The Privateer Wrench

The Privateer Wrench

I spend a lot of time working on bikes. Even so, it is neither as much time as I would like playing with bikes and wrenches, nor as much time as I need to. There is a bike to assemble with the new Dura-Ace, tubulars that need gluing, a review bike that needs to be adjusted to my fit, wheels to be packed … the list, like all lists, ends not.

With two young sons, I probably shouldn’t be spending any time in the garage at all. They would be served by me playing with them. So, admittedly, I’m torn. I’m torn because I honestly love that garage time. It used to be my chance to listen to music no one I lived with could stand. Of late, I’ve been listening to podcasts. This American Life, Fresh Air and On Being are in constant rotation, but I’ve been trying a few other cycling podcasts and branching out into things like Radiolab.

As a reviewer, I find it useful to assemble and work on all the parts that I review. I’ll also admit that because of my years as a shop wrench, I take a certain pride in being able to work on everything I encounter. If I walk into a shop, it is usually because I lack a tool, but there are, on occasion, those instances where something has stymied me, like the time a bike arrived without the crown race for the headset. It turned fine in the stand, but wouldn’t turn at all the moment you put any weight on the front wheel.

More and more riders I know don’t work on their bikes beyond lubing the chain or mounting new tires. On that, I’m fantastically ambivalent. I see a real value to knowing how your bike works and being able to step in and perform repairs while on a ride. Knowing how the bike works also makes a rider a better customer because it’s easier to have an informed conversation about service if you’re not arguing over whether or not dirty cables are contributing to lousy shifting. On the other hand, it’s in service that a shop lives or dies and given the transformation that bicycle retailing is undergoing, the one revenue source that can realistically continue unabated is service.

But how many and which tools does a home mechanic need to own? I went many years without owning a headset press. Just at the point I was ready to invest in one internal headsets became a thing and owning one became, for a while, much less necessary. Then I started riding steel and ti again, and these press-in bottom brackets became a thing. As a result, I’ve used a headset press five times this year, which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme, but I went more than 10 years without needing one, so this is a big change.

I find myself thinking about where I would draw the line between work I perform myself and work I’d rely on one of my local shops to do if I didn’t justify doing work myself as part of my job. Just what would I want to turn over? I like tuning drivetrains. I hate truing wheels because I no longer have the fluid feel for it I once did. I find great satisfaction in adjusting disc brakes—when I get the desired result. I hate it when I need to deal with a warped rotor. I love getting a bike ready for a big ride, but I hate switching out any part that might affect my fit.

My sons like bikes. They seem, like me, to dig bikes as mechanisms as well as for where they might take them. The Deuce, who is not yet four, has a sense of bike maintenance and wants to pump up the tires on his tricycle before every ride. He is adamant about this step. Professional needs aside, I plan to keep up my skills and knowledge so that I may teach my sons. It’s my hope that as they learn to work on their bikes they will gain an appreciation of what it means to care for a machine, how caring for it reflects your regard for a thing and informs your sense of what it means to invest yourself in a pursuit.

Taking care of my bike taught me deep lessons about how to take care of myself.

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    1. Author

      Oh, I make plenty of jokes about my ham-fisted mechanic. But at least he’s willing to work for beer.

  1. Miles Archer

    I could spend the time to be my own mechanic – I fix everything else around the house. But for me, bikes are a toy and not a hobby. If I have time for cycling I want to be out on the road. I don’t want to be in the garage and I’ll happily pay someone to take care of stuff for me.

  2. Lyford

    I like being able to make any needed adjustments– drivetrain, brakes, wheels, etc. There’s a lot of satisfaction in keeping the family bikes running well, or in being able to help a friend with a bike problem. But installations that require expensive special tools — such as bottom bracket presses — I’ll happily leave to the local shop.

  3. Noel

    Working on bikes is frequently a “Zen” time for me. I’m probably what would best be termed a budding mechanic. I’ve always been able to do the basic stuff but I’m getting more into the esoteric bits of bike assembly and maintenance, i.e. installing bottom brackets and headsets, setting star nuts, cutting steerers, etc.

    I’m in the process of building a new Yeti ARC mountain bike and I’m debating if, and at what point, I want to turn some of it over to my local guru. I like wrenching and find it very satisfying, but do I *really* want to deal with running internal cables, bleeding brakes, and trying to figure out what, if any, setup my new Rockshox SID fork requires? I’m not sure. It’s a balance between curiosity, worry of screwing up expensive hardware, and desire to avoid unnecessary aggravation.

  4. Mike the Bike PT

    I am the son of an auto mechanic. My father is one of those individuals who instinctively knows how to assemble and disassemble non-electronic machines. He is thoroughly analog.

    His son (me) inherited little to none of that mechanical aptitude. Prior to owning a home and prior to the love affair with the bicycle, I had lived by the mantra of “You do not fix stuff”. Fixing stuff is for smarter and wiser people.

    Then something mysterious happened. I learned that I can learn. Unfortunately, the best way for me to learn is through complete and embarrassing failure. The first time I decided to adjust the derailleurs, I studiously watched and read everything I could from the Park Tool website. Seemed pretty straightforward. How could anything go wrong? An hour later, there was a smoking crater in front of me where my bike used to be.

    After the local shopped put it back together, the mechanic looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you did, but it’s fixed now”.

    Several years on from that point, I can adjust brakes (although cantis give me fits), replace a traditional bottom bracket, swap out chain rings, install and adjust the derailleurs, replace bar tape, adjust and replace shifters, change a flat and swap tires and other minor things.

