Shop Banter
Tuesday April 14th 2009, 9:00 pm
Filed under: Advice & Tips

What’s a shop like without the banter and joking conversation amongst a group of mechanics?

It’s boring and it’s probably wintertime. It’s more or less what I’ve been experiencing the past several months at the shop I’m at. New shop, just me and the owners, and not a lot of customers. Ugh, but I’ve made it through; I’m glad now to finally have some help with a personality; and the banter has so far been good.

Conversation in the back end of a bike shop has, in my experience, always been an enjoyable part of the job. The subjects that come up are probably typical to what you’d hear in a kitchen or any other kind of workshop.

In a bike shop the talk does have the expected basis of bikes but other subjects do come up especially with NPR playing in the background or when ever a customer is included in the conversation. Current local events and politics arise and differing levels of politcal/economic angst and disenfranchisement get discussed. It can sometimes be interesting.

Some recent and/or common topics in no sensible or deliberate order:

  • general hunger
  • fixed gear kids and their fascination with colors
  • beauty of Campy craftsmanship
  • beauty of old school Suntour/Shimano craftsmanship (cast logos on derailluers and other attention to detail)
  • shows attended in the past
  • drunken episodes in the past
  • how mechanically apt oneself is 
  • paying taxes (or not)
  • how badly things are being run
  • the cobbler’s shoes

Stickler Pickler
Monday April 13th 2009, 9:37 pm
Filed under: Advice & Tips

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Not much has really happened lately that’s worth posting.

Yeah, that’s not true one bit. A lot has been happening and that’s really why I’ve not written anything. I’m busy as hell managing the shop* and just honestly haven’t had the energy at home to 1) open the laptop and 2) think and then 3) write and finally, because I’m a bit of a freak this way, 4) edit and make sure everything is the way I want it written.

On that subject for a moment. I fully admit I am a stickler for things done “correctly”. I even quote that word because I’ll admit, what’s correct in my mind might not be correct in everyone’s; but in my mind, it’s more the route travelled that’s important than the resultant outcome. If a keen attention to detail is paid en route, then all is well. (Especially because I feel if that is done, the result will likely be the correct one.) †


Studebaker ‡

Bah. The real reason for my even bringing this stickler subject up is I realize it can be difficult to cope with. Personally. I realize that not everyone can, or will, live up to those expectations (not that I think they’re unattainably high). But with that realization, I’m working with myself to alter my rigidity a bit and accept debate and fluctuation of what is “correct”.

* More on this subject at some point down the road.

I’m mostly talking about wrenching on bikes here, but I feel this is generally applicable to most situations in life.

This photo has nothing to do with this post.

Toxic Contaminant
Saturday April 04th 2009, 7:24 am
Filed under: Advice & Tips

Here’s another House reference. Being a bike mechanic I often(?) wonder what Foreman and his break-in team would find in my apartment in terms of contaminants and such. (What I’m referring to in the show is the extent to which Dr House goes to in determining possible causes of illness in that particular episode’s patient. He’ll send Dr Foreman to break into the patient’s domicile in order to investigate their living situation and root out any symptom causing toxins.)

The lingering smell of loc-tite on my clothes—even after copious cycles of laundry. The random smears of grease, debris, and other detritus on my pants. All variety of gunk under my fingernails (I swear I wear gloves!) It’s all pretty gross. 

I hope I can get to Princeton in time before I come down with any debilitating afflictions. Today I feel fine.

(What’s really weird and gross is seeing my cats licking the spokes of my bike when I get home. I hope there’s a prodigy vet for them when they come down with some obscure disease.)

More Abuse
Tuesday March 31st 2009, 6:40 pm
Filed under: Advice & Tips

Some dude came in a few weeks ago looking for a new seat binder pin. Delving into it deeper—because he wanted some advice too—I asked what was wrong with his old one. “Well, this one just spins freely in the hole. It doesn’t matter even if I use two Allen wrenches on it.”

It reminded me of the old co-op I worked at in Seattle: “if you’re unsure, stop and ask a question before you start breaking tools and components.”

Taking two wrenches to that binder bolt is wholly unnecessary for those unfamiliar with the style. Honestly, why there are fittings on both sides is a mystery to me. One side has a ridge that fits into a notch in the frame in order to keep the bolt from spinning freely, and to keep the seatpost set tight in the frame. Well, this guy had never been to that shop in Seattle I guess, and he had rounded that notch out to a point where the bolt’s ridge had nothing to sit into. There goes another old Falcon or whatever disadvantaged vintage frame it was. He shrugged and bought a new bolt anyway, claiming that it would work. Maybe it would, but maybe it wouldn’t for very long.

