Sometimes I work on my bike. This means I take a bucket, fill it with soapy water, and clean the frame, wheels, and chain. It’s very satisfying, working on my bike, even though I can’t adjust the brakes, wrap the bars, adjust the derailleur (still have no idea what those screw doohickies do), put on new hoods, replace the bottom bracket, mount anything, or take anything off without ruining it forever.
True a wheel? False.
Still, squatting down on my balcony and scrubbing away grit so that when the bike is re-oiled and dry and clean, well, it feels good. It’s therapeutic. My mind is, for once in the day, going faster than the events surrounding it. It’s a moment for reflection.
Two kinds of bikers
There are only two, you know. Those who can work on their bike, really work on it. And those who can’t. In the old days it didn’t make any sense to talk about a pro cyclist who couldn’t wrench his own bike. They all could, and did. Watch the old Eddy movie, La Course en Tete, and you’ll see him building up his own frame, even putting on the decal. Find a pro cyclist today who can wrench his own bike and, well, you’ll find a rarity.
Growing up there was always that same divide, except there was no such thing as a boy who couldn’t work on his own bike. The distinction was, instead, kids who were good at it and kids who sucked. Thrift is the mother of mechanics, and what kid had money to have his bike worked on? But the ones who were good soon enough gravitated to lawnmowers, then 50cc motors, then dirt bikes, then cars.
There was always an aura around a kid who was a great mechanic. Jeff Little was the one in my elementary school. His dad had a car shop, and Jeff lived in the shop, he lived the shop. I was the kid whose bike always creaked and wobbled and was never quite bolted together right. One day Jeff came up to me, with his pals all standing around. “Hey, I can get you a good part time job,” he said.
“Oh,” I answered, sensing a nasty trap, since I wasn’t old enough to work and since he’d never given me anything except the occasional beating.
“Yeah. Pays ten bucks an hour.”
That was outrageous. Ten dollars an hour? Impossible. But I couldn’t resist. “What kind of job is it?”
“Changing spark plugs on diesel engines. You’d be great at it.” The other kids started to laugh.
I knew there was a joke there somewhere, but couldn’t figure out what it was. It might be the wage. Ten dollars was outrageous. Nah, that was the hook. So it had to be something about the spark plugs. Were they really easy to change, and by saying “okay” I’d show I didn’t know how foolish I was to think someone would pay me for something that easy? Or were they really difficult to change, so that you had to be a grown man with years of experience to do it? I pondered it all, time standing still in that funny way it does when you’re a kid. Or maybe you couldn’t put a spark plug in a diesel engine. What the hell was a diesel engine, anyway? I knew they belonged in trucks. That must be the catch. “Really?” I said. “Must be a pretty fancy diesel engine if it takes spark plugs.”
I had guessed, wildly, and hit the mark. Jeff’s face screwed up. “You’re a punk,” he said, and pushed me into the dirt. Even if your joke fails, when you’re a kid car mechanic and tough you can always make up for it with a beating.
A bike shop is for parts
I spent my formative years around Midwestern bike racers. Fields, Dogbait, Scott Dickson, they never, ever had anyone work on their bike for money. They were utterly contemptuous of paying a mechanic, and they were cheap. The two concepts went hand in hand. Why pay someone for something that, with a modicum of effort, any fool could do for himself? If they went to a bike shop, it was to buy a part, and even that took some doing, as they viewed spending money on bicycles a kind of foolishness and wastefulness unsuited to real men.
Even my roommate Robert Doty, no genius with a wrench, did every bit of wrenching he could on his own. In those days, bikes could be taken apart and put back together by anyone with a small brain and modest amount of determination. I lacked both, though, and was a constant patron of the bike shop. It was in the bike shop that the mechanics’ contempt, usually subtle, was at its most blatant. Here were things so simple and basic and idiot-proof that anyone could do it except for you (and all the people like you), and so other grown men would have to do for you what a child should be able to do. For money.
I still remember how, chimp-like, I would stare at Uncle Phil as he magically built wheels, clearly bored out of his mind, or how Mike Murray would sigh at the day’s workload of having to build up a dozen frames or more. They were grand physicists unlocking the secrets of the universe as far as I was concerned. I felt stupid, but didn’t mind it, in part because I could always reclaim part of my dignity on the weekend hammerfests.
The bike as a child’s toy
The great mysteries of the bicycle were revealed to me when I met Dan Gammill. A mechanical engineer with a degree from Rice University, he was a towering intellect. For Dan, the bicycle fit on the scale of mechanical complexity right down there with the workings of a hammer. In addition to being able to completely rebuild and refinish pianos, he built airplanes, built and rebuilt car engines with his eyes closed, designed buildings, poured slabs, framed houses, did electrical wiring, and performed each of these things with the skill of a master craftsman who, you might think, had dedicated his life to that and nothing else.
I would call him a genius except that it might detract from the incredible amount of labor he did to hone all of his engineering and mechanical skills. He explained it to me like this.
“When I was about seven, my dad took me out into the garage and showed me how to take apart and rebuild a lawnmower engine. I did it twice. Then he said, ‘Okay, you’re in business.'”
“In what business?” I asked Dan.
“Lawnmower repair. My dad started bringing me lawnmowers to repair.”
“Where’d they come from?”
“Our neighbors. And I asked him how come adults would let a kid fix their lawnmower. And you know what he said?”
“He said, ‘Son, the average man is a complete fool and couldn’t change the oil in his car if his life depended on it. Remember that, and you’ll never go hungry.'”
My other big revelation about the simplicity of bikes was the year when my friend Sue Kidwell was going to do the Tour of the Gila. She and Fields were staying in Oklahoma, and I’d gone up to OKC for a race. They were staying at Sue’s team manager’s house. His name was Mark White. He was ordinarily a car mechanic for his dad’s auto race team, but was managing the bike team over the summer.
Watching a professional car mechanic work on bicycles communicated the incredibly boring, stupid, and simple nature of the bike as far as real mechanics were concerned. The thing that to me was one of the universe’s great mysteries was so stupidly simple as to be an insult to anyone who even pretended to be a real mechanic.
So I learned, forever, that I wasn’t simply stupid, I was on a mechanical level equal to that of a bacterium, or lower. A triathlete, even.
Boneheads love company
Thankfully, as bikes have gotten electrified, and disc brake-ified, and carbonified, fewer and fewer people can actually work on their own bikes. So the stupid class has increased in numbers, giving job security to the mechanical class. It’s much less of a humiliation now to say, “I have no idea what to do with this thingy” than it was thirty years ago, when you had to sneak into the bike shop under cover of darkness and beg for a derailleur adjustment in order to avoid the public shaming.
But even though all I can do, really, is clean my bike and oil my chain, it still feels good to look at my hands and see gunk on them. It’s productive, cleaning the bike. “Productive? How?” you ask. Well, it wrote today’s blog.