Back to the future with oily hands

Can owning  a bicycle help you become a more practical, independent person?

I’m a member of the excellent Bromptontalk forum. This includes a good few “old lags” who know a great deal about maintaining their  bikes but, because the Brompton is an increasingly fashionable product, there are newer members who have never really thought about repairing bikes or any mechanical device and are quite surprised when their bike has punctures or the gears need adjusting. This surprise is quickly followed by the discovery that getting such things done by a bike shop can be very inconvenient and time-consuming.

This has led me to reflect that bicycles have another very important benefit for our society, apart from fun, mobility and fitness, in obliging us to pay attention to the practicalities of keeping our bikes in good order. Modern life leaves us much less in touch with the nature of things and the arts of making them and looking after them. 40 years ago most car owners knew something about their cars and how to keep them going, or at least they had a close relationship with the local business who did the maintenance for them. These days we are neatly sealed off from these matters by a combination of more reliable machines and more complex designs and when you become a cyclist it can be quite a surprise to find that the bike is mechanically explicit and needs frequent small attentions.

While bike engineering is very subtle and there are some wonderful designs for the various mechanisms involved, the need to keep the whole thing very light and compact leads to numerous trade-offs. It would be possible to make a much more durable chain but it might be heavier and less able to cope with fast changes and large numbers of gears. Instead we have a slender flexible chain that wears out more frequently than a comparable part in a car. Also a bike mechanic gets a wage comparable to a car mechanic (lower but comparable) but you find it hard to justify that cost to fix such a cheap machine.

Mike Burroughs commented that when he was working for Giant, they could see how to build a completely sealed up, build and forget, bike that would require no attention from the owner but there were practical logistical reasons why even the biggest bike builder in the world could not carry that project through. I feel this is a good thing because shutting people off from technology just disempowers them. On Bromptontalk you see numerous examples of people being obliged to wrestle with bike maintenance problems and also becoming intrigued with the possibilities of improving their bikes, like a recent discussion about how to fit the larger versions of the Brompton luggage to bikes with lower handlebars. The result is a community of people better equipped for independence.

A few years ago I was on a 3-day ride with my son and a friend. Her luggage rack came adrift from the bike because of a broken part. We were in Norfolk on a tiny track miles from anywhere. I had a pair of pliers in my tools and we just looked around, sure enough there was some scrap metal, I think it might have been a broken car aerial, that could be used to form a rigid tie. 5 minutes later we were back on the road and the repair was solid for the rest of the trip. When I first started cycling in my early 30s I would have been quite perplexed by a problem like that.

So rejoice in those mechanical setbacks, each one  makes you more self-reliant.

13 Responses to “Back to the future with oily hands”

  1. Gareth Says:

    If one can be guilty of looking excessively on the bright side, I think you are doing so here Chris. I agree that a positive side effect of the tendency for so many bikes to need constant fettling is the self assurance and independence that comes with it. Personally I like fettling and so will do many of those little jobs for the pleasure they bring rather than take the bike to the shop.

    However, if we are to see significant modal shift towards bicycle use, we will need bikes that inspire confidence in potential users who do not want to get their hands dirty, but just want a reliable way of getting from A to B. I am not sure what the logistical problems are that Mike Burrows refers to but personally I am encouraged by the gradual appearance of bikes like the Tout Terrain Metropolitan and the Raleigh Alleyway (sadly only available in the States) which mix belt drives and hub gears to bring us closer to build and forget bike



  2. valeryvalentina Says:

    Like you, I’m the owner of both a Brompton and a Hase Pino. And spent half the weekend on Pino maintenance: a new 9 speed cassette sprocket and chain after discovering that cutting corners with just a new chain but keeping the old sprocket wasn’t working for 2 out of 9 gears…
    All I need now is an office bag to fit on the Pino luggage rack.

  3. chrisrust Says:

    Mike Burroughs’ comment (in an article I can’t now find) was that Giant could do a complete ground-up design job, using an all-moulded body enclosing sealed drives and everything else to create a very reliable and effective consumer bike, but even they are too dependent on the component manufacturers. Actually the Gocycle electric bike seems to come very close to Mike’s ideal so maybe it is the small companies that can really innovate. Certainly none of the mainstream people have come anywhere near Brompton, Dahon, Bike Friday, Airnimal, Hase, Rans etc. Dahon have become a big company on the strength of innovation but they were a startup not so long ago.
    My point is not that unreliable designs are good, but simple everyday tasks like mending a puncture and adjusting your brakes are good for you. Most people would not fit new gears or maybe even a chain but they should know enough to keep the bike on the road in everyday use.

