Monday, January 24, 2011

Back on the road!

It turns out that there was nothing at all wrong with my derailleur. It was the grip shifter. Who knew?

It's funny, but when Mike cacked out on me a few days ago, and the grip shift suddenly wouldn't turn, I just assumed it was because of the winter conditions. Grit and grease caked up on the gears, corrosion and salt all over the derailleur, a chain stripped of lubrication by the beating the roads have been dishing out to it. Mike certainly looks the part, battered and salt-spattered as he is. And when I went to the shop yesterday, the kid behind the counter tried to twist the shifter, pulled on the cable a little and told me it was a winter bike and 'they get gummed up,' and sent me home to clean it and 'see if that works.' 

After testing out a bunch of great suggestions from folks that comment on this blog (thanks folks) and still not being able to turn the shifter, I wheeled Mike back over to my local bike shop this afternoon, where the guy at the front desk was, for some reason, standing on a stepladder and on the phone. He was an older guy this time. "I'm on the phone, but just take it back to the shop and Hoang'll have a look at it," he said. So I took the bike back to the shop, where Hoang (a seriously tiny Asian dude with flecks of grey in his hair) took the bike frame he was working on off the stand, popped Mike up onto it, and set to work. I hung out to watch: this stuff is fascinating, and I find it's the best way to learn more about exactly how the bike works.

I feel perhaps inordinately gratified that after all my futzing with the back end of the bike and not being able to find anything wrong with it, Hoang spun the wheel, checked the cable, eyed the mechanisms, and told me . . . there was nothing wrong with it. And while I watched in fascination, he told me there had to be something wrong with the shifter itself, and started taking it apart.

He tried whatever he could to get the shifter to work - it had simply broken somewhere inside, and would only turn in one direction. He asked if I wanted to replace it - but only after a solid ten minutes of trying to make it work - and I said of course: this is my transportation. I need it on the road.

So he got a ladder to get down a spare shifter, put it on, rethreaded the cable, made sure it worked, ran the bike through all the gears a few times (and I got to watch the derailleur curl and coil like an articulated limb: it made me feel even more that a bike is an organic sort of creature at times), and then took a wrench to stretch the cable out - running the arm of the wrench down and down and down again putting pressure on the cable - re-tightened the cable, and sent me on my way. But not before also oiling the whole thing, taking a brake pad out to sand it, realigning the brakes, and tightening the seat and tail light. "Back on the road," he said, and walked me up to the cash, where I paid $24.99 for the whole procedure and the new part.

A couple of things occurred to me while I was watching him work. One was, once again, how elegantly simple a bike actually is. Everything makes sense: the Bowden cables are like tendons, pulling things in recognizable arcs and curves. The most complicated and baffling bit of the bike is the derailleur, and that is controlled by one simple thing: a spool that winds or unwinds the cable that then pulls an armature in or out. The brake pads can be refreshed with a good bit of sandpaper, and Hoang didn't use any tool more specialized than a socket wrench. I could master this. I haven't yet, but I could.

Another thing that occurred to me was how much I'd assumed (as I do every winter) that winter is going to kill your bicycle. Yup, it's hard on it. But if it's January, I will automatically leap to the conclusion that what's wrong with my bike is the fault of the weather: when in fact what was wrong with the bike was that the gearshift had worn out. Not a bit of the bike that's even exposed to the grit and slush. Mike's a trooper! Drive train of a bike half his age! Or something like that.

And the third thing that occurred to me had to do with Shelly's comment on my last post. The one about how you can feel, as a woman going into a bike shop. Maybe it's a bit of confirmation bias on my part, but I think this is the second time, with this shop, that this has happened: when I went into the shop a couple of days ago and was sent off to 'clean the bike and see if that helped', everyone in the front of the shop was a young man. I'm not trying to paint all young men with the same brush and all, but... when I went to the shop today, the only people in the place were over forty, and I got treated like someone who had actually come in to get some service on her bike. I didn't feel like I was being dismissed, and frankly, I have felt, at times, in bike shops, that I'm being dismissed because I'm a woman with an uncool clunky mountain bike (who probably doesn't even know how to change a tire.)

Today, though, I got treated like someone who needed to get her bike back on the road. Someone with a legitimate mechanical problem that couldn't be fixed at home with a wrench and a can of WD-40. (Because that's what it was. I'd already tried the wrench and the WD-40.) I got to watch Hoang switch from the gleaming racer he was working on to my grimy and road-weary Mike, brush his hands off, and get in there to keep him running, treating Mike like any hard-working piece of equipment.

So, as I said to a friend later, today I learned that you can't blame winter for everything, and that if you want to get taken seriously, go to the bike shop when the middle-aged dudes are on deck. 


  1. I love your mechanic, too!

    Hoang #1!!!

  2. I'm glad that Mike is better.

    A few years ago, my bike mechanic skills were limited to changing tires. Then I read a bit on and took the plunge. By renting time at re-Cycles ($5/hr), I could borrow the tools I needed, and the guys there are really knowledgeable.

    Now, I can change a freehub, adjust brakes, adjust a derailleur and repack bearings. This makes me much less dependent on the store hours of my LBS, and saves me money. I am more popular with my friends suddenly.

    (And be warned about WD40... it dries out and isn't a good way to do anything but loosen parts temporarily)

    - A

  3. I've been meaning to get to re-Cycles to work on the shop. Bit of a ride in, though, especially if the bike's already, erm, 'injured.'

    But the plans to learn more about fixing my own bike have only been strengthened by this last adventure...

  4. As Alex says above - get thee to Re-Cycles - open tuesdays wednesdays and thursdays from 6 to 9 pm during winter. You will get your hands dirty - but you will get to know your bike much better - it will not be such a mystery... In fact - you will learn just how rewarding it is to tune up your bike. The benefits you get from your bike are immediate.

    It's warming up above -20 the rest of the week - hooray!!!

  5. I stand corrected. Glad Mike is up and running. I have a serious bias on young bike shop kids from past experience, I know exactly how you feel. Why don't you tell us where your Hoang can be found?

    I personally like the mechanics at Kunstadt in the Glebe. Unlike most bike shops they actually have 2 head mechanics who really know their stuff. Eric kept a crappy Canadian Tire bike running for 3 more winters than he predicted it would. Every time I went it he would mcgyver something and say "well I'll get it working but I don't know how long it will be before something else goes wrong" and something always did, but he kept that thing going until some sucker stole it