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City Scopes III
Hit it with a hammer
Before I became a cycling journalist I used to, amongst a few other unsuccessful career paths, fix bikes. It was the late eighties and mountain bikes, not fixies, were the weapon of choice for the well heeled London bike commuter. Back in 1989 Rail strikes were just as de rigueur as they are now, and so I found myself in a sweltering basement bike shop fixing-up hundreds of hire bikes for the stranded metropolitan masses. Everything I knew about racing bikes got lost in a summer haze of GT85 spray oil and broken fingernails and although I’d dreamt of tweaking Colnagos, building wheels for racers and selecting frame tools from an immaculate Campagnolo tool kit… the grim reality was sadly far from the fantasy workshop of my dreams.
However badly I wanted to be a race mechanic, a wheel expert or a frame builder, the cold, harsh truth for me was endless rolls of handlebar tape and building cheap mountain bikes from boxes, all accompanied by cheesy DJs on Radio 1. The truth was it was rubbish – hard, thankless work and I simply wasn’t up to it. After weeks of rusty chains and filthy tyres, the daily bikeshop toil had festered into a resentment I couldn’t comprehend – I once loved bikes but by the end of that summer I was sick of the sight of them.
Strange really, when the cycling world was enjoying a long overdue resurgence, there were more people on bikes that year than there were in the post war boom years: There was even an American Express TV ad with one in, with that immediately forgettable catch phrase – “Don’t deliver it, I’ll ride it home…”
So, somewhat fortuitously, I found my saviour, of sorts, in writing about bikes… I can still roll a mean wrap of bar tape, but let’s face it, writing about it is far cleaner. But hold on, Rapha have asked me to write a few words about bike maintenance, but I’ve used up most of them on a diatribe about how I came to hate fixing them… Perhaps we should start again?
So you think that your bike must be pretty simple then? Think again. Just look over your handlebars at your front wheel – this simple, beautiful thing, spinning away effortlessly and steering your way. But it’s not as simple as it seems, there are more than 80 individual components in it and adjusting it properly takes years of experience and technical know-how. Somebody once said that a lump hammer could cause less damage to a wheel than a spoke key in the wrong hands and that’s very true – It’s like asking the unmusical to tune a piano.
And equally problematic is a regular request I get from friends new to cycling, it usually goes something like this: “I’m trying to cobble together a bike from vintage parts and I wondered if this 1980s Pinarello frame I found in a skip will take Campagnolo 11 speed?” The answer to this is lost on the uninitiated, but it’s almost always a non-starter. The hub, chain, gear, shifter, sprocket and drop-out compatibility problems that modern components present are exponential. So although the enthusiasm may be well founded, my advice is always a little disappointing - making modern stuff work with old timers is a nightmare.
The secret is if you can’t do it yourself and you want a good commuting bike, first find a decent mechanic. Ask them what they think, the sales staff in a bike shop only know a fraction of what it takes to keep a bike running, so get a mechanic onside and you’ll have a far better picture. A good mechanic requires a wealth of underpinning knowledge that is built on a solid base of experience, interest in their subject and constant re-training (a good tip is that they usually will tell you anything for a packet of Fig Rolls). Bike shop mechanics are the life-blood of any city’s cycle-commuter community and they work incredibly hard. Which was something I certainly couldn’t handle.
I suppose I should be the first to promote a book or two on the subject of bicycle maintenance, but not this time. I believe the professional bicycle mechanic should always be your first port of call, especially if you don’t know what you are doing. There are over 250 adjustable parts in the average modern bike. If you break it down to individual component parts it’s probably nearer to 900, depending on the bike, somewhat fittingly, around the same number of words I’ve written here. Now add into that the many different manufacturers of said parts. Then the fact that bikes have been made for well over 100 years at a rate (currently) of around 130 million bikes per annum. That’s a lot of bicycles and along with it, a lot of variety. Car servicing these days costs around £120 per hour, which is roughly the same price as a full bicycle service in a busy city workshop and that’s a good half a day’s work, so a small price to pay to keep the cheapest form of transport known to man on the road.
Guy Andrews is the author of Road Bike Maintenance.