The Overhaul

One of the greatest adventures of my newly minted career as a bicycle mechanic was when I was walked through my first overhaul. One Saturday just before New Year’s Eve, after we closed the shop up, the manager and I stayed behind, cranked up The Who and he began disassembling his Nuovo Record-equipped Cïocc.

Off came the wheels, then each of the cables and housing. Then he removed the brakes, the derailleurs, the cranks, and then the stem, headset and fork. Finally he disassembled the bottom bracket. As he removed each of the parts they went in the Safety-Kleen bath. He flicked a switch and left them to marinate. He coiled the cables before tossing them in the trash and he folded the chain on an old rag.

He showed me how to position the crank-bolt wrench so that you squeeze the wrench and crank arm toward each other to remove the crank bolts. But when he took the Park crank puller off the wall, a tool I had previously seen, but never used, the bicycle became as complicated as a Chinese puzzle, but with an entirely more thrilling solution.

He demonstrated how to hold the drive-side crank arm and use a Park Y-Allen to loosen the crank bolts. One sudden, firm twist broke the bolts free. I quickly learned the chainrings were tough to scrub clean.

With the frame stripped of everything save the headset cups, he washed down the frame and cleaned around the chainstay bridge, around the seatstays at the seat binder, at the head tube/down tube joint and behind the front derailleur braze-on.

We scrubbed the brakes and derailleurs down and used a rat-tail file to remove enough brake shoe material to remove any aluminum embedded in the brake shoes. They were placed on a clean rag to dry.

The quick releases received their own bath and then the non-drive-side locknut and cone were removed from each wheel’s axle. The ball bearings for the headset, each hub and the bottom bracket were placed in glass bowls, one for each size of bearing. After making sure the bearings were clean, we inspected them for scoring or any other sign of wear. Next, he took a rag, dipped it in the Safety-Kleen and then wiped shiny each of the bearing races and cones.

It was painstaking work, work for which only clear forethought and practiced technique could add speed. Satisfaction was proportional to effort.

We reassembled the wheels first; truing would happen the next weekend when he planned to glue on a new set tires. One finger-scoop-worth of Campy’s white lithium grease was applied to each race and then each bearing was placed like so many cherries into whipped cream.

When we spun the freewheel back on he showed me how to use the freewheel tool to tighten the freewheel onto the hub threads so that the rear derailleur adjustment wouldn’t be thrown off by trying to adjust the set screws relative to a not-yet fully tightened freewheel. It was fun to put my full weight into turning the wheel on the vise.

With the frame spun upside-down in the work stand, we finished off the headset and then re-inserted the fork and spun on the headset’s adjustable cup.

We reattached the derailleurs and brakes, and made sure to remount the front derailleur exactly where the clamp had made indentations on the braze-on. New cables ran from each lever. We cut new housing to match the lengths of the old spans. We only needed 4 and 5mm Allen wrenches and an 8mm box wrench. A quick stretch of the cables and then we tightened them once again.

A week later I decided I would overhaul my touring bike. When I realized that the hubs and bottom bracket used sealed bearings (which were pretty exotic for those days), I felt cheated; the experience was less thorough than I’d anticipated. It’s a bit like traveling to Paris with the expectation that you’ll get to speak French, only to have everyone there look at your shoes and speak to you in English.

A few months later I purchased a used Super Record-equipped Miele. The first thing I did was overhaul the bike and replace the brinelled headset with a Chris King—kind of ironic given my previous experience, but my time in shops had taught me that no headset was longer-lasting and less likely to brinell than the King.

As the years passed, overhauling my bike between Christmas and New Year’s became a tradition for me, much like the annual company New Year’s Eve party is for some folks, only this was a good deal more contemplative and peaceful.

These days I’ve see the overhaul as a metaphor for many aspects of my cycling life. Every year I break out the tape measure and goniometer and go over my fit with the help of friend who does fittings for a local shop. We break it down beginning with an examination of my flexibility and ending with a thorough examination of me on my bikes.

Last year, I overhauled my workspace in the garage, tossing out old crap, filling a box with stuff to sell on Craigslist and sorting the stuff I planned to keep. It was a catharsis, and because the adventure was novel as my first shave, it was exhilarating as well.

This winter I’m in the process of overhauling my fitness. An injury last year followed by the birth of my son left me adrift of my usual mileage; I was as unacquainted with my usual fitness as the incarcerated are with take-out. Getting me in my jeans was as difficult as passing a rich man through the eye of a needle.

So this winter I overhauled my riding routines. I’ve sworn off the fastest group rides that are a normal part of my riding week. I’m riding on my own more, and I’m wearing a heart rate monitor—not for the hard efforts; rather, to remind me just how easy easy is these days. It’s kind of a will-governor, if you will.

I always derived immense satisfaction from running through the gears one last time while the bike was still in the stand, checking the throw on the brake levers and then removing the bike to pump up the tires before a quick inspection spin. I’m not sure what this personal overhaul will yield, and it will be hard to say just what finished is as our lives are unfinished until departure. Until then, I will stick to the process. I know the process results in satisfaction.

