Bike Work

Bike Work

I began working in bike shops in the 1980s when index shifting was still relatively new and the integrated control lever was at best a technical drawing. Sealed bearings were uncommon and to this reformed skater, it seemed a strange oversight. I could pull a bike from a box and have it assembled in 90 minutes, ready for the sales floor. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took me so long, but I suspect choosing which CD to play next might have had something to do with it. By the early 1990s I could go from sealed bike to test-ride ready in 45 minutes.

As a mechanic who was often charged with teaching other mechanics, most operations on a bike were pretty easy. The challenges emerged any time a barrel adjuster had to be turned or when a cup-and-cone bearing required adjustment. I’d complain about how many Brinnelled headsets I replaced because of ham-fisted coworkers, but an accounting of my own past says I killed my share of headsets.

Working on bikes is a contemplative act. For years, it was a chance for me to wrap myself in favorite music, and while I still love listening to favorite albums, more and more I use that time to listen to books or podcasts I don’t have time enough to digest elsewhere in my day. It’s a chance to think about big ideas, to ask even bigger questions and to work through thorny problems. But for all the places I like to allow my brain to go, the reality is that more and more I need to shut off the earbuds and use all of my senses to sort out issues like internally routing cable housing through a frame.

This fall I’ve had cause to work with a funny little kit from Park Tool, called the IR-1.2. It’s a kit with stretches of small, coated cable ending in magnets or a hydraulic line insert. And while this tool is meant to simplify what would be a dastardly difficult task otherwise, it doesn’t necessarily make the operation easy.

The magnets are reasonably strong, strong enough to find each other through a thick wall of carbon fiber. But if the inside of the frame isn’t smooth; say there’s a wrinkled ply or a bulge of resin inside a tube, it can stop the magnet from moving without some creativity. I’ll say that I enjoy putting my problem-solving skills to use, but having this operation go without a hitch would be welcome.

Even once the hydraulic lines, cables and cable housing, or Di2 wires are run, assembly isn’t easy. Bleeding hydraulic brakes is not the simple exercise that adjusting indexed shifting is. And if someone should forget to remove the brake shoes and do a bleed without brake blocks in the calipers, all it takes is a drop or two of DOT brake fluid or mineral oil to reduce the brake to a noisy transatlantic flight (squealing and non-stop).

Every now and then I bump up against something that stymies me despite my best efforts and I find myself walking to my neighborhood shop to get their opinion or their in-stand help. It’s those occasions when they sort out in five minutes what I spend half an hour not solving that reminds me just how tough a job it is to be a bike mechanic.

I’m in the process of finishing the build of a gravel bike I’ll be reviewing. Compared to other bikes I’ve built, it is both the most complicated and the most simple bike I’ve ever dealt with. The most complicated because of the fork and headset and cable routing. The brake hoses run internally from the lever all the way to where the host exits just before the brake mount. And even though there are no cable guides in the frame, I had an easier time routing the brake lines than I have with any other frame in history, save those with cable guides. Part of the reason running the brakes was so easy was that the frame and fork are as clean inside as many frames are on the outside when they are first pulled from the mold. Without flashing or wrinkled layers, it was easy to push and pull the lines through.

So while I need a great many more tools to build a bike than I used to, a completed build has the ability to be elegant and sleek in a way bikes of yore never could be. And as much as I love the clean look, what I really admire is the underlying logic that went into the engineering, the processes that resulted in such a great frameset, the thinking that results in such an exciting ride.

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5 comments

  1. Dave

    Great piece as always Padraig and one I find kind of humorous personally, because I gave up being a wrench recently just because I could not keep pace with all the change that was happening. I got as far as Dura-Ace 7800, and then I just did not enjoy working on the bike anymore because everything became so much more precise and tuned that there was far less room for error. Rather than learn how to work with stuff like that I decided I’d rather pay to have it done so I don’t have to worry about it. I enjoyed wrenching for 25 years and helped open a shop, but now I enjoy having a nationally renowned shop right around the corner where I know the owner and staff and I never have any issues with their work. I still take great pleasure in cleaning and adjusting my bikes, but when it comes to anything more than that I am happy to let the shop take care of it.

    Some of my friends nearing retirement age have mentioned how they look forward to having more time to hone their mechanical skills and I went the exact opposite direction so I guess that is to be filed under to each his own!

    Can’t wait to see your latest build!

  2. Scott M.

    Thoughts:
    – The Paceline was my first podcast. I started listening while washing bikes. It’s a gateway podcast.
    – Since the 80’s, you’ve seen a lot of “revolutionary” innovations come and go. Biopace is back…
    – What goes through a mechanic’s mind when you walk in asking for help. (“If the Guru can’t fix it…”)
    – We’ve come a long way from the days when Fisher and Richie invented mountain biking with spare parts, rubber bands, and twigs.
    – Between electric shifting, eBikes, Wahoo, Garmin, and Zwift, Bike mechanics very nearly need a degree in IT.

  3. Chuck

    Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance. At least if you’re still running a full mechanical drivetrain (more so with exposed cabling) and rim brakes. I figure when I eventually make the leap to electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes is when I stop being my own mechanic.

  4. JH

    I’ll never forget building my Giordana Polaris SLX with internal rear brake cable. What a pain!
    I recently also watched mechanics build Madones and checkpoints and realized being a mechanic now is a far cry from what it was in 1992!

  5. Josh

    Tis becoming a different job, this afternoon an hour was spent replacing and routing 3 cables through a road bike frame. A job that would have taken a quarter of the time on a traditional bike. This morning 3 hours replacing all the internal electronics through a full suspension e mountain bike and plugging it into a computer programme and fault finding (it was a faulty motor…) A task that didn’t exist only a couple of years ago.
    There are a few tricks to make it all easier but much like the home mechanic working on their expensive new toys, the professionals spend just as much time fumbling about and cursing the sideways logic of the engineers who design this stuff. now I jump for joy whenever anything older than 5 years rolls through the workshop knowing it can be totally stripped and rebuilt in a couple of hours rather than a couple of days.

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