat NW Indiana, but it didn’t last long.

    Parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and S. Dakota are great. The rest of the Midwest can lick my sweaty fungal nutsack.

    Sorry.

  2. @Nate

    @PeakInTwoYears

    sweaty fungal nutsack

    It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

    No. With respect, it’s the heat and the humidity and the bad food and the conventional attitudes and the FUCKING BUGS and the HEAT and the HUMIDITY and fuck me the whole traumatic business…

    Excuse me while I spend a few minutes journaling for my next therapy session.

  3. @moondance

    @wiscot

    Man, this article reminds me of the time I did some part time wrenching in a bike shop in Terre Haute.

    Wiscot, I am sorry to hear you lived in Terre Haute at one time. Seeing as how you were employed, you were not doing time at the federal penitentiary, I’m guessing. Did you work at TH Cycling at 7th & Springhill? I myself only escaped there 5 or so years ago after 18 years of exile (job, you know). Glad you made it out alive!

    Sounds like we overlapped by a bit! I was lured to ISU for grad school from Scotland. (Hey, they offered me a scholarship and assistantship). Did grad school, worked in a couple of museums (Eugene V. Debs home and Swope Art Museum, both superb) and Terre Haute Schwinn and Fitness as it was called 20 years ago! Had seven great years in the Haute, but have been back a few times and wild horses couldn’t drag me back to live there. The heat and humidity suck in the summer and the winter’s ain’t easy either. Rode the bike a bit in IN and it was awful. The drivers here in SE Wisconsin are so much nicer.

  4. @PeakInTwoYears

    @moondance

    @wiscot

    Man, this article reminds me of the time I did some part time wrenching in a bike shop in Terre Haute.

    Wiscot, I am sorry to hear you lived in Terre Haute at one time. Seeing as how you were employed, you were not doing time at the federal penitentiary, I’m guessing. Did you work at TH Cycling at 7th & Springhill? I myself only escaped there 5 or so years ago after 18 years of exile (job, you know). Glad you made it out alive!

    Did you get lured to ISU?

    Ch. 1 Five hellish years of my childhood were spent in NW Indiana, in exile from northern California. I don’t think I ever really recovered.

    Ch. 2 Then, years later, I moved my family to the western suburbs of Chicago for a piss-poor academic job in the city. It beat NW Indiana, but it didn’t last long.

    Parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and S. Dakota are great. The rest of the Midwest can lick my sweaty fungal nutsack.

    Sorry.

    Pretty much the whole of northern Indiana is a wasteland: Rensselaer, Valpo, Gary, Hammond, etc, etc. I think most of the state would be happy to cede the territory to Illinois. Around Bloomington is nice (Brown and Monroe counties) but then you start heading south to redneck land. I’m from just outside Glasgow (Scotland, not Kentucky) and as told by a southern Indiana lady in 1990 that my English “was really good.” She was surprised that everyone fell about laughing as she thought my first language would have been Scottish. Mind you, in fairness, some Scots are rather difficult to comprehend.

  5. @wiscot

    As a kid, I lived for a while in the aptly-named Dyer, just south of Hammond. As an adult, when I was teaching, I talked to a guy who interviewed for a job at some little campus in Hammond. He said that at the end of the interview they asked him what he thought of the area. He told them he thought it was the ugliest place he’d ever seen. They said, yeah, we think so too.

    But out in the western ‘burbs of Chicago, I found places to like. There was some fun singletrack (first mtb riding there in the 90s, highest point in the county being a grass-covered landfill we called Mt. Trashmore) and a nice river in which to flyfish for smallmouth bass. The “Forest Preserves” held fun. My middle kid and I would go run around in them at orienteering events.

  6. If the rest of the group doesn’t mind our off-topic meanderings…

    I’m raised in Downers Grove, sledding on Mt. Trashmore when they opened it. I spent 4 years in Waukesha, Wi. New job with FAA took me to Terre Haute. Raised my boys there. Wife, self and boys all graduated from ISU. Love both of those museums. you may have been working the day I visited. Now in the Indianapolis area, where I have taken up riding in the past couple of years. I’m one of the older Pedal-wans around here. My oldest son moved back from a year in Valpo, now I am able to spoil the granddaughter more regularly.

  7. @minion  Just got back, ” engineers or think they are” Believe it or not there are many thousands of people who go to college to learn to be engineers. They learn about metallurgy, mathematics, control systems, six degrees of freedom, gears,all kinds of stuff to do with building stuff. Their job is building stuff and then maintaining that stuff. They have the skills and knowledge to read the instructions, test fit, fettle and build anything. Software may control the machines but somebody has got to build the machines. Sadly like many people you seem to think the guy in the grubby overalls is just a chimp with a spanner. In all probability he is a highly trained professional with exacting standards you could only aspire to, because he understands that if he doesn’t build it right it could lead to injury or death for his customer. Face it, you need the guy who comes to your office to repair your lift to be more focused and smarter than you are. He’s got your life in his hands…

  8. I have a nice little side business of fine tuning/cleaning race bikes AFTER they have been worked on by shop mechanics. I established this sideline having seen too many bikes come out of shops complete with greasy hand prints, misaligned tire decals, mis-cut cables, poorly aligned brake shoes/saddles/stems/brake levers. Yes, pros are great except when they aren’t pros and there are a lot of unprofessional mechanics out there. Shops get paid to perform specific tasks and not all will go a step further unless paid to do so.  My current rate is 3 bottles of red wine (french or italian preferred please).

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