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.