Lots of people have worked on my bikes, but I’ve only had a handful of bike mechanics.
Phil Tomlin was the first, and in my estimation he was the best. Phil worked at Freewheeling Bicycles in Austin and was as much an institution as the institution of Freewheeling itself. Phil was finicky, moody, prone to getting angry at the drop of a hat, and matchless when he was in fine fettle. When Phil was in a good mood, the whole shop smiled.
What makes a person a bike mechanic as opposed to simply being someone who works on your bike? One of the most skilled mechanics I’ve ever met was Mark White, an Oklahoma auto mechanic. Mark tore your bike down and put it together quickly, effortlessly. When he got done, it wasn’t only you that smiled, your bike did, too. But he was never my bike mechanic; he was an auto mechanic who worked on my bike once and made it sparkle.
A level above Mark in terms of technique and engineering skills was Dan Gammill. Dan had a degree in mechanical engineering from Rice and he was omnivorously brilliant. He could rebuild pianos. He could build and fly airplanes from scrap; his favorite was an aircraft he powered with the motor from an old Subaru B-210. And auto esoterica? One day he decided to put a Supra automatic transmission into his little Toyota manual pickup. It worked flawlessly. For Dan, bicycles were stupid and intellectually empty things. He could do anything any bicycle would ever need done to it with his eyes closed.
Dan was brilliant but he wasn’t my bike mechanic, although he was my friend, at least for a time. I feared asking him to do anything to my bike, like asking Albert Einstein to help with your math homework. His brain and hands had higher occupations, and he also lacked the true bike mechanic’s empathy. Dan believed that anyone too stupid to fix his own bike deserved to ride it broken. And if not, Dan had better things to do than be their knight in shining Snap-On.
In Japan I had a bike mechanic, Jun-ichi Tsunakawa. Jun-ichi and I rode together; hw worked in the family bike shop. Jun-ichi once broke the single biggest bike-repair commandment I’ve ever seen: He glued on a tubular after getting a flat mid-ride. I waited to see him covered from hair to heels in rim cement, but he did it more quickly, prettily, and perfectly than I could have done had I spent a weekend on a tire-gluing project. Jun-ichi had wondrous repair skills, but he was my bike mechanic because when I came into the shop, whatever he was working on, he’d stop, ask what was wrong, and throw my bike up on the stand to have a look.
Nor was it simply for the ten years I lived in Utsunomiya. A year ago I was back in the Utsunomiya and my bike wasn’t shifting right. I swung by the shop and he acted like I’d never left despite the intervening 20 years. He put the bike on the stand and diagnosed, then quickly fixed, the derailleur hanger that’d been tweaked in transit.
This, then, is the core of what makes a person your bike mechanic. He or she puts you first. And I’ve had plenty of fantastic mechanics work on my bike who treated me like an ordinary customer. That’s fair and fine; someone doesn’t become your bike mechanic simply because they work on your bike. They become your bike mechanic because … well, I’m not sure exactly why.
With Phil Tomlin, for example, he was mostly looking out for me. Like the time I tried to clean my entire bike, frame/bars/saddle included with a giant can of WD-40. “You can’t do that,” he said, taking my bike off the outdoor DIY stand and bringing it into the shelter of his turf, the shop floor.
Or the time that I decided to put a pair of mounts on the fore bed of my pickup so that I could easily pop the front wheel, lock down the front forks, and haul my bike without a rack. Phil heard what I wanted to do, thought about me drilling a hole through my hand, and then went out into the parking lot on a July day in Texas and spent an hour or so drilling the holes and setting up the absolutely best bike rack I’ve had before or since. He didn’t charge me for it, either.
Not that Phil held me in any particularly high regard. I was like a little brother, or an errant youth, or someone hopelessly over his head in the world of bicycles and Phil saw it as his duty to take care of me and my mechanical needs. I recognized the favor and if it meant I had to listen to a bit of haranguing, I didn’t mind it much. Phil’s heart was in the right place, and his hands were unerring.
Some bike mechanic relationships deteriorate and you’re not sure exactly why. There used to be a mechanic at PV Cycle Center who was my bike mechanic, then the shop closed and he moved somewhere else and from then on it was all business. Want it fixed? We’ll get to it on Thursday. There’s an unspoken code that tells you you’ve been fired as a favored customer, like a romantic breakup where the biggest feelings are buried in the smallest details.
One of the dirtiest little secrets that bike shop owners hold close to their chest is that the mechanic is the shop. It’s one thing to sell a bike but if you can’t service it you lose the customer and you lose the after-market income. The mechanic is also the driving force behind new sales. The customer who brings in the rusted out POS and has the post-mortem done by a knowledgeable, apron-clad, kindly wrench is a customer who will shortly be stomping around on the showroom floor looking for a new bike. For all that, bike mechanics and the shop area are almost always stuck in the back, usually behind some kind of partition, as if the mechanics are an embarrassment rather than the pounding heart of the bike shop organism.
The astounding importance of the bike mechanic has been recognized by the market in the form of mobile bike shops. ShiftMobile is run by Jason Morin. He is an amazing mechanic, but he’s not my mechanic. It’s rare to hear exclusively good things about anyone, especially in the bike world, but the only thing I’ve heard about Jason in addition to his superlative wrenching is that “He’s an amazing chef.”
