Wrenching

I don’t consider myself especially mechanically inclined, but I did get an early start. My brother is four years older than me, and he’s one of those people with an insatiable curiosity about how things work and what’s under the hood. He drove my parents nuts when he was a kid because no matter what kind of new thing he brought home, he immediately had to take it apart to see what was inside. Most of the time he was able to reassemble what he took apart, but much to their chagrin, he occasionally ruined something because neither him, nor my Dad, could solve the puzzle of reassembly. It was my brother’s influence and guidance (misguidance?) that got me started wrenching on our bicycles well before the age of 10.

Eventually, we both ended up racing motocross (motorcycles) which was a real education in mechanics. We raced every weekend for years, and our bikes took a beating. To be competitive, you had to really step it up and learn how to tune your motorcycles. The top riders in the area had sponsorships and their bikes were maintained by pro mechanics, but we were on our own to keep our bikes rolling and competitive. This racing experience was a great foundation for maintaining bicycles.

All that experience came in handy when I started mountain biking back in the early 80′s. At that time, I was living in the Pacific Northwest. Early mountain bikes were not much different than road bikes, and very few specialized parts for off-road riding were available. We rode in the forest on the Olympic Peninsula (essentially a rain forest), and our bikes took a terrible beating every weekend. We rode single track and spent a lot of time in ankle deep mud, fording streams, and crossing football-field-length “puddles”. None of our bearings were what would be considered “sealed” bearings today, which meant every outing had to be followed by a total overhaul of every bearing on the bike. The routine involved disassembling both hubs, the headset, and the bottom bracket, flushing everything (including the freewheel), then repacking everything with grease (or Phil’s Tenacious Oil in the case of the freewheel). Out on the trail, the bearings flushed out so fast that we’d each carry our own bottle of Phil’s to squirt in our bottom brackets and hubs to keep everything from seizing up on us… LOL!

Compared to motorcycles or cars, bicycles are a cinch to work on. Just about everything is exposed, and even a complex task like rebuilding an internal gear hub isn’t so intimidating when compared to working on a modern internal-combustion-powered vehicle. Traditional bicycles with derailleur drivetrains and rim brakes are probably the simplest of all; if anything goes wrong, the problem is usually very easy to diagnose because the parts are out there in full view to observe. I think this utter simplicity is a real advantage, particularly for folks who don’t have a lot of mechanical experience.

I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t done so to pick up a few tools and try a little basic wrenching. There’s not much you can do to harm a bike, and the satisfaction derived from doing your own maintenance is its own reward. And even if, by chance, you don’t end up enjoying the process, having a more intimate understanding of how your bike works is not a bad thing.

Do you perform your own maintenance?

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33 Responses to “Wrenching”

  • Yangmusa says:

    I’ve always done most of my own maintenance, but didn’t get really proficient until I got a recumbent and all the local bike shops turned their noses up at it. “I’m not touching that thing!” was heard a lot, and no amount of protestations that it was the same parts in different places helped. So I just had to learn to do everything! Thank goodness for the Bike Kitchen: http://www.bikekitchen.org/

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    In 1989 I was 16 and I wanted a road bike but in my family you didn’t just get such things handed to you and my part time job didn’t fetch the kind of coin needed for the kind of bike I wanted, so my dad helped me overhaul his old Fuji from the early 70s. I learned how to repack every set of bearings, in addition removing, reinstalling and adjusting all components and cables.

    At the time aero levers and indexed shifting had become standard on new bikes and clipless pedals were getting pretty common. I was a little self-conscious about my exposed cables, friction shifting and toe clips while my friends had cooler, newer stuff, but in hindsight it was a better gift than giving me a new bike would have been. That same bike is my commuter now, having been salvaged and overhauled again for a new life last year.

    So anyway, I answered that I do all my own wrenching. Prior to taking up cycling again I had no hobbies… just filled my spare time with more work. Now I have a more balanced life and find satisfaction and enjoyment in seeing what I can accomplish with the old bikes I’ve overhauled for me and my family.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    I generally do everything myself, but left the Rohloff overhaul to the good folks at Clever Cycles :) Too little time these days to go opening up something that complex…

  • Billi says:

    After toys, bike were where I started wrenching, Then lawnmowers, cars, ships, cars, boats, houses, boilers, and now back to bikes.

  • John Kelso says:

    I used to do all of my own bike work though college, but now it’s the old time/money trade-off. I seem to have little free time and wold prefer to spend it riding the bike instead of working on the bike. I used to have no money and time for both. Hmmm… there’s a lesson there methinks.

  • townmouse says:

    *ahem* – by ‘mechanic’ do you mean ‘husband’?

    Actually, I am learning how to do more and more on my bike these days

  • Bob Baxter says:

    After spending my working life maintaining airplanes for an airline I find maintaining my bicycles to be a pleasant pastime.

  • Zen says:

    I took a build-a-bike class at our local bike co-op(BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage) and I am now able to do all the basic maintenance on my bike. I encourage everyone to take some classes and learn more about your bike. Even if you don’t plan on working on your bike, you will appreciate the simplicity & beauty of your bike.

