As a mediocre cyclist, it’s only fitting that I’m supported by an equally mediocre bicycle mechanic: myself. See, you get what you pay for: I pay myself nothing, and it’s clear from the shoddy quality of my work that I harbor some resentment for my employer. Nonetheless, I derive a certain amount of satisfaction from tending to my own bicycle fleet.
My relationship with bicycle maintenance and repair is further complicated by the fact that I’m fundamentally a perfectionist. No, I don’t particularly mind if my bike is dirty, or scratched, or even dented. That stuff’s superficial. (Well, usually.) What troubles me are the sounds: the clicks, creaks, and squeals that indicate something’s not operating as it should. I’ll go months without pointing a hose at my bike, but I will dedicate inordinate amounts of time to diagnosing some noise-producing condition, and even after I’ve finally remedied it I’ll remain on edge, hyper-vigilant lest it manifest itself again.
Alas, being a perfectionist in the body of a mediocre-at-best bicycle mechanic is a tortuous existence; it’s like hearing beautiful melodies in your head but being forced to play the piano while wearing oven mitts. As I begin any repair I can see the process quite clearly in my mind’s eye: the tools arrayed on the workbench like surgical implements, the components carefully removed and ready for reassembly, everything unfolding just like in the YouTube tutorial. But in reality I don’t even have a workbench, the component never comes off as easily as it should, and within minutes I’m on my hands and knees looking for some errant bolt, pawl, or ball bearing when it finally breaks free.
My perfectionism also compels me to undertake unnecessary repairs in the interest of “preventative maintenance,” which I’ve come to learn is never a good idea. The best mechanics know when to leave their bikes the hell alone. Here’s when you don’t attempt to work on your bike:
- At night
- When you don’t have an orderly place to work
- When nothing’s really wrong with the bike
If you’re a smart person you tackle a repair when it’s necessary, and you do it when you’re well-rested and in a place where there’s plenty of space and light—and most importantly, you do it when you have lots of time. But if you’re me, while the rest of your family is watching an evening movie, you steal away to the basement of your apartment building under the pretense that you’re going to do the laundry. Once there, beneath the feeble glow of a single energy-efficient light fixture, you attempt a complicated freehub overhaul with an aftermarket bearing kit for no other reason than there’s a little too much play in the cassette and you’ve been obsessed with curing it before it gets any worse. This overhaul involves lots of grinding and pounding in low-light conditions—plus you’ve got to keep stopping to put in another load of laundry in order to maintain your alibi. But you’re determined to finish so you can ride the wheel the next morning.
By the time the dryer is finished you’re drenched in sweat. You’ve managed to wreck the aftermarket bearing kit and render the wheel completely unrideable, and you’ve got to unload the laundry with your elbows so you don’t get grease all over the linens. With any luck, one day you’ll manage to get the wheel working almost as well as it was before you started messing with it—or, just as likely, it’s a write-off. (The wheel in question is currently in limbo, in case you’re wondering.)
There’s a sick feeling that comes with waste; you know it if you’ve ever splurged on groceries and proceeded to totally ruin dinner. I do my best to rationalize: “There’s nothing wrong with failure.” Certainly it’s a fundamental part of cycling—maybe the most important part. Do we bail on the race because we might get dropped? Isn’t getting lost or tending to an ill-timed mechanical sometimes the most memorable part of the ride? Do we not steer our bikes onto the steepest slopes despite the virtual certainty that they will break us before we reach the summit? Do we not learn and come back stronger?
“Of course we do!” I exclaim out loud, prompting my confused family to turn briefly away from the TV. So why should working on my bike be any different? In fact, if you think about it, breaking a $900 wheel is a testament to my indomitable spirit, even if I did so not by pushing it to its limits while riding it, but instead through the sheer fuckery of tinkering with it for no good reason. And by the time I’m done with my beer I almost believe it.
Your bike gives back to you whatever you put into it, whether you’re riding it or working on it. Ultimately, I realize I’m a lousy mechanic because I’m lacking the two most important tools in the kit: patience and restraint. Or perhaps just one: I may not have the restraint to leave a perfectly functional wheel alone, but at least I’m patient with myself for failing, and maybe one day I’ll get there.
In the meantime, I should probably invest in a workbench.