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Everything Women Need to Know About Fixing a Bicycle in One Short Post

December 2015
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A young lady, with whom I ether-chat regularly about all things bicycle, is nervous as a long-tail cat in a room full of grannies on rocking chairs about working on her bike (actually this generalization applies to many women I know who ride, including my wife).  Now the reasons for this fear are not genetic, I know plenty of guys who won’t work on bikes out of fear as well.  After having worked through this myself, I think the fear is the problem. Fear of messing something up, fear of taking too long, fear of consternation, fear of having to take a messed up bike to the shop… Fear, fear, fear.

What to expect when you know nothing about fixing a bike.

I’ve written two lengthy series on bike repair.  I’ve researched bike maintenance ad nauseam.  I still run into things that confound me.  Take truing a wheel for instance… I can take a mild wobble out in a few seconds but I still have to take my wheels into the shop every now and again to have them trued properly because I’m so lousy at it.  The answer to this is to rent one of the mechanics at the shop for an hour or two so I can learn from one of the best.  On the other hand, there are other simple items that just took taking action – simply going for it. I’ve covered all of the easy stuff in other posts (see the links above). For this post I want to explore the more important fear issues.

First things first, you need to expect to be slow.  If you watch one of the mechanics adjust the index on your rear derailleur, you will notice that it takes him about ten seconds.  If you try it, it could take ten minutes.  My first attempt took more than an hour and I had my shifting so messed up that I almost caved and took the bike to the shop.  Once I figured out the sequence of steps though, once I figured out what I was doing, that all-afternoon event took five minutes.  Then three.  Two…  Now I’m down to ten to 30 seconds – and that drop in time comes about quickly.  Adjusting the brakes on my mountain bike was another of those ridiculously simple tasks that should have taken a couple of minutes.  My first attempt took about a half an hour.

Look at it this way, when you took your first high school Algebra class, did you take Algebra I or did they throw you right into Calculus?  Better yet, did you start on the first chapter of that Algebra book, or half-way through the book?  We all started on that first chapter, whatever math class, and we built upon that knowledge.  If we’re starting from scratch, it’s going to take a minute and some messing up before we gain the knowledge needed to make this easy.

How to cheat at bicycle maintenance.

There is a cheat to bicycle maintenance, and I’m going to let you in on the secret.  It’s not cheap, until you figure in the long run.  I have purchased five brand new bicycles ranging in price from $600 to $3,000 from one bike shop in the last three years.  I buy the bulk of my family’s cycling clothing from that shop.  I’ve bought six sets of high-end clipless pedals, an amazing array of bottle cages, water bottles, chains, cassettes, tires, tubes…  Folks, I made myself one of the owner’s most reliable customers.  It was easy to do this, though I could have saved some money shopping online, because our families actually have a history (the owner’s brother was my gym teacher 35 years ago).  Not only that, as I became more of a regular fixture at the shop, as I came to know, befriend and ride with many of the mechanics and the owner, the great service that I had received became stellar.

Being a good customer has its benefits. First, you should get preferential treatment (not because of the amount spent but because you are a good customer – very important distinction there. A pompous a-hole will be waiting two months for their bike to get fixed even if they purchased the BMC-Lamboghini hyper-bike). Also, the mechanics will often let me in the back so I can watch how they fix my bikes.  This, for me, is a huge benefit, being able to see someone fix something using the proper sequence, quickly.  Get to know the people at your local shop.  That’s the cheat.

Know thy sequence.  And bikes are not cars.  They’re designed to be fixed easily.

Bicycles are not like cars, they’re designed to be fixed simply.  Some fixes require special tools (or a special tool will make a repair easier) but for the most part, you can fix most bike problems with a good set of Allen wrenches and a pair of needle-nose pliers.  Some maintenance can be accomplished with no tools at all, like the rear derailleur adjustment or trimming the brakes (we use barrel adjusters for both).  It’s all about the sequence.  Get the sequence wrong and a 20 second adjustment can take half an hour.  The problem, then, is not in knowing how to adjust a derailleur, it’s knowing the sequence to that adjustment and then how to do the adjustment.

To understand sequencing a bike repair, the first thing I recommend is the Bike Repair App.  The app is not free but it will save you triple the cost of the app the first time you adjust the index on your derailleur (correctly, the first time, in a matter of seconds) without having to take the bike to the shop.  You get Tips and Tricks that cover everything from maintenance to safety.  You get guides to work on just about anything that can go wrong on a bike, a section on What to Wear in a given weather condition or temperature and even a complete glossary.  Oh, and the app’s repair guides are photographical how-to’s.  You can’t go wrong with that app, well not that I’ve encountered anyway.

The “bikes are not cars” axiom doesn’t always seem so sometimes.  Internal cable routing (where the bike’s cables are routed inside a frame) and rear brakes mounted under the chain stays at the bottom bracket add some interesting challenges but those challenging items are still easier than fixing a thermostat or front brakes in a car or truck.  Consider, aligning a mountain bike’s hydraulic disc brakes takes seconds… less time that it takes to retrieve the floor jack from the garage. Two bolts. You loosen the bolts center the brake, you tighten the bolts. The only trick, of course, is you have to know which bolts.

If you’re overwhelmed, start easy and work up to the trickier repairs.  Before you know it, you’ll be able to make your bike look like this:

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…Without worrying about how you’ll get it back together. As I’ve reiterated many times before, you can’t break the bike by trying to adjust or maintain it, bad enough the shop can’t fix what you did.

The main thing is to get that awkward, slow phase out of the way as soon as possible and the only way to do that is start now. Get the app and a nail brush to get the grease out from underneath your nails and get dirty.

After all, you can’t put 6,000 miles on a bike in a year without regular adjustments and a good bit of maintenance. You almost assuredly can’t. Your bike will be in the shop all the time, waiting to be fixed.

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8 Comments

  1. fastk9dad says:

    If you have an REI near you, they offer free maintenance classes from time to time where you bring in your bike and with the instruction and supervision of their mechanic they will show you how to adjust brakes, derailleurs, shifting and anything else you have questions on. I went to one a couple of years ago as a refresher and did learn a few new tricks. My local store also extended the offer if we got stuck to give them a call or bring it in and they would let us use a stand and help out.

    They also offer a very basic class where they show you things like removing wheels, changing tubes/tires, and other little gotchas you may need on the road. That is more of a classroom type setting where they just show you the basics on in store bikes.

  2. bike co-ops are great for basic maintenance skills too, they offer shop time for a reasonable price, have all the tools you need and have pretty good selection of good used parts and good prices on new stuff too, i often recommend this option to people that are on a budget. I have built a great relationship with my local shop, i ride with them often and consider them friends, i go there for most of the repairs i can’t do and order parts and supplies and i usually get a loyalty discounts as a result, I’m also proud to wear their kits and represent them when i ride

  3. bribikes says:

    Thanks for writing this, Jim. I have the nail brush, hehe, and I am slowly building a relationship with the LBS (it is tough though, the guy is a full time teacher, wrestling coach, brand new dad and did an Ironman this year, he is a beast and obviously really busy). The app sounds so helpful but I still haven’t been able to convince myself to buy a smartphone, in some ways I would prefer never to own one but I might cave in and get one for this summer. I know it will come in handy on long bike trips.

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