Much of what informs my personal sense of cycling aesthetics comes from what I see the PROs do. I’m not perfect in my adherence—I won’t ride a 53cm frame with a 14cm stem no matter how much weight it will allow me to put on the front wheel—but watching what the big boys do has changed me as a cyclist, there’s no doubt.
However, there remains an element of my idealized image of a cyclist that comes not from the PROs, but of the amateurs who guided me when I wasn’t even good enough to be a Cat. IV. The touches were small but uniform in consistency. All the guys who schooled me four days a week had a tubular strapped under their saddle with a Christophe toe strap. They all had the original Avocet cycle computer with the wire wrapped perfectly around the front brake cable before zip tying the wire down the back of the fork blade with three (not four, not two) zip ties.
Those touches were all S.O.P. But the one that really got me, the one you couldn’t just decide to emulate one Saturday afternoon (because it required planning ahead by months and months), was the frame pump. Now anyone can go out and purchase a frame pump (and certainly the Zéfal HP was the most mechanically sound frame pump ever made), but to do the frame pump correctly, you had to do two things. First, you had to order a frame that actually had a pump peg brazed to the back of the head tube. Second, you had to order a Silca frame pump and it had to be painted with your frame when you purchased it. There were some builders, such as Medici, that would do matching frame pumps for their frames and even offered frame pumps painted to match fades. My friend Jimmy, who worked at a vegetarian market/restaurant called the Squash Blossom had a green and yellow fade Medici that was to me the absolute epitome of journeyman self-sufficiency.
With its matching yellow to green fade Silca frame pump and Campy head (the Silca heads were shit; I know), Jimmy’s bike was so straightforward in execution it couldn’t be defeated by circumstances. Unless he got run over by some redneck’s pickup (and that was always a chance on the country roads outside of Memphis), he could flat and he needed only two items to get home. With his 36-hole Ambrosio rims laced to Campy Nuovo Record hubs via 14-gauge DT spokes, he was never going to suffer a broken spoke or a rim knocked so far out of true from hitting a dead ex-mammal that a wheel wouldn’t be rideable.
The irony of this journeyman cool, the style of the lifer amateur, was that in training races—which constituted anything you either rode to or didn’t include a trophy presentation on an actual podium—the guys I looked up to wouldn’t bother to pull off the frame pump or tubular. They’d add another toe strap to make sure the frame pump wouldn’t come off, but as some of these races didn’t include much in the way of neutral support, they would roll out as if it was just another group ride.
That nonchalance came from a place I learned to revere. They were casual not because they were cool, but because humility permitted nothing like pride. The student of cycling knows that speed isn’t made in a single day, but after months of repetition.
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.