Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Concerning Bike Shops

Something I often bemoan is the lack of a gritty, old-parts-bin-having, evil-genius-mechanic-employing, old school bike shop in the Hartford area. When I lived in Boston, I was a frequent patron of Broadway Bicycle School, where you could rummage through old parts bins to your heart's content and, with some patience, find pretty much anything you might need to cobble together or repair whatever old bike tickled your fancy. They also had work stands and tools that you could rent for $9 an hour, which was extra-specially nice. And they seemed to look at every weird bike problem or repair as a happy challenge.

The shops around Hartford, though, are very much in a different mold. Now don't get me wrong, I like a lot of the folks who work at the shops - for example, I often stop into Pedal Power in Middletown for this or that, and the guys there are unfailingly nice and helpful. But their focus, as is the case with most area shops, is fancy road bikes, and my focus is ghetto-fabulous hacksaw-based engineering (see the previous post), so a fertile supply of fancy road bikes is about as useful to me as a reduction in capital gains taxes.

The result of all this is that I lately tend to turn to the internets for my bike part needs, which, while emotionally unsatisfying, usually gets the job done. But when I inherited the Special Tour de France, I found myself with a problem that even a system of tubes as vest as the internet could not solve: Will's bike came with a seatpost that was about five inches long, which may have been good enough for Will's short self, but was entirely inadequate for my 6'5" self. Unfortunately, the post did not have any markings on it to tell me its diameter, and I don't own calipers or even (as I discovered) anything with metric measurements on it. Could I measure in inches and then convert? Sure. I did. But it felt a little imprecise, and I was reluctant to order a new, longer seatpost from the web on the basis of my questionable measurements. (Strangely, despite being emotionally empty, e-commerce seems to require a lot of commitment.)

If I lived near a good old-fashioned bike shop, I would just head there and try lots of different seat posts until I found one that fit. But I live in West Hartford, so I did something else: I took the old seatpost, cut it on either end and down the length of it on one side, and made it into a shim. Lacking a post that fit neatly inside the shim, I took an extra straight handlebar with a slight rise and jammed that inside the shim, then cut it to size at the top. To keep the whole thing from turning all the time, I had to tighten the seatpost bolt on the Special Tour de France to the point where the housing got all mashed up, then use an extra seatpost collar around the protruding part of the shim and tighten that down with a spare quick-release lever. Not an elegant solution:

So inelegant, in fact, that on my Monday morning ride to work, it strted to come loose. It can't get lower, because the middle part of the handlebar-cum-seatpost is wider than the shim, and it won't come out of the frame because there is a 200-pound person sitting on it, but it rotates, and that is annoying. So on my lunch break, I zipped over to the REI in West Hartford to see if they had a seatpost that would fit, or at least if they could measure the thing properly.

I didn't know what to expect going into the bike area at REI. On the one hand, they don't sell used bikes there (obviously), so I couldn't hope for the greasy relic-repository of my dreams. On the other hand, they don't sell any stratospherically priced road machines made from the ground up hopes of orphans, either, so maybe they would have a middling, semi-utilitarian approach.

The mechanic was a nice guy and helpful, and he busted out the digital calipers and sundry other tools necessary for me to extract my monstrous post and shim so he could get a good measurement. But all the while, he seemed to be choking back disdain (or vomit), like a med student who wanted to become a cosmetic surgeon in Greenwich but was forced to do a rotation in the pustulent syphillis ward at apublic hospital. I had the feeling he knew in his heart of hearts he was meant to be diagnosing the tiny squeaks and frictions of carbon-fiber rigs, not helping some numbskull jury-rig an old road frame into a poor semblance of roadworthiness.

I suppose I shouldn't complain, because at the end, the mechanic guessed at the right post diameter (I had crushed the seat tube to the point where it was no longer round, so we couldn't be sure) and ordered a post for me. But somehow, the whole thing left me a little cold. And he didn't even compliment me on my incredibly awesome 26" wheel dropout adapters!


Ben said...

newington bike has good old parts bins, not for public searching, but if you bring in your problem and ask they can find it used in the basement around 90% of the time. they focus on more middle of the road and not carbon raceframes and the mechanics there have a great appreciation for old bikes and their quirky nature. keith (grey haired, bearded) knows everything there is to know about repairs and once you ask him a few questions after you have tried to solve the problem yourself he is more than willing to help fix anything. he has helped me with paint questions, internal workings of ancient sturmey three speed questions, weirdass crank problems and on and on. he is the bomb and has the used parts to help you out.

El Presidente de China said...

Good to know. Thanks, Ben.

Brendan said...

the REI guys are pretty nice to me. I think it's because the first time I came in was with Johanna's Masi. so they thought i rode around on nice bikes. the next time I brought my old stumpjumper. after that, it was my weird and semi-ghetto raleign 'cross bike. you have to break them into your bike weirdness. the repair have also become cheaper. I got a cable routed in the raleigh (they're internal) for the price of the housing- $4.95.

El Presidente de China said...

I should be clear - the guy was nice and helpful. I just sensed that he was crying inside as he took stock of a seatpost binder bolt so overtightened that the seat tube was irremediably out of round (to say nothing of a hacksawed handlebar employed as a seatpost).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, what Ben said. I went into Newington with a 20+ year old steel mountain bike that I pulled out of a garbage pile and they cheerfully helped me find a seatpost that fit. I've brought many other bikes that I've needed help with and they always are willing to help. Great advice, too. Love those guys.