Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic, part 1

As I said in an earlier post, I thought I would address the issue of how to relate to a bicycle mechanic, based on my experience on both sides of the counter. Hopefully this will be both useful and entertaining to some of you. If a couple of folks find it easier to communicate in the environment of a bike shop, I'll be glad.

Here goes:

Cookies Help!

Or any baked goods or other treats, actually. I'm not saying you have to bribe a bike mechanic to get good work... not at all. But it sure does brighten my day, and I will have one more reason to remember you and your bike in the future. Some shops and mechanics prefer beer, wine, soda, or other beverages... but I'd say baked goods are always a safe bet. But please, for me, nothing with coconut! :-)

Okay, now that we have that important detail out of the way...

Learn the names of the mechanics in your shop

It really helps foster a good relationship if someone comes in and addresses me by name. Obviously, the flip side is important as well... your mechanic should try to remember YOUR name too. Bear in mind though that it may take a few visits... he or she is seeing a lot of people and a lot of bikes over the course of a season, often under busy circumstances. And don't be surprised or offended if they actually associate your face with your bike more readily than with, say, your name. I have to confess, that happens with me sometimes. But give me a chance, I will learn your name.

Pick one

By that, I mean you should more or less make one shop, and one mechanic at your shop, "yours". That may sound odd, but it makes sense. Even in a small shop like ours, on any given day there are generally at least two folks working in the repair area (except in winter, when it's often just me). Each of them have their strengths and weaknesses, their areas of interest and expertise. Try to get a sense of which one "fits" with you and your bike the best. For example, in our shop, if you own and love an older bike, especially something like a funky old road bike with a steel frame, or a classic British 3 speed, the wrench (slang for mechanic in the bike world) who will most appreciate it and get an extra kick out of working on it will be me. On the other hand, another guy will talk your ear off and get very enthusiastic about your recumbent trike and lovingly tweak it to the best of his ability. That's not to say that I won't do great work on a trike, or nobody else will care for your old roadie well... it's just that we're human beings, and we each make connections with different things. One thing that all good mechanics have in common is a love of bikes...they are never just an inanimate hunk of metal to us... but some do "speak" more to us than others.

So take a little time to find out which one of those folks by the workbenches and repair stands is most into the kind of bike you have and kind of riding you do. It will benefit everyone. And when you bring in your bike, don't be afraid to say "I'd like so-and-so to work on this, if that's possible." It may not always be possible, but if it is, most shops should work with you on that.

Don't be intimidated!

I probably should have hit this right at the start, but better late than never. Some folks find it intimidating to talk or think about machines... there's a kind of "blockage" some people have about that. For a deeper examination of this, take a look at Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (how many of you saw THAT coming?)... but for brevity, let me just try to address this here. There is NOTHING about a bicycle that is truly complex. I know, you don't believe me, but if you take a little time to look at it, maybe with the help of someone (like, say, your friendly mechanic on a slow day, or a book, or a class), you'll see that it's really all pretty simple... a handful of springs and wires, some tubing, ball bearings... break it all down and really anybody can grasp at least the basics of how it works. I teach a basic maintenance class once a month... you'd be surprised how many people at the end of the class marvel at how simple it all really is.

That's not to say there aren't tricky aspects of bicycle repair... there certainly are. I would never glibly hand you a spoke wrench and say "have at it" with a wheel that needs truing. But even that, boiled down to the basic principles is not... well, it's a tired expression... but it's not rocket science! So try not to let yourself feel totally helpless and clueless... and don't let a shop make you feel that way either. That's a tangential bit of advice on picking a shop or a mechanic... stay away from those that like to foster the "Great Mystery" view of bicycle repair. You want a shop and a wrench (are you learning the slang yet?) that will treat you with respect, answer your questions simply without talking down to you, and be honest and straight with you about what your bike needs and what it will cost. And how long it will take.

Well, that's it for now. More to come in future installments... exciting things like terminology and what a mechanic is likely to do when you bring in your bike. Oh, and I should mention... my long term goal is to get all of this on the bikes@vienna website as a cohesive article for future reference.... but that may be a while.


Troutbum74 said...

Tim- Good advice. Thanks for the post. I know enough to be dangerous when working on a bike and sometimes I think I do more damage than good, but I still have fun, manage to drink a beer or two and sometimes learn something.

dmhuss2002 said...

The last big project I tried to do myself was removing and cleaning the pedals on my Giant. That part was easy. Putting them back on, apparently, not so much - they both fell off about a mile from my house! So now I rely on mechanics for most things and it's really hard to find a good one. I'm lucky because I have a friend who works on bikes :) BUT when I do need to take one of my bikes into the shop I will think about your advice and try to foster better communication with my wrench. Thank you so much for the blog and the good advice!