Gas station without pumps

2012 March 28

Praise for The Bicycle Trip

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:29
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As I mentioned yesterday (Sprockets closed), the neighborhood bike shop I’ve been shopping at closed after 16 years (due to the death of one of the owners, not due to business problems).  I had two repairs that needed to be done (one on my son’s bike and one on my recumbent) that I had been able to diagnose, but did not have the tools to repair, so I rode the bikes the two miles to my second-favorite bike shop (they probably would have been my favorite, if they weren’t so far away): The Bicycle Trip.

My son’s bike had been in low-speed crash (hit by a right-turning car) last Friday, and was having trouble shifting.  I fixed what I could (straightening the fenders, adjusting the brakes, inflating the tires, adjusting the derailleur), but when the rear derailleur was in the lowest gear it hit the spokes.  I figured that either the derailleur or the derailleur hanger had been bent, and I did not have good tools for straightening it.  If I had been in the middle of nowhere on a bike tour, I probably would have tried using a pair of vise grips to straighten the hanger, but it seemed easier to me to ride the bike to a bike shop (staying out of the lowest gear) and ask them to look at it.

At the Bicycle Trip, they put the bike on the stand right away, looked at the problem, took off the rear derailleur, got out their tool for straightening derailleur hangers (a large steel tube with a pivot at one end and an adjustable spacing rod at the other).  With this tool, straightening is easy—screw the pivot into the threaded hole on the hanger, swing the arm back and forth to find out where maximum deflection from parallel to the wheel occurs, use the bar as a lever to adjust the hanger, repeat until straight.  It took them less than five minutes to fix the problem and readjust the derailleur.  They also noticed that the rear rack had been deflected sideways, and straightened that also.  They only charged me their minimum labor charge ($5) for a fix that would have taken me far longer to do (even including the ride to and from the bike shop).

Having been pleased with yesterday’s service, I decided to take in my recumbent today.  Again, I had diagnosed the problem: a few of the teeth on my smallest front sprocket had gotten bent, causing difficulty shifting into low gear.  For me to fix this would have required taking off the crank, taking the front sprocket off, carefully trying to bend the teeth back with pliers and a small vise, and reassembling everything.  It would have taken me an hour, assuming that the crank-puller I have is the right threads for the crank (I bought the crank puller over a decade ago, and I can’t remember whether it was for this bike or a different one—bike component manufacturers love having a dozen different “standards” for everything).

Again I brought the bike in and explained the problem.  This time they didn’t even bother putting the bike on stand, but got out a tool for straightening bent teeth (a steel bar with a slot near the end—the slot being just the width of the sprocket).  In about a minute the bent sprocket had been straightened without having to disassemble anything.  They didn’t charge me anything.  I even asked, “Isn’t there a $5 minimum charge?” and they waved it away.  Now that is friendly service!  I will certainly be doing my next bike-related purchase at The Bicycle Trip.

Both of these repairs (bent derailleur hanger and bent front sprocket) are routine repairs that the bike shop deals with frequently.  Both of them are also repairs that I’ve never needed before in 40 years of using a bicycle as my main form of transportation.  Partly that’s because of changes in bike design: front sprockets are thinner than they used to be and derailleurs used to be mounted directly to the rear fork, not to a deformable hanger. Partly it’s because I’m mainly a bike commuter, and the bending of derailleur hangers is more common with off-road mountain bike riding.

One of the comments on yesterday’s post made some interesting points:

I was a bike mechanic/shop manager for 7 years while teaching at the university and working on the Masters. Working on a bike is so easy and relaxing that it might be worth your while to learn how to do it. A good bike stand (Park PCS-10) is the biggest investment. This stand folds up for easy storage. Tools are fairly minimal cost wise. Finding anyone that can do a good job on a recumbent can be hit or miss; they can have some idiosyncrasies. There are a couple of how-to books out there that are not bad but usually everything you need to know can be learned by just looking closely at the problem. There are some special pullers for the crank arms depending on the crank manufacturer but Park Tools sells them at a good price. I like working on bikes. I can bring everything in the house on a bad weather day and just fuss around cleaning, adjusting and lubing. It isn’t like working on a car or motorcycle where you have to freeze you ass off in the garage. (Although I do occasionally bring the motorcycle in the house to work on in the winter. The wife is not excited by the motorcycle in the living room but she can handle it for a while.) You can become a true Zen master of bikes only by working on them. To achieve true inner peace you must be able to discuss intelligently the structural advantages of have a three cross spoke pattern on the drive side and a radial pattern on the non-drive side of your rear wheel. Not only will you achieve inner peace, you will become widely known as an über bike geek.

