I love working on my bikes. I feel closer to them, like a samurai sharpening their blade or a soldier cleaning their pistol; this simple act of preparation prepares us for the suffering that is to come, with the notable distinction that a Cyclist chooses this suffering with no tangible consequence while the warrior faces probably death. Apart from this minor detail, the analogy feels complete.
The cathartic beauty of working on a bicycle was taught to me many years ago, by a Dutch bike shop owner named Herman in Zevenaar, the Netherlands. He had been the team mechanic for Helvetia la Suisse, a good but not extraordinary team in the late eighties. His tools were a work of art; they didn’t match, they were all different brands; some of them weren’t even real “tools”, he just made them himself, purpose built for a specific function.
His truing stand was a homemade affair constructed of metal bits to hold the wheel and a rudimentary mechanism which might have come off a medieval torture device, repurposed in this particular case to check the trueness of the wheel. There was also a micrometer attached to said thumbscrew-turned-truing stand which was so finely adjusted that should the meter not be spinning in circles, the wheel was already well within true. He never stopped trueing until the needle stopped moving.
While my dad taught me the mechanics of caring for and servicing a bicycle, Herman taught me to love doing that work. His master lesson was in the care that goes into wrapping the bars. My dad had bought a Merckx from him, and (correctly) insisted on Scott Drop-Ins as the handlebars. The challenge with those bars was that they were a bit longer than regular drop bars, and so a roll of bar tape didn’t make it all the way up. Herman, unable to tolerate the lump at the juncture of the two rolls of bar tape, meticulously spliced the two rolls together so the point of intersection was indistinguishable.
This was a crucial moment in my development as a Velominatus: bar tape should always maintain these three essential properties: be white, be clean, be perfect.
Only one of my bikes has white bar tape, and that’s Number One. But Number One always has white bar tape, never black. And all of my bikes, irrespective of its level, always has clean, perfect tape.
I have a hard time leaving the house on a dirty bike. I always wipe the chain down, and wiping the chain down usually leads to wiping the rest of the frame and the wheels down prior to departure. One simply feels better setting out on a spotless bike. This is common sense, I know.
Not to mention the pride one has in pushing the gear levers and feeling the crisp, perfect shifts escape into the drivetrain. A clean bike has loads of perfect shifts stored up, just waiting to be released; a dirty bike has nothing but mis-shifts waiting to disappoint you. A well-tuned bicycle is also a quiet bicycle, and while I always prefer to announce my arrival to anyone I might be overtaking, I do take a small degree of enjoyment in their startled surprise which belies the fact that my bicycle moves as silently as a ninja in the night, were it not for the heaving pilot.
It feels to me like a perfect job is to be a Pro Tour bike mechanic, apart from the fact that I know it’s a thankless, difficult, and demanding job. When you’re not wrenching into the wee hours of the night, you’re sitting in the team car with your head bobbling about out the passenger window and a frisky freewheel tickling your sphincter. But on the plus side, it’s the only vocation in Cycling that encourages heavy drinking and smoking combined with the liberal use of white spirits (diesel fuel).
If you can’t make it as a world class Cyclist, then hopefully you can at least make it as a death-defying alcoholic.