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.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Interesting commute today!

originally uploaded by frickercycle.
Yep, that's my bike there... the Miyata that I built up recently, with studded tires, on the Washington and Old Dominion rail trail just outside Vienna, VA. I decided to ride to work today, in part just to give it a try, in part because I just felt like I haven't ridden enough lately, in part because I thought it might be fun. Well, it was... a LOT of fun! Challenging, even frustrating at times, but all in all, a good ride.

I should explain that on Tuesday/Wednesday, the DC area got hit with a mix of snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Over here in our part of Virginia, it was mostly a strange sort of hard snow, almost like sleet, but with actual accumulation... around 3-4 inches I think. Anyway, what ever combination of precipitation actually fell, combined with cold temperatures and wind, gave us a covering of VERY crusty snow. So crusty, in fact, that I can walk across my yard without leaving a trace.

The funny thing is, even when my weight, including bike and gear, was perched on top of two skinny tires, I didn't punch through the crust! My ride took me on about 3 miles of this trail, and once I figured out the trick, it was a blast. I found the best path to take was to stay off to the sides of the actual trail, where few, if any, people had walked. Doing that, I could just cruise along on the hard, smooth crust, taking advantage of the fact I have studs on my bike. Pretty amazing. Now, it wasn't perfect... in some spots the trail narrows so much that there was no smooth area to the side... and in others, I had to ride along the edge of a dropoff to stay on the smooth snow. And then there was the stretch where the smooth area had been used by a cross-country skier, using a "skating" technique... leaving a succession of althernating diagonal grooves across my path... each one of which my front wheel tried to follow.

And that, in my limited experience, really is the trick to riding in snow and ice conditions. The footprints, ski tracks, and even tire tracks from other bikes, all tend to upset your attempt to ride a straight line. The studs do help keep your wheels under you, but they don't eliminate this problem. The best bet is to carefully pick your way on the smoothest surface you can find, trusting that the studs will grip. And when you get to bumpy stretches, try to keep your cool, and keep your upper body loose, and keep your momentum up. Don't try to set land speed records, but don't slow to a crawl, as it becomes harder to balance.

All in all, I'm really glad I rode today. It was a fun trip, and a beautiful day. And the look of surprise on the faces of folks walking the trail, or in cars at the various road crossings, added to the fun. On the other hand, I was just as happy to get a ride home, as picking a smooth path becomes a LOT harder by headlight. Another time for that.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Back on the bike!

First day riding since my back mishap almost two weeks ago. A cold, brisk day, but sunny and lovely. And the ride didn't bother my back at all. Woo hoo! The rail-trail that I use for about half my commute was still covered with a thin layer of snow in many places, and a little patchy ice, but not too bad. Still, I was glad to have the studded tires on the bike.

Coming soon... a series of "articles" about something I think might be handy to some folks... "How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic". Just my general thoughts on how to better communicate in that situation, so we can both work to solve whatever ails your bike.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007


originally uploaded by frickercycle.
Only the second real snowfall we've had this season, and still not a big one. Ah, the quirky mid-Atlantic winters... we have had a mostly balmy one so far, but for the last week or so it's been COLD... and last night we got a nice little dusting of snow.

The pic is of my little buddy Tybalt, trying to figure out his next move. He seems to really love the snow....this morning, when I first let him and Tomas out, he ran down into the yard, and immediately began pouncing and swatting at the snow like it was a mouse or something. Very funny to see.

Tonight I teach another session of my basic bicycle maintenance and repair class. I just cover things like fixing a flat and simple gear and brake adjustments in this one. I hope to offer something more advanced before we get back into the busy spring season. I find people seem to really enjoy the class, and feel a lot better about their bikes afterwards. Some of them are just relieved to have a better understanding, with no desire to actually do the work themselves in the future... while others are hungry for further education. I like the class... it's a small way to keep my hand in teaching, which I did for about a decade, all told.

I also recently received news about an opening for the sort of job I used to do in theatre. Funny thing is, I'm not even tempted in the slightest. You spend 20+ years doing something, and you're convinced it's what you most want to do, but when you're done, you're done. I'm thoroughly enjoying the bicycle world, and can live quite well without the stress of my old life. Especially when I see a job description that includes the phrase "and anything else that might arise" !!!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Hawks again....

originally uploaded by frickercycle.
Just a quick post here... On Sunday, February 4th, I was working at bikes@vienna, when I heard a quiet screeching sound outside. I walked out of the front door of the shop, and there this guy was, sitting on top of a light pole in the parking lot. I took a few pictures, and then he flew away. Pretty big bird, with a long, barred tail, from what I could see. Anyone out there know what species this is? Coopers? Sharp Shinned? Or something else entirely?

There are more pics on flickr... clicking on this photo should take you there.

Sunday, February 4, 2007


Well, winter does seem to be here in the DC area! Cold, but alas no real snow. Flurries, mostly, aside from a tiny snowfall last week, that ended up crusted in ice by a bout of freezing rain. Not uncommon around here, but just kind of icky. I'd much rather have just plain snow, but it seems that freezing rain or sleet almost always ends up in the mix here these days.

The back is healing well now. Still don't quite know what I did to myself, but resting and reading a lot has helped. I've been continuing with Bill Bryson's Thunderbolt Kid, as well as Alex Kershaw's The Few, about the American fighter pilots who flew for the British Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. I've only gotten through the first part, where they make their way to Britain, but it's been fascinating so far.

On a semi-related note, I just saw Clint Eastwood's film Letters from Iwo Jima, and it was really, really good. It does a very good job of portraying the brutality and insanity of war, and some of the acting and the characters are just beautifully drawn. You see the whole range of human nature there... from the poor baker who was drafted and now just doesn't want to die, to the fanatically suicidal soldiers to whom death is the ultimate glory... and a lot in between. Very well done... see it if you haven't yet.

In the bike world, nothing terribly new and exciting. I'm still trying to decide if the Miyata with Albatross bars is going to work for me, of if I should switch to moustache bars. Today is the big swap meet up in Westminster, Maryland, which I wanted to attend. Alas, due to some scheduling issues, I have to work instead today. Just as well, I suppose, as I would probably have bought things I didn't really need. Ah well. Such is life.