Other similar destructive actions I’ve come across:

  • using too small of a seatpost, causing the seat tube to become malformed
  • operating bike for too long with poorly adjusted bearings
  • painting the frame with components installed
  • seized seatpost or quill stem
  • installing a headset with the press-in cups not pressed in, nor right-side-up
  • many others I’m sure I’m forgetting—a post unto their own perhaps….

Again, if you’re unsure, stop; don’t blindly proceed. Ask someone. Call a shop. Examine closely. Get online, download a picture or something. Or… bring it to a bike shop and have a professional do it!

A Mechanic’s Economy
Monday March 23rd 2009, 2:40 am
Filed under: Advice & Tips

What is the economy like for a bike mechanic? As I’ve written before, the money isn’t that impressive. Maybe that should be enough of an answer for me regarding whether or not my wife and I can survive and settle down with such meager income. Which is something we’ve been considering lately. Shouldn’t there be more to it than that though? I don’t know, the industry at my level—the shop customer service level that is—seems rife with people wanting something for free. That’s a hard concept to grasp: wanting to make a living selling something people don’t want to pay anything for. Hmmmm, it’s a doozy. But there’s more to this question than that (it’s a subject unto itself really). Maybe it’s the region I’m in, maybe it’s the market around here, maybe it’s the shop I’m at. What are the future prospects like? What’s the potential to make a survivable amount of money at the same shop as a head mechanic/shop manager after a year or two? Or three? Or ten? I guess “cost of living” raises can be expected. (It’d be nice to think so at least). But beyond that, what is there for the dedicated shop wrench?

Yes, we’re not in it for the money, we love bikes, we love working on bikes, and I do love helping people get themselves on the road under their own power. But shouldn’t that demand warrant commensurate pay? Responding to that demand correctly is more than what a lot of shops get from their so-called mechanics; wrenching on bikes in an accurate and reliable way is a skilled trade in my book. Yes, lots of people can probably install a brake caliper or tighten a cone, but it is true technical skill to know exactly the what, how, and when. It is the technical skill set that is learned through school (which attending shows dedication), years of experience (of which I am eager to continue putting in), and a mechanical aptitude and determination all of which should be benefitted just as any other technical vocation is. None of this is taking into consideration the public face the mechanic presents to the customer, or the how important their decisions to the business are. These are all questions as to why mechanics are historically underpaid. But where does it go from there? Can working for someone else as a mechanic be a good living?

The immediate direction I foresee—for myself at least, that is—is opening my own shop (no one need worry about new competition, it won’t be in this area, nor anytime soon). But ultimately that’s not going to generate much “income” right away, I’ve never seen any shop owners sitting back being fed grapes by any servants in my time. But that’s alright, I don’t need a lot, just a bit more than the close to starving tax bracket my wife and I are currently in. And having the goal of a self-owned bike shop really (really!) sounds nice; i.e. being my own boss, calling the shots, actually seeing where a decision I’ve made goes, etc. The pressures of self-owning also sound good, of course it’ll be a difficult road, but as I’ve mentioned, we’re not saving people’s lives here. (So to speak I mean.) Bike shops are meant to be laid back and relaxed atmospheres, no one’s life hangs in the balance due to the grime built up on their jockey wheels. Working as hard as we do though, sometimes you’d think someone’s did.

But back to the point, what are the alternatives? What if I didn’t want to own my own shop? Is there simply a limit to the mechanic’s economy? Do I become a sales rep? Honestly, what’s an ambitious, aspiring, bike mechanic to do? How does one make money in the bike industry?

Buyer’s Guide
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 9:56 pm
Filed under: Advice & Tips

I’ve just been perusing the VeloNews Buyer’s Guide I was given at the NAHBS up in Indianapolis the other week. The descriptions of 7900 DA and the 11-speed Super Record are informative in a mechanical sense. But the pages of actual bike reviews are a bit much to take in. Especially the “Recession Rides” section, like I’m going to save money by buying a $4000 Cannondale as opposed to a $5500 Specialized—I guess $1500 is savings. Seems like a bunch of misleading schlock, “I guess Junior is gonna have to do without books this year, daddy has to justify a new bike every year.” To what demographic is this guide being directed? No need, I understand who. But if I were in the market for an $8855 bike, would I need a guide? Maybe some people just don’t know how to spend their money.

