Friday, January 28, 2011


As I prepare to transition from the Buyer's desk back to a mechanic's bench next fall, I recognize that, after almost four years away from daily use, my wrenching skills have not only been slightly asleep -- they're also a tad out of date. While I've been wrestling with catalogs and building relationships with wholesale reps, the bikes coming into the shop have evolved slightly. We see fewer British three-speeds and more modern lightweights with aluminum and carbon fiber bits.

So here's my to-do list over the next several months:

1. I bought myself an affordable torque wrench and am acquainting myself with how it works. Torque wrenches are absolutely required for modern lightweights. Gone are the days when mechanics could simply develop "feel" for how tight was tight enough on a bolt or nut [before stripping the threads]. Today's nuts and bolts come with their Newton meter measurements inscribed on them, which makes using the torque wrench a relatively straightforward thing. Still, it's good to practice and get a feel for this new way of wrenching.

(Those familiar with my skepticism about carbon-fiber will wonder why I've begun to care about working on it. The truth is that carbon fiber parts are showing up on ever more-affordable bicycles; and eventually they will become more commonplace for even the most entry-level of road cyclists. So whether I "believe" in carbon-fiber or not, it's a more commonplace reality now and it's important for me to wrap my head around it more thoroughly. Longtime readers should be assured that I still feel a healthy skepticism about the value of carbon-fiber parts on a non-racing, transportational bike, but as a front-line shop rat I will always have little to no influence over bike manufacturers in this regard. Bike manufacturers don't always take their cue from the real world when designing new bicycles.)

2. Today's nicer bikes are all coming with external bottom brackets and hollow-spindle crank sets. I've gained some experience with these on my own since choosing to install such a system on Stompy -- this upgrade alone [from square-taper bottom bracket and cranks] reduced Stompy's weight by well over two full pounds! -- but it never hurts to find opportunities to see the subtle differences between various makes and models. Plus, it's another chance to play with my new torque wrench.

3. Disc brakes are showing up on more bikes than I care to count. Like it or not they are the new reality for a lot of riders, and that means another new technology for me to learn more about. None of my bikes, of course, has disc brakes; but opportunities to satisfy my curiosity about The New Technology abound.

In a recent move, I've negotiated a trade with some very friendly mechanics at another, much newer shop that specializes in higher-end bikes: They will teach me about disc brakes and I will teach them how to overhaul old British three-speeds. They just got one in the shop as a winter overhaul, and have no idea how to get inside the rear hub. So next week, I'm going to bring my 4th edition of the Sutherland's manual and walk them through the process. The following week or two later, when another disc brake job comes in their shop, they will walk me through bleeding and re-setting hydraulic disc brakes. It should be very interesting.

Over coffee yesterday with a friend who worked in the bike industry until recently, we talked about changes in the industry and whether or not we felt we had a future in a rapidly-changing technological landscape. My friend, having been somewhat burned by his most recent bike shop employer and having logged nearly 15 years in bike shops, wasn't sure he wanted to focus on finding another job in the bike industry right away. I, on the other hand, knew that I would want to continue in the bike industry, and that my desire to return to wrenching again was fueled in large part by a curiosity about what's appeared on the horizon since the last time I wrenched daily. I admitted to my friend that some of that curiosity was natural, and the rest was something I'd worked to cultivate -- nurturing a larger sense of openness and receptivity about me as I venture into areas of the bicycle scene that formerly felt closed to me (like racing, for instance -- who would ever have guessed that I'd squeeze myself into a Lycra suit and kill myself on a short-track course at this point in my life?). I reminded my friend that many years earlier, when he'd gone on a meditation thing where he spent an hour a morning meditating, he told me the importance of maintaining what he called "Beginner's Mind". I was applying that same approach to bicycles and hoped it would expand my knowledge.

I'm no longer the six-year-old who opened the back of her mother's Big Ben alarm clock with a screwdriver to see how it worked -- and proceeded to quietly and systematically remove and examine every single piece of the clock before realizing I could not put it all back together again -- but that six-year-old guides and encourages my curiosity today. I hope she will always accompany me on my bicycle adventures because she makes the trip more interesting -- and fun.

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