  • David says:

    I’m a dyed in the wool gearhead and do all my own maintenance and enjoy it, but I still try to minimize it. My current bike has greaseguard hubs and BB, which really makes it easy but they’re only really necessary because at the time it was designed (1992), truly sealed bearing were still tough to come by. My next bike will have sealed bearings wherever possible (IGH rear, dyno front), hydraulic discs, and possibly a belt drive to keep maintenance as low as possible.

  • DerrickP says:

    Great topic. I bought my primary commuter (Surly Cross Check) from a bike shop that gives lifetime free tune-ups. I often let them do all the dirty work since everything is free. But recently, I’ve been wanting to walk away from having them as a crutch. I’ve now got the opportunity to work through a ministry at my church that gives away dozens of bikes a month. They need someone to help fix bikes and then empower the people receiving the bikes to use them properly. It’s looks like I’ll be overseeing the whole operation… which means I’ll be learning a lot more, I guess. Anyone know of any outstanding resources for such an endeavor? I know Sheldon Brown can’t be beat… anything else?

  • Molnar says:

    John Kelso nailed it. Unfortunately, I’m not as intelligent as he is, so I refuse to turn over some of the basic maintenance, such as repacking wheel bearings, to a mechanic. The result? Some things don’t get done as often as they should (but thank goodness most of my equipment is either low-maintenance commuter stuff or vintage Campagnolo, which can tolerate a lot of neglect).

  • Alex Moll says:

    There’s a good theory that by intimately learning how your bike works, you’ll be prepared for when things break. The interesting thing is that if you do your own, thorough preventative maintenance, stuff rarely does break. Pay attention, and you’ll usually catch things before they get too bad. You’ll mostly use your ear and eyes, but sometimes you’ll feel it. “Use the force, Luke!”

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I do most everything. One thing that I pay to get done is headset installation / removal. I don’t do it enough to justify buying the special tools and I would worry about trashing my frame using a jerry-rig. I also pay to have a shop to build my wheels.

  • John says:

    I do the basic upkeep (lube, cleaning, tires, minor adjustments, etc.), but generally let my LBS take care of tune-ups or more complicated stuff. I’d like to do more, but way back when, I had a Specialized Stumpjumper and tried to true the spokes myself . . . oh, boy, did I screw that up. Since then, I’ve been a bit more modest in my efforts. I would like to take a workshop or class on bike maintenance and learn to do more myself, however. The beauty of a bike is that it is one of the simplest and most practical machines invented. Even if I can’t do everything myself, I know exactly how it works. You can’t say that about many other machines in our modern world.

  • Doug R. says:

    Now why is there no book Titled: Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance? Know your cycle and know yourself. Alan, I do disagree about your statement that there is very little you can “harm” on a bike, stripped nuts and bolts, overtightened bearings, snapped spokes, and frayed cables etc., etc, etc! I like the person who said to take a course at the co/op. Experienced friends are worth gold! Bicycles are finicky, delicate, creatures that take a finite “mechanics touch” to get right! Just try putting a quick release on to loose and see what your day goes like! Dougman.

  • Tamia Nelson says:

    I started tinkering before I was 10 when my father and uncle, excellent motor mechanics and all-round handimen, couldn’t tend to my bike because they were busy. I got proper instruction from a roadie friend when I was in my 20s, and from then on I had confidence to try anything that needed doing, from routine maintenance to replacing headsets. Of course, it is necessary to have tools, and the specialist tools make jobs like headset removal and replacement easier and more certain to work properly. If you think you’ll do such work, look for these tools on sale or used. It’s also important to have good guidance from someone who knows what they’re doing, or from written material.

    My advice is for all cyclists to know how to do basic work, and the tools needed for that are not expensive or extensive. As others have said already, it’s a lot easier than working on an internal combustion engine. And I’ll add that if you can’t fix it, you can at least pick up your bicycle and carry it. Try doing that with a car.

  • Keith says:

    I’m currently in transition between “I handle the basic maintenance but leave the complex tasks to my mechanic” and “Yes, I do all of my own wrenching”. I occasionally get stumped with something that I can’t fix myself, even after consulting Sheldon Brown’s site and the Park blue book. But the more I get stumped the more I learn, and the fewer trips I make to the mechanic.

  • Alan says:

    @Doug

    “Now why is there no book Titled: Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance?”

    Here you go: Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance

  • Montana Cyclist says:

    During college I did most of my own repairs because I was short on cash. I felt triumphant after replacing a worn spindle on a cottered crank, but sort of screwed up a headset installation.
    Except for some minor repairs, I left the wrenching up to the professionals most of the time until I discovered Sheldon Brown’s wonderful resources. Since then I have been taking on more complex tasks and am slowly building up my tool collection. I am no longer scared to take on tasks such as replacing cogs and chains and adjusting brakes/derailleurs. Check out Zinn and the Art of Road/Mountain Bike Maintenance (two separate volumes.) Great instruction manuals written with knowledge and humor.

  • Jeff says:

    +1 with doug in seattle, I do everything but the headset. I do build my own wheels but that’s a rarity. I love working on bikes, but I’ve got two kids, 2 and 5, so my wrenching is mostly limited to evenings after everyone has gