Wednesday, April 4, 2007

How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic, part 3

Or perhaps this one should be called:

So, what should you expect of your mechanic in return?

Well, it's going to vary from shop to shop, mechanic to mechanic, and even day to day or hour to hour. Aside from philosophical differences, it often boils down to time. Did you bring your bike in on a warm, sunny Saturday in spring? So did everyone else, or so it seems to those of us with the tools in our hands. How about a rainy Tuesday mid-afternoon? Well, gosh, we'll have time to pore over your bike in detail and have a nice long talk about it... and your kids... your latest trip... your pets...

Get the picture? If we're really busy, we can't take as much time to examine the bike and diagnose its condition. I personally strive to do the best I can to thoroughly examine a bike that comes in on any day of the week, but I have to admit it's harder to be as thorough as I'd like on a busy weekend. What does that mean to you? Well, two things... one, any estimate you might get is less likely to be perfectly accurate... and two, that might lead to one or more followup phone calls if we discover things later on that were missed in the initial check in process.

Check in process? Yes, ideally every bike brought in to a shop should be checked over before the owner walks out the door. For that reason, our shop (and many others) ask you to be prepared to stick around while we look it over. That way, as I discover things, I can tell you about it and ask you questions, engage in a dialogue, and get closer to an accurate estimate before you leave. If you absolutely can't wait for this process, we will probably have to follow up with you by phone or email, which is likely to slow the process down and keep the bicycle from your hands longer.

So as I said above, part of this is a discussion. I'll ask you questions about the bike, about your past riding and even about your planned riding. Why? In addition to understanding how the bike has been used, it helps me to know how you envision using it in the future. Are you only going to take it out for a few rides each month, only putting a hundred or two miles on it over the warm season? Or is this the year you've decided you need to lose weight, or compete in a triathlon, or try that century ride? If I find that your chain is "stretched" (it doesn't really stretch, it just looks that way), but is still this side of "Oh my word, replace me!", your future plans will guide me in my recommendations. There's no point in having you spend anywhere from $50 to well over $100 on a new chain and related components if you're just going to go for the occasional short ramble with the kids. On the other hand, I'd be irresponsible to not urge you to replace all the needed parts if you are planning repeated long rides in the near future.

Now, armed with the physical evidence (Bike Mechanic, CSI!) and the information you and I have exchanged, I can put together an estimate for the service on your bike. Different folks handle this in different ways, but I always try to be pretty clear and complete as to what it says. In our shop, the majority of bikes brought in to us fall into the category of a "basic tuneup" or a "gear and brake tuneup", based on a few key things. What's the difference? Well, as the name implies, the "gear and brake" tuneup covers just that... making sure your gears and brakes are working safely and properly. The "basic tuneup takes it a step farther... for that we true the wheels if needed and adjust any bearings that may be out of adjustment, as well as giving the bike a wipe-down.

So, as an example, if your bike simply isn't shifting quite right, and the brakes just don't have the grab they should, and that's the extent of it, along with needing a shot of lube here or there, then we call it a "gear and brake" or "lite" tuneup. If I discover that either a wheel is out of true, or the bearings on more than one component have too much play or are rough, I'll bump it up to the "basic tuneup". How do I pick the threshold? Well, I look at the individual items needed beyond "lite", and if the cost of them by the piece is equal to or higher than the difference between "lite" and "basic", you get "basic", because it's more cost effective for you. Make sense?

Now, in every case, I also try hard to catch any parts that may be in need of replacement or close to it. Typically, the things that wear out on a bike are cables, cable housings, and brake pads. As a general rule, I'll include a rough dollar value in most estimates to cover the possibility that we might have to replace one or more of these items. I usually just add a lump sum of around $15 - 20 to cover that, unless your bike uses some really fancy pads or something (I'm not kidding... brake pads can be as cheap as $4 a pair to over $25, depending on the brake). From experience, I've learned that this gives me the leeway to replace a bad or marginal cable or bit of housing without having to call you up to check on it, and that way you get your bike back without delay. More often than not, actually, I don't eat up the full dollar figure I've allowed myself, which means we both get the pleasure of you not spending as much as you thought you would.

Now, on the subject of wear, I have to talk briefly about chains. Chains do wear out over time... grit and grime conspire with going round and round to produce wear on the rollers and pins that make up your chain. The result of this is that the spacing between rollers gets ever greater, as does the total length of the chain. This makes it look like the chain has literally stretched, but in reality it's just wear on the parts that make it all fit less precisely together. Anyway, if your chain has worn far enough to merit replacement, most mechanics in most circumstances will tell you that in addition to replacing the chain, you should also replace the "freewheel" or "cassette"... that cluster of sprockets on the back wheel. Are they trying to rip you off, selling you yet another expensive part? Well, no. The fact of the matter is, the increased distance between the rollers on your chain has produced wear on the teeth of your sprockets, grinding them to a shape that will no longer mesh properly with a new chain. The result is that you could actually end up with a drivetrain that feels worse than when you started, with slipping and skipping and other fun things. So why replace the chain at all? Well, because if you do it at reasonable intervals, the "chain rings" on the front crankset will last a LOT longer. You see, they are subject to the same kind of wear as the rear sprockets. The difference is, they generally last longer by their nature, and cost more to replace. So it's better to perodically replace the chain and sprockets, rather than wait and end up having to replace the entire drive train.

Now, no bike shop or mechanic is perfect. Sometimes I miss things. Sometimes I do have to call and tell you there's something else wrong with the bike. Especially if the bike was taken in on a busy day, or the person taking it in was one of the less experienced folks in the shop. Please bear with your mechanic if they have to give you bad news. They are not trying to rip you off, or milk more money from you. I've worked with a lot of mechanics, and every one of them has had the well-being of the owner and the bike at the forefront when it comes to recommendations for repairs. If your mechanic tells you you should have a new set of brake arms, you can probably believe them. I say probably because I know this isn't a perfect world, populated entirely by ethical people. But that goes back to the beginning... find a mechanic you can talk to, who seems to genuinely care about their work, and taking care of you and your bike, and you won't have to worry about following their advice.

Next time...

What about the dreaded "It's dead, Jim" scenario?

1 comment:

LVSunrise said...

This is such a great series, thank you for writing it. It's nice to know I'm not the only person who says things like 'shifter thingy' from time to time!