When Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he wasn’t really talking about motorbikes though there’s some useful lessons for mechanics. So having recently been back on the tools tinkering with bicycles (of the pedal power kind) it’s no surprise that it’s highlighted some very important personal life lessons.
Bicycle maintenance is a recurring theme in my life (as well as this blog) so clearly it’s important. I’ve been working on bikes, tackling everything from punctures up to full-scale rebuilds, for nearly forty years. If there’s a bike repair job to hand then I’m in there even if it’s just helping a colleague pump their tires at the office bike rack. What this shows me is that there are some things in life you can’t escape. They keep coming back. You may ignore them and live in the wilderness without them for years but eventually you’ll return to them. You just can’t ignore them and life doesn’t feel right without them.
Bike mechanics (or wrenches as they’re known on pro cycle teams) aren’t born. Years of practice build up skills in identifying problems and knowing the right way to fix them. Recently I spent a happy hour tuning up my mothers old bike that she still uses (she’s nearly 80). This involved brake adjustment (old side pulls), bottom bracket adjustment (including cottered crank removal), wobbly wheel tightening (cone spanner needed) and air in the tires. It was great having the know-how just to do the job – no looking at Internet videos!
It was the second bottom bracket I’d been fixing in as many weeks though an easier job than the first. Mother’s bike is a 70′s vintage piece bought and built in Nottingham, England. A solid steel beast that’s very durable and built to be maintained. The famous factory it came from has long since been demolished and this means that we’re buying cheap imports from the far east rather than paying the real costs for a UK built machine (like a Brompton). To my shame I’ve a cheap mountain bike which was good on as it got me back cycling about 5 years ago. The big snag is I’m paying the price of cheap components and poor assembly. It’s built for disposal not maintenance. It’s bottom bracket (the bit that has the spindle that joins the cranks and pedals) has never been any good – rough and prone to coming loose. It finally gave up the ghost with a screech (literally). Upgrading to a nice new smooth sealed unit should have been an inexpensive and quick job except that getting the old bits out proved troublesome. When I eventually removed the final offending part after much sweat, penetrating oil, judicious tool selection and double checking of thread direction, I found a shoddy component with bent threads that should never have passed quality control. Fortunately, it was still possible to put a better quality component in it’s place and the bike rides better than new now. Cheap isn’t good on so many fronts.
You many be thinking by now why I didn’t drop the bike off at my local shop and let them do the job. I reckon that doing so would have meant spending more money on repairs than the bike was worth. And remember I like doing bike repairs. There’s also the satisfaction of doing something with your hands. Real work not some virtual office based ephemera. It’s nice to see a tangible result to your labors. It’s good for the soul.
It’s also good for your bank balance. I’m trying to increasingly move towards a lower cost lifestyle. This means being more self reliant. Fixing your bicycle means that it is cost-effective, sustainable transport rather than a fashion accessory. I had my nose pressed against a bike shop in Bristol the other week admiring a beautiful single speed machine in gorgeous metallic red. It had an Italian steel frame made with Columbus tubing. It was just too nice to ride the pot-holes to work everyday. Bikes really are to be used not paraded around. In my car commuting days I had a spell where I took pride in having the oldest and tattiest (but well maintained) car in the car park. I’m taking on the same attitude with the bike now, gleefully parking my scuffed and used mountain bike alongside much sleeker and newer wheels whose owners regularly rely on expensive shop maintenance. The signs of wear through regular use on any item is a good thing.
I do have though an advantage, well two, over most cyclists in being able to do maintenance. Firstly, is workshop space. Not only to perform the work but to store spare parts and tools. The second advantage is those tools. These range from specialist bike tools like crank removers to a heavy duty vice. Bike repairs can quickly extend beyond something you can do inside your house. Having the right or special place for your chosen activity is a great help. Having the right tools for the job is essential.
So bicycle maintenance is about using my hands, being financially sustainable and using those things I’ve been lucky enough to become the steward of. The real joy though is riding a well tuned machine that you have been part of.