Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I Heart Wrenching

I have been wrenching on a lot of vehicles lately. A few good friends of mine have had parts fail or wear out on their bikes and cars in the past two weeks, and it seems I have assumed the role of fleet manager/transportation coordinator. For the most part, the bike repairs are the more pleasant to deal with, though with both bikes and cars, a good repair stand (or lift) improves the experience exponentially. At the moment, I have no such stand, so my back is getting sore. If Park Tool or Pedro's would like to send me a repair stand for testing or review, I'll be sure to keep Beat Bike Blog readers well informed about my experience with it.

One recent ongoing project sort of bridges the two worlds: getting a car back up to snuff so that it can be sold for good. The owner is going carless, and will be depending on a pair of older bikes or public transit for transportation. Giving up a reliable Honda for a beater mountain bike and an early 60's 3-speed is a bold move, and one that I applaud. Many or most would consider it crazy, but it makes a lot of sense. The car gets driven rarely and consequently sits around taking up space, insurance payments and property taxes. Who needs it? I removed the starter from her car a few nights ago and pedaled home with that ungainly hunk of metal drooping in my pannier. I switched to a milk crate before heading off to the auto parts store to get a rebuilt one. That looked so ghetto. The guys at Napa were not amused.

My favorite mechanic of any sort is a man named Mike. He ran a Volvo repair shop in rough part of Paterson, New Jersey that appeared abandoned save for the open door and the sound of classical music and gruff obscenities coming from within. Mike was a mad scientist of sorts, crafting bizarre hopped-up hot-rodded 70's and 80's Volvos that looked like crap and blew the doors off of unsuspecting BMWs and Mustangs. He was semi-retired, spending a lot of time on his own projects while picking and choosing customers to actually do repair work for. He was intimidating, spouting engineering terms and army stories peppered with cuss words and vulgarities. He chain-smoked and pounded countless cups of black coffee from the nearby White Castle (I quickly learned there was no better public relations move than showing up with a fresh cup). The shop restroom was like "The worst toilet in Scotland" scene in Trainspotting. Mike did not suffer fools gladly, and his high standard for what constituted a fool meant that he was pretty easy to piss off. I'm still not entirely sure how, but I managed to get on his good side.

I showed up at his shop one day a dozen or so years ago seeking help with my 1979 245 wagon, which had inconveniently developed a cracked cylinder head at the same time my bank account had developed a very low balance. Never one to sugar-coat things, Mike explained that I had navigated my way far up the proverbial fecal creek. After a few moments of contemplation, Mike asked me if I thought I could change a cylinder head. When I replied that I was willing to learn he sold me a rebuilt cylinder head and all of the needed parts to replace the old one at a discount. He handed me a large, greasy cardboard box full of parts and said, "Take it apart, put it back together, call me if you have any questions." It took me a little while and I called him more than twice for advice, but I learned how to change a cylinder head. This was a pivotal event in my relationship with machines.

Mike is my favorite mechanic because he has never repaired anything for me. He saw that I was in a bad spot and turned that into a teaching moment, and for that I remain grateful . This concept is by no means limited to aging station wagons. We can all get more involved in keeping our own bikes and other devices working as they should. Flat tires, broken chains and other failures don't have to mean a long, forlorn walk home. Our bikes give us greater freedom of movement. They free us from big oil and other ugly institutions every time we choose them over a car to get around. Learning to maintain and repair them is another layer, notch, level or what-have-you of independence. Obviously, not everyone needs to be a master mechanic. You may not really want to work on your bike at all, and that's perfectly fine, if it's not your bag. You don't need to embrace the tinkering aspect of bicycling to enjoy it. That said, it IS worth learning to fix a flat tire at the very least, and know how to handle a few emergency repairs so you don't find yourself stranded. Knowing how to repair things out in the field is like CPR or the Heimlich Maneuver. You hope you'll never need those skills, but you'll be damn glad you learned them if you do.

The Hartford Public Library has a few bike repair manuals in its collection. Some are up-to-date, some of them date from the 70's or 80's which suits me fine, as many of the bikes I like and come across date from that era. "Richards' Bicycle Repair Manual" and Tom Cuthbertson's "Anybody's Bike Book" are two favorites, an 80's version of the latter title being the first bike repair book I ever read many years ago. "Richards'.." has an especially useful and amusing section on emergency repairs. Found objects figure prominently in their "limp home mode" solutions.

I know that many of the people I know through this blog do a fair amount of work on their own bikes. I also know that many people who read this and ride bikes haven't had much opportunity to learn how to do their own work and might even feel a bit intimidated by the idea. I hope that those of you in the first group will take some time to share some knowledge, tools, parts and camaraderie with those in the latter group. The bicycle scene in Hartford can only get stronger from this sort of sharing, and the benefits flow both ways.

A friend came by yesterday whose well-used commuter bike had been in need of attention for a long time. She had been to one of the free repair clinics at a local outdoorsy retail chain a while ago (now out-of-season, but worth checking out), but didn't have the tools and such to keep up with the normal wear-and-tear of daily riding. We checked and removed the chain and thoroughly cleaned and lubed everything drivetrain-related as a team effort. I trued the wheels so that a set of new brake pads could be adjusted closer to the rims. She just called me from work this morning to thank me again for how quiet and smooth her bike now rides and remind me that I had a homemade black bean chili dinner coming my way (she happens to be an awesome cook.) The benefits flow both ways.


Brendan said...

Chris, you got any surplus cranks?

Interstatement said...

Most of the spare cranks here at the moment are low end mountain/hybrid triples with the crappy riveted together chainwheels. The pretty vintage Sugino "Super Maxy" (for heavy flow days?) 42/52 toward the background of the first picture doesn't have a designated home yet, so I'd consider trading it for something interesting.

Billy Hoyle said...

You nasty 'Statement. Also, you're a good man for repairing friend and family machines. I hope you're at least getting some pumpkin cookies, banana bread, swedish meatballs, saffron buns, cranberry sauce, or something.

Brendan said...

Well, what would you like?

I can cook and I have bike parts you might possibly want.

Ben said...

good post. i do all my own work and really like doing it. always willing to teach if there are folks out there who want to learn. usually have parts to trade as well if anyone needs anything.

Epidimos said...

I don't know who you are Ben, but did you just offer to teach me some bike repairs? If you mean for free then you've got yourself a pupil, sir.