Depending On The Kindness of Strangers

One of the changes I’ve seen in cycling culture is the diminishing interest in bicycle repair. Back in the day learning how to do basic bicycle maintenance was a part of becoming a cyclist. Fixing a flat was something I learned shortly after I learned to ride a bike. Although I don’t have any distinct recollections, I almost certainly was shown how to do it by my father who, by the way, was not a cyclist. Learning my way around wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers was a part of growing up.

But it wasn’t until I was in high school and fell in with a group of budding cyclists that I learned how to tear apart a bike and put it back together again. This was long before I was able to afford a decent 10-speed but that didn’t matter: we wanted to fix our bikes. John Youden, a high school buddy, suggested we spend a Saturday ‘cleaning’ our bikes and by ‘clean’ he didn’t mean just spit-and-polish; he meant take apart every screw and bolt, clean each part, regrease, and then put it back together. Keep in mind that neither of us had ever done it before but that didn’t matter. Either out of sheer ignorance, unproven boy-competence, or bravado, we spent an entire day disassembling our bikes down to the bolts. Have you ever disassembled an entire center-pull brake, or how about a freewheel? (You probably don’t remember freewheels because they disappeared from decent road bikes in the mid-80s.) We did it at John’s house on his outdoor patio (!) one summer day. We were almost out of our league even though we had very modest bikes; I had a 30+ lb. Schwinn Continental and John had a really cheap Ross. One thing we learned is that bikes have a lot of small parts and you best keep track of them all. Oh, and an outdoor patio is not a great place to spread a hundred bike parts! The big fun was disassembling a freewheel and having a few dozen extremely small ball bearings come tumbling out onto the concrete and pawl springs fly in the air. Somehow we got it all put back together after cleaning (hint: dental floss!). But I do recall it took us a lot longer than we ever expected and it was getting dark by the time we finished up.

After that experience I felt I could repair anything on my bike as long as I had the right tools. Years later I got my first good road bike and I did exactly the same thing: I took it apart to the bolts, cleaned it, and put it back together. In this case though it was all Campy and it was then that I started to collect real bike tools like a Campy t-wrench, Campy crank bolt wrench, and Campy bottom bracket wrenches. These, by the way, were and are not cheap.

In the early days of Different Spokes we had members not only with different levels of cycling ability but also different expertise in repairing bikes, from absolutely no knowledge at all, to self-made sorta bike mechanics, to the real thing like Lennard, who was the head mechanic at Avenue Cyclery, and Jerry Walker, who owned the Freewheel Bike Shop on Hayes. Jerry offered evening repair sessions at the Freewheel Bike Shop. He came out of the hippie era with a funky bike shop that was really more of a community resource than what we think of as a bike shop today. Jerry didn’t look like a hippie but he sure thought like one. The Freewheel somehow made him a living but it must have been rather modest. He sold bikes but looking at his stock you would have thought it was mostly used bikes and he had nothing flashy or chic, just ‘regular’ bikes. That sort of bike shop is somewhat on trend again today selling commuter bikes rather than $10,000 Pinarello Dogmas. But Jerry’s bread-and-butter business was repairs and selling repair items like tubes, tires, and chains. Jerry thought it was important that folks knew how to do repairs themselves and he taught classes and held repair nights where you could bring in your bike either to repair yourself or be shown how to repair it. His store had an open area with several workstands to throw bikes on. He sold memberships to the Freewheel that allowed you to use come in and use the stands and his tools and he also charged a one-time fee if you just wanted to come in occasionally rather than regularly. For Different Spokes he hosted a no-charge evening session about once a month. A lot of Spokers learned the basics at this shop and of course there was nothing more fun than learning about ‘tools’ from a bunch of giggling queens.

A few years ago I was chatting with Bing about fixing a flat. “A flat?” he responded, “I just take it across the street to the bike shop.” My jaw metaphorically dropped. Last summer President David was on a ride we were leading and he got a flat. As he popped a spare tube and a CO2 cartridge out of his saddlebag he mentioned that he had never done this before. Hmm. Somewhere along the line the ethic of being able to take care of your bike started to fade. When people take up cycling these days, no one has bothered to demystify bicycles for them. Admittedly bikes are more complex than they were when I learned. Today we have new technologies that threaten to turn bikes into ‘black boxes’ that only certified mechanics should touch, gracious! Electronic shifting is the best/worst example. Don’t bother trying to fix a broken shifter or derailleur—just order a new one and have your mechanic install it and set it up! Although hydraulic brakes are hardly computer chips, they’re a royal pain to manage compared to regular cable brakes. Of course the same moaning was heard when indexed shifting appeared—what happened to the simplicity of the bike?! With carbon parts becoming common, torque values matter a lot more when overtightening means cracking a $300 carbon fiber stem. How many of you own torque wrenches? Understandably people avoid learning bike repair for fear of making a bad situation worse.

Nonetheless there are a plethora of minor repairs that you can do yourself such as replacing a chain, a cassette; adjusting derailleurs, saddles, stems, and handlebars; and replacing cables and brake pads, let alone fixing a flat or replacing a worn tire. And guess what? Local bike shops still offer repair classes. Check in with your local bike shop to find out if they offer a class. REI has ten store locations in the Bay Area and it regularly offers flat repair classes including classes just for women. In San Francisco the Freewheel continues to offer bike maintenance classes as well as memberships to use its tools and workstands. Also in San Francisco is the Bike Kitchen, a non-profit cooperative that’s trans- and women-friendly with a separate WTF (Women/Trans/Femme) night. In the East Bay the Missing Link in Berkeley is another cooperative that offers classes (although at the moment none seem to be scheduled for the summer). And if you’re a real DIY-type person there is always YouTube, but keep in mind there’s a reason we don’t go to school by watching TV…

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