Is this cynicism a detriment to my career in the bike industry? Am I shooting myself in the foot because I think more people should ride comfortable, more realistically affordable bikes? Is it bad that I question the fact that most people aren’t “racers” and therefore shouldn’t necessarily be riding race bikes? I like to go fast, but that doesn’t mean I need the latest and greatest (my Record 9-speed is fine for me, even I admit it’s overkill, I’d honestly be fine with 7, or even 6). Maybe if I took a shot at racing I’d have my eyes opened to something I’m overlooking. 

Don’t get me wrong, I really do appreciate the mechanics of it all, the technological advancements (some of the items in the Innovative Beauty section were cool), and I would seriously be stoked to work on any of these bikes, but it is just so much money and I guess I’m under the impression that these bikes aren’t one-of-a-kind pieces of art like we saw at NAHBS—these aren’t “custom” bikes. In that sense of the word, are these bikes really unique in any way? Are these bikes so exorbitantly priced merely because they are so severely limited in production?

My bottom line might actually just be this: that I’d hate to think people reading this guide, who can’t spend that kind of money on a bike, might devalue their own, or feel the entire enterprise of riding a bike is financially inaccessible. What do I expect though, this is America!

Repair is Not Replacement
Sunday March 01st 2009, 5:01 pm
Filed under: Advice & Tips

This post on Arthur Mag (or where it’s linking to: Platform21) is in agreement with my philosophy about being a bike mechanic. The DIY attitude and it’s inherent sustainability are part of the foundation of my changing careers and becoming a mechanic. Rather than increase our addiction to the flashy and exciting new consumption, fix that bike, keep it rolling and riding. More often than not we don’t need new; we need grease, we need lubrication, we need adjustment (and we sure as hell don’t really need ten or eleven gears either). Repair is keeping bikes working and in good order. The big names have a lot of history (Shimano/Campagnolo) one of the biggest reasons I prefer brand C is because it has a reputation of the ability to be rebuilt.


Have you tried taking one of these apart? Sacrificed Shimano 105 integrated shift lever.

In contrast, I’ve heard of some shops that refuse to work on bikes they don’t sell, or simply won’t work on “old” bikes. I assume their intentions are more in line with selling a new bike, but I don’t agree with that either; any of that attitude smells of ripe snobbery. If someone already has a bike, they don’t necessarily need (or want) a brand new bike, they just want their bike to ride better—to be repaired, not replaced.

Repair Stand, or Auction Block?
Tuesday February 24th 2009, 8:35 pm
Filed under: Advice & Tips

Check out the new Suntour Sprint pedals I recently had come my way. Sealed bearings on a nice chrome spindle. These pedals do not come factory with the Paramount toe clips, but this after-market accessory is a must for your pair. The enclosed toe box give your toes a snug, and protected fit while you’re sprinting ahead of the pack. Get yours when you can!


Yeah, Pedals!

No, these pedals are not new. Just pedals I bought off of a customer who brought his bike in for repair*. And that is what this post is about. 

Whenever a bike gets hung in my repair stand, it isn’t an opportunity to rid the owner of it or any of it’s nice components. I don’t think it exactly professional to treat a customer’s bike as something that’s expendable merely for your own pleasure or collection. As if their bike is not valued by them, whether or not they themselves are aware of it’s “true” value. I’ve worked on scores of bikes whose owners were completely ignorant of what they had, admittedly a tempting situation. But  it’s up to us to ingrain their bike’s value in them—get them to appreciate bikes more. They’ve come in to get their bike repaired, in order to ride it longer, if we are buying parts off their bike, how are they supposed to ride it?

* To be fair, I did get the above mentioned Suntour pedals from a customer’s bike—they’re a nice addition to my growing pedal collection. Is this hypocrisy? Not in my opinion, the caveat was this: the customer was intending on selling the entire bike at a yard sale. Had he not mentioned that fact, I would have kept my appreciation of the unique (to me) pedals as commentary only. I offered him a fair price with the inclusion of some replacement pedals for the bicycle’s debut at the yard sale—a pair of Low Fat Type ATB pedals. (Any idea what Low Fat Type pedals means?) Image link courtesy of Why Walk Pedicabs