Last week I got a big box in the mail. Nestled in the cardboard around a shiny turquoise frame were bearings and cogs and mysterious levers attached to bits of wire. I fished out a pair of rolled up tires, a handlebar, then ziplock after tiny ziplock, all containing random objects. The best one held just three small bolts, of different lengths.
Dear God, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?
I’m a pretty self-sufficient girl, so I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my initial approach to bike maintenance went a little like this: 1. Hear weird noise 2. Get off bike. 3. Wait for help. I’m a girl so help always came- and as a result I rode for years assuming bikes were made mostly of magic.
Then one day help didn’t come and I had to run a couple miles with a machine made useless by some utterly mysterious ailment. The running was really hard, especially with the crippled bike taunting me the whole way- and when the problem turned out to be simply a piece of gravel lodged in the derailleur, I knew it was time to start taking care of myself.
I am impatient, mildly dyslexic, and to this day incapable of understanding which way tightens a screw- to put it lightly I’ve never been a natural mechanic. Learning how to be one anyway became more than a challenge- it was philosophical decision. I don’t feel I fully deserve the places my bike takes me if I can’t take care of it once we get there.
That doesn’t mean it’s ever been easy. I constantly doubt what I’m doing, and it often seems like I’m just making things worse. Sometimes I get so anxious that I have to leave and calm down. It’s all part of the process- my process just happens to include a lot of not being anywhere near a bike.
Through trial and error, many broken things and as many beers for my mechanically-inclined friends, I learned how to take a bike apart, hide it in my luggage, and rebuild it wherever the planes landed. I can silence brakes, install bottom brackets, and change a flat faster than you can make a (good) sandwich. Still, seeing my new steed in those tiny ziplocks on the floor was straight-up scary. This wasn’t a bike; it was the ingredients for a bike, no recipe included. Here are some life lessons that also came in that big box:
- Everything finds its place (those three random bolts turned out to keep the front derailleur on)
- Start with what you know (in my case, the seatpost)
- Look up what you don’t (there is much wisdom to be gained from janky youtube videos)
- Ask for help (especially from someone with an air compressor)
- When you don’t have the tools for the job, you can improvise with a two by four and a hammer. (Thanks, Dad.)
I have an old friend who always said the state of your bike is the state of your soul. If that’s true (and the grim times when my bike has sat dirty and broken indicate that it is) then knowing your bike means knowing yourself- that’s a worthy pursuit. Still, the more I learn about them, the more convinced I am that bikes (like us) are indeed made mostly of magic. We can categorize everything into ziplocks and back, but it’ll never explain that feeling you get when your wheels leave the dirt and the wind’s in your hair.