You see, Jason is someone else’s bike mechanic, and that person and Jason have a special relationship. Jason does his magic, and that person feeds Jason dinner from time to time. In reverse-payback, Jason then shows up at the occasional party and cooks a rack of ribs or other delicacy. Jason’s services as a mechanic are for sale, but Jason isn’t, and that’s the thing about someone being your mechanic. It usually develops over time and results from the spillage of something personal into the bike-repair sphere.
When I moved to LA in 2006, I had to cast around for a bike mechanic because I was still on a steel Eddy Merckx Leader with downtube Shimano 8-speed shifters and Mavic 36-hole tubulars. I wound up at Ted’s Manhattan Beach Cycles, which was run by Manny Felix. Manny was–and is–a superlative mechanic. He was happy to see my “vintage” stuff that still got ridden hard, and no matter how busy he was, he always had time to fix what ailed me and my bike. I remember having issues with a spoke that kept breaking and no one could figure out why. Manny put the wheel in the truing stand, waved his magic wand, replaced the spoke, and it never broke again.
Not all, but most of the people who might end up being your mechanic, like to talk. And you need to know how to listen, not only because you might learn something, but because the indispensable part of the mechanic-customer relationship is respect. I never imagined feeling anything but mute awe when I saw someone take my mis-shifting bike and make it hum, but everyone isn’t that way. Some customers are humiliated by having to ask for mechanical help, and they compensate for their feelings by acting less than nobly. This will guarantee that a mechanic never becomes your mechanic.
For example, haggling. Your mechanic is always charging you a fair price, and most of the time it’s a bargain when you consider the time you’d have to spend finding someone who can do the job. You see, bike wrenching gets easier the more you know the bike and the customer. My bike mechanic, Peyton Cooke, knows that I am hard on disc brake pads because I commute a lot. In fact, he knows everything there is to know about my two bikes and about what’s likely the cause of the creak or squeak or “not quite right” thing that I bring in for him to look at. This institutional knowledge about your bike speeds up his work, ensures that it’s done accurately, and lets him charge you less.
But haggling or asking for a deal? You may get one but he’ll never be your mechanic.
Another way to put distance between yourself and the person who keeps your bike running is to act like you know what’s wrong and what needs to be done and how to do it, but you’re too busy right now, so here, could you fix it for me? The fact is that you likely don’t know what’s wrong, and if you do, you don’t know what needs to be fixed, and if you do, you have no idea how to do it, and if you do, you lack the skills to execute. That’s why you’re at the shop.
Bike mechanics are no different from heart surgeons. They know more than you do and are better at it and do it for a living, so don’t pretend that all the stuff you read on Google makes you a diplomate in cardiology. Every mechanic I’ve ever had has known that I’m clueless and, like Socrates, that I know that I’m clueless.
Another sure way to alienate the person working on your bike is to use him or her as a mentor/teacher/DIY instructor. When a good mechanic is working, they rarely like to give lectures on what they’re doing. They’d much rather talk, like Phil used to, about Fignon’s chances in the ’83 Tour. And when a mechanic has a problem, the last thing they want is for you to ask, “What’s wrong?” or, better yet, make suggestions. They may tolerate it (doubtful), but they’ll never be your mechanic and you’ll pay a premium. Bike mechanics are also incredibly skilled at not telling you how to DIY when they can tell you’re pumping them for information.
Virtually all of my bike mechanics, if you scratch them hard, they’re bike racers at the core. Phil was a Cat 2 from South Carolina and won the 35+ Texas ITT after taking a long hiatus from racing. Manny Felix was an accomplished bike racer in Mexico, and Jun-ichi raced for years in the local Kanto events. Peyton? A crazy fast sprinter who, when he bothers to train, goes great.
Which leads to another thing about bike mechanics. They love to talk about racing and, as one of the information nodes about riders in the area, they have all the latest scuttlebutt. Every shop has THAT CUSTOMER, sometimes several, who practically lives there, gabbing about all the latest goings-on and pouring grist into the rumor mill. Your mechanic can tell you it’s time for a new chain, but he can also tell you who’s going well, who’s training hard, and who’s bike that is in the corner covered in dust.
Everything I ever learned about European racing I learned from Phil Tomlin, Mike Murray, and Jack Pritchard, three mechanics who would daily hold a colloquy on the ethereal happenings in heaven a/k/a the Euro Road Scene.
My bike mechanic is a great wrench, is a bike racer at heart, and to top it off is a wickedly skilled motorcycle rider. This last part matters because every now and then he motor paces me. This is an activity where you put your life in the moto driver’s hands, and Peyton is a master at it, which is another thing about your bike mechanic: He always, always, always does more than work on bikes. Case in point? After an entire career at Freewheeling, Phil went on to work in the mechanical engineering lab at UT Austin.
Of course when you think about it, we all have a bike mechanic in our life whether we ride bikes or whether we even own one. That person who’s there for you when you need it, who has encyclopedic knowledge about something vital to your well-being, who tolerates your foibles, who’s good natured when it’s all said and done, and who thinks pretty much as highly of you as you do of him.
Some people even call them “friends.”
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