    Kids in the neighborhood now come to me if they need air in their tire or if the handlebars are askew or if something is going ‘clunk’. That is fun and gives a little glow of joy in my heart.

    Do I have enough time for all that I want to do? No. Does my bike shop see me on a fairly regular basis? Yep. Good enough, for now.

  5. DaSy

    Having run my own cycle repair business for years, I moved to Wales and decided to not carry it on. I therefore have a garage that is fully fitted out as very high-spec cycle workshop, with all tools for every Campag oddity, Shimano quirk and every Park tool they have ever made. All of this is used purely to keep my personal fleet on the road. A bit of a waste I know, but I would hate to not have the right tool and still buy any new tools that become necessary – yes Campagnolo, I’m do mean you!

  6. MCH

    One of the best things my dad did for me, was to introduce me to tools at a very early age. When it came time to remove the training wheels from my first bike, I grabbed a Crescent wrench from the tool box and removed them. Soon there after, I started “modifying” the other bikes in the garage. Many years later, the lessons learned while wrenching still apply and the satisfaction of fixing or creating something is still just as rewarding.

    My suggestion re the kids is in addition to play time, create garage time. Give ’em a wrench and set them loose.

    1. Michael

      Yes, MCH, I agree about giving the kid a wrench. Fifty + years later, I still use some of the tools my dad put on the little workbench we built for me. Cheap tools and I have better ones now, but they carry a lot of memories. It was MY place and MY tools and he never stopped me from taking something apart that he knew I could not re-assemble. Today, I have to use my own faulty judgement on that. Oh, and when it came to clearing out my dad’s place after he died, the only things I took home were a few tools. The rest of the stuff, well, I couldn’t see a need for more clutter in my life, and I knew I would think of him every time I took down one of his tools. I even look for little projects just to use them.

    2. Rod


      Best thing my dad ever did – give me an old broken stopwatch and a set of mini screwdrivers. ” have at it”. I think I was 6.

      Of course that thing was ignominiously violated, but I learned that I can take things apart. I can still fix most mechanical things around the house (I refuse to do the extended commitment stuff – no painting, no drywalling with mud, etc.) and worked briefly as a mechanic in a bike store. The owner, one of my best friends, still jokingly refuses when I bring a bike for service when I’m short on time.

      Let kids own meccano or similar and break a few expendable items. Then you’ll have someone to help you fix a light fixture or a leaky faucet. Or a seized bottom bracet 🙂

  7. mpetry

    +1 on MCH’s comment above. being exposed to tools at an early age builds a capacity in a young mind for developing a systemic understanding of how things work. This capacity is invaluable in later life when problems bigger than an out of adjustment derailleur need to be solved.

  8. Quentin

    I started working on bikes quite young because I liked tinkering with things to understand how they work, and I was (and still am) cheap. I wanted to try an aluminum frame as a teenager, so I bought one secondhand, and then had to figure out on my own how to get all of the parts from my old road bike to my new one. That was an education. I was probably already destined for a career in engineering anyway, but all the tinkering certainly helped me on my way. I still like working with my hands, but my engineering work is now just a software abstraction of the real world, so working on my bikes gets me the opportunity to still do something “hands on”, and with all of the changes in technology, it’s still a learning experience.

  9. Author

    Thanks everyone. I’m going to take the boys in the garage with me this weekend as I begin tearing the Bishop down to install the new Dura-Ace 9100. That might be my birthday present to me. I’ve got enough tools that I can turn them loose on stuff.

  10. Gabriel

    I’m frequently shocked at how terrible many shop mechanics are and how little they know about the gear they sell. Entirely too often when I try to support local, I’ll find I’ve been given the wrong part (hydraulic hose barb, brake compound, bearing diameter, etc). In addition to simply enjoying working on my bike, I feel a lot more confident it was done right and with care if I do it myself. It’s no fun bombing into a corner and having doubts about the quality of a tubular glue job.

    1. Nick W.

      Let’s hope that a greater focus on what it means to be a “mechanic” and not just an “assembler” can have an impact on the quality of the work done in shops. Find and support good mechanics and let their employers know why you’re there!

  11. scott g.

    Started riding as a tourist, so dismantling into a box
    and reassembling in an airport lounge was a required skill.
    Then into vintage bikes where no LBS could be expected
    to help. All thanks to St. Sheldon, Mr. Zinn and the VCC Library.

  12. Dan

    I have worked with some good bike shops in the past but lately the quality of their work is very hit and miss. Loose bottom brackets and the inability to true wheels has lead me to believe that if you want it done right, do it yourself. I like having a bike that works that I put together. I like being able to help with things that are not working correctly. When you fix a snapped chain for someone on a ride far from home they are truely appreciative. I like being that guy.

  13. Peter Rhodes

    Long ago when I was a 15 year old getting into this sport, the older (and wiser) folks I rode with told me the sage advice of “learn to fix your own crap, this is an expensive sport”. In 28 years I’ve accumulated most of the tools a shop would/should have. I don’t mine truing wheels, but I don’t have the knack for building them. I’ll also in general pay someone to overhaul my suspension fork. Everything else I vary between competent to “advanced” on my skill level.
    Like others have also noted, it is a nice time to just go be “zen”. I clean, tweak or tinker with at least one of my bikes every weekend just to make sure that they are all running smoothly.
    I think this all comes from the frugal Yankee background that being a New Englander tends to create. Why pay someone to do something that I can do myself.

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