I’m not interested in becoming a “true Zen master of bikes”.  If I wanted a meditative physical activity, I would probably take up weaving again (I still have a couple of looms that I’ve not used in a long time).  The repetitive nature of throwing the shuttle exactly the same each time, while maintaining awareness of the pattern of the foot pedals and watching for flaws, did indeed lead me into meditative states.

I do have a bike stand—not a Park but a cheaper Blackburn stand.  I also have several tools acquired over the years (chain link tool, spoke wrench, metric Allen wrenches, metric hex wrenches, crank puller, chain-cleaning tool, floor bike pump, …).  I do the simpler maintenance on my bike: replacing brake pads, patching tubes, changing tires, adjusting derailleurs, minor truing of the wheels, replacing the chain, … . For that matter, I understand the differences between the radial and 3-cross spoke patterns, and why you want the drive side spokes to be tangential to the hub (I’m not sure that I agree about wanting a radial pattern on the non-drive side as that assumes more flex in the hub than I think is warranted unless you are using super lightweight parts).

Unlike the commenter, I do not find working on the bike very relaxing. It is somewhat rewarding to be able to keep things in repair myself, but the actual hands-on part is more irritating than relaxing.  I suppose that if I didn’t drop things and lose them nor bang my knuckles when the wrench slips, I’d find it more relaxing.  I used to do all the bike maintenance myself, but as I’ve aged I’ve decided more and more often that I’m happier paying a professional to do it right than doing it myself.  The two repairs yesterday and today are good examples—I was perfectly happy doing the minor maintenance on my son’s bike, but leaving the straightening of the derailleur to someone who had the right tool. Thirty years ago, I might have preferred jury-rigging something with vise grips.  Twenty years ago, I might have ordered a specialized tool and waited two weeks for it, but now, a trip to the bike shop is faster, cheaper, and less irritating.  And the fix is done properly.

I’ve been finding the same thing for home repairs.  Some things (like using a plunger or a plumber’s snake, hanging a picture, replacing a switch plate, oiling locks and hinges, or fastening a bookcase to wall) are things everyone should be able to do.  I’ve acquired some tools that are a little unusual for a homeowner (like a hammer drill for drilling into my concrete walls and a bench-top drill press), but for bigger jobs (like replacing the windows, framing and installing skylights, building a gate, tiling the kitchen with ceramic tile, or installing insulation on the inside of the concrete walls) I prefer hiring a competent contractor.  Finding a good contractor was difficult at first, but I now have one who I’m quite comfortable with who does both big remodel jobs and smaller ones.  (He’s my age, though, so I expect that in another decade I’ll be looking for a new contractor when he retires.)

I have a great deal of respect for the do-it-yourself and maker movements, and I do get some pleasure out of designing and making things.  But there are times when I prefer buying something ready-made or hiring a professional to do the job right—different people will find different levels of doing-it-themselves optimal.


  1. The University of Waterloo has a Bike Centre which provides tools & space for fixing bikes (as well as volunteers who can help). However, since I’m not actually that good at fixing bikes, I always find that 3 hours go by, without a guarantee that I’ve fixed the problem.

    Certainly simpler things like brake pads are very doable in such a space. But even for something as easy as changing a flat tube, I find it to be easier to go to the store. Especially for a rear tube. On the other hand, I seem to have fixed a skipping chain problem by working the chain yesterday, so that was good.

    Maybe I’d have a better time of it if I did it more often, but that doesn’t seem to tempting to me.

    Comment by plam — 2012 March 28 @ 13:41 | Reply

  2. I understand completely. I have been wrenching for so long that it is kind of relaxing to not have to think while I do something with my hands. I fry my brain daily with teaching high school kids and trying to write programs that bike mechanicing is a big stress reliever. I can throw wrenches at the wall and the wall does not care. When I throw erasers at the kids sometimes they do not duck quickly enough. It also sounds like your local shop is a good one. Something you might consider on the recumbent repair is why those teeth got bent. That is not normal. There is some neat math with the 3-cross/radial wheel thing. The radial makes a super rigid, light wheel but does put a lot of stress on the hub. Years ago I had some kids work up some stress and deflection tests for some wheels I had built. Radial is a bad idea for a cheap hub with a thin flange. The failure is kind of cool. The semi-radial rear is also a nasty ride on a hard-tail bike. There is no flex and every little bump is transmitted to the spine.

    Comment by gflint — 2012 March 29 @ 10:03 | Reply

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