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  1. James

    Overhauls I have known… When I owned a bike shop in the 80’s we used to overhaul all of the new bikes we sold because the grease the manufacturers used was of the consistency of Vaseline! So, we would tear the things apart re-lube and then put everything back together. It was a lot of work but we knew the bikes would work correctly for a long period of time. I only get to do my own bikes and a few friends bikes now. I still like it, though I usually play operas (it’s the Italian thing!) while I work…

    On a side note, I really like your blog and look forward to reading it each day. Since everyone is making their “tops of the pops lists for 2009” your blog is my favorite. It’s an award with absolutely no value other than the fact that you are number one with at least one person! Happy New Year…

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words James. I had a friend who cleaned his house to Italian opera; you two might be on to something.

      If you liked RKP this year, you’ll like us even more next year.

  2. MattS

    Ha, I love to listen to opera while working on bikes and doing dishes. Italian, particularly Verdi. I enjoy overhauls. I’ve done hundreds in the shop, but just the odd one for friends beyond my family’s bikes now. I wish I’d had time to overhaul one of our bikes between Christmas and New Years. Perhaps once I move to a house that can fit my shop I can institute that. Until then, its over to the ‘service course’ at my in-laws’ when I can spare the time.

  3. Dan O

    Great post – reminds me of my ’80s bike shop days.

    Modern gear is certainly lighter and easier to work on. Look at a modern crank and BB set up – incredibly easy to pull apart. The old school set up with loose ball bearings and required special tools looks a bit archaic now. Still, I miss working on that era of equipment.

    I remember doing complete overalls on customer’s bikes back “in the day”. Removing, cleaning, and reassembling every bearing set – front and rear hubs, BB, and headset. Doing each area one at time, laying out the bearings on a cloth, carefully reassembling and adjusting. Radio playing the background, talking and joking around with fellow bike shop pals.

    Even today, when I hear some cheesy ’80s song on the radio – reminds me of my shop days. Just clamping the bike into the stand in my own garage now, gives me a flashback to that era as well.

    Looking forward to more RKP in 2010….

  4. souleur

    Thanks for that Padraig, all the points you make are vivid in my mind. The timing of the overhaul for me is very similar, nearly like reseting the clock at the end of the year, clearing the odometer. There is nothing more inspiring than having it done, ready for january and spring to come.

    Our equipement now is so much better as you all have mentioned. I will take it anytime truthfully, because dropping just one free bearing, and helplessly watching it roll across the garage floor as you hold the others in your handkerchief, has convinced me there is a better way. I respect the old school, and actually still have it in the garage with a couple of girls, but nothing is as nice as our grouppo’s today.

    Personally, I like some Black Keys in the background or Drive-by-Truckers playing, much like my LBS will have playing in the background.

  5. velomonkey

    Good write up, with my newest wheels – a set of joe young built DT swiss 32 spokes – are great, but the cartridge bearings leave me just a bit remiss.

    Hardest thing I ever saw from my days in the shop, overhauling an internal multiple speed rear hub. No one today would even know what to do – well, at least the majority.

  6. MattS

    That’s for sure velomonkey. The main wrench at my home shop, Brad, doesn’t hesitate for a second before tearing internals apart. He is also very bold with STIs. I learned my lesson with those after fully disassembling two rights only to find the spare part I needed was not to be found in the parts unit. Doh! Brad’s still in his thirties, so I know I’ll be in good hands with internals for years.

    1. Author

      The ability to overhaul any hub with internal gearing has always been a mark of distinction. I learned how to do Shimano 3-speeds because I worked with a mechanic who knew how to do Sturmey-Archers flawlessly. He’d hit the bong after the shop closed and do them. The Shimanos weren’t popular and I did exactly two of them—with the instruction sheet out on the work bench the whole time.

  7. Bruce Dowell

    I too have a Mielle. Bought in ’86’ with Suntour Superbe Pro components. I would do my own overhauls but not as frequently as you since I’m sure my mileage was much less then yours. It was my first ‘good’ bike and I still love riding it. I had gone through several different components as they wore out. I am a helicopter pilot so took it with me on the job in Thailand, Yemen, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, as well as around Calgary. I had always wanted Campy, so last year I had it repainted and had some Chorus and Centaur components installed. It looks great and I really love the modern brakes, gear shifting and new wheels. I’m mostly writing because this is the first time I’ve seen Mielle mentioned in print but I’ve been a fan of your writing on BKW and RKP for quite a while.

    1. Author

      Bruce: It’s funny, I bought my Miele from a Canadian named Bruce. It was an amazing bike. I did what I could to learn about the line from the time of my bike. While a lot of them were pretty basic lugged bikes, some were built by an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Ferrara. His bikes all used pinned construction and the miters on the tubes were immaculate. They were special frames. As I understand it, he built all the bikes the Canadian Olympic team rode in 1984. Truly underestimated for their quality.

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