  4. Gareth Says:

    ‘Most people ….should know enough to keep the bike on the road in everyday use.’

    Totally agree, just as I think that people who drive should know how to check the tyres and how to top up the windscreen washers. But I not sure I agree with your premise that simple everyday maintenance tasks are ‘good for you’.

    Some cars now have run-flat tyres which allow the driver to get to a service point so that someone can take care of it. My, possibly utopian I will admit, vision is of a net work of bikeshops with workshops so that when I get a flat cycling to the station I don’t have to get mucky changing the tube I can just hand it to someone and collect it later.

  5. Andy in Germany Says:

    I can see both sides of the coin: One thing I like about bicycles is that I can fix them myself and I’m not at the mercy of technology. On the other hand, I work in a bike shop, although the confiddence to do that came from learning how to fix things on my bike.

    I do appreciate my Bakfiets which requires almost zero maintenence and just works in any weather.

    I’m amazed how many people come into the shop wanting punctures repaired, and how many bikes are brought in with comments like “The brakes aren’t working” because someone repaired a puncture and then put the wheel in badly.

    So I think it’s swings and roundabouts: the strength of bikes is that they are easy to maintain, but a free more where the maintenance is less needed by the user would be welcome.

    And from Gareth’s comment, the best place for a bike shop is at a railway station. I’ll remember that :)

  6. dexey Says:

    I agree. I had my first bike, a Triumph, at 11 (50 years ago) and it came with a stamped out spanner and a puncture kit. I took great delight in stripping the bike as far as the spanner would allow and putting it back together.
    That start served me through maintaining BSA and Norton motorcycles, the rebuild of a Honda 500/4, restoring Morris 8’s, and Landrovers, and keeping my ordinary cars running. Nowadays, I no longer enjoy heavy lifting and lying under the vehicle but I still maintain my cycle fleet. I expect to be able to repair almost anything that is made of metal of wood. Mind you, I only use ‘proper’ tools, nothing stamped :0)

  7. Gareth Says:

    It seems the real work movement is growing and now has a key text:

    The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good

    Where do you guys stand on latex gloves? I keep a pair under my saddle

  8. chrisrust Says:

    Yes I have some in my little saddle wedge pack with my tools. About 32 years ago ago I needed to do some fibreglass work for a design project and the fibreglass materials place in Leeds was selling big tubs of latex gloves for not much, I think I still have a third of them left.

  9. dexey Says:

    I prefer to stand on Shimano sandals with spd cleats but latex gloves are useful. I keep them in my workshop and on bike tool roll but find that for little jobs – putting chain back on – I can’t be bothered to get them out. I carry baby wipes as well (Superdrug do their own in a lovely lemon fragrance and they are often 3 for 2 price); they are more accessible for getting rid of minor oil :0)

  10. chrisrust Says:

    For putting the chain back the aluminium tent peg with the slight bend at the end works for me and weighs nowt. But that’s all in the past since I went over to hub gears.

  11. chrisrust Says:

    Just come across Matthew Crawford who seems to be saying what I’ve just said but with much greater depth and credibility.
    ps (a few days later) this is the same person that Gareth referred to above but a different book. I think this one is the scholarly version but I’ll have to read it to know.
    pps Actually it’s the same book, US version. The edition referred to by Gareth probably has the US-isms tuned out but it’s rather nice to read it in the original American – a more authentic voice not moderated by some editor worried that Brits might not understand the local references (and never will if the editor has their way)

  12. Sean Evans Says:

    Only 10% of cyclists want to be ‘home mechanics’, the rest see it as a hindrance to have to fix punctures and oil chains etc. A build and forget bike will truly elevate cycling to mass transport. Just look at the council tip: Dozens of bikes left in the rain to rot after the owner got a puncture and ‘couldn’t be arsed’ to fix it. Or the gears went out of index and the rider got fed up and went back to the big metal box that only needs expensive petrol pouring in.
    I quite like the ‘rebel’ image of cycling but that’s me inside, looking out. From the other side of the divide I’m classified as a weirdo…

  13. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks Sean. What we want and what we need are not always the same thing, most things wrong with our society are the result of people pursuing what they want. Have a look at the Matthew Crawford book that Gareth pointed to, it has a lot to say about what we need to have a happy and healthy society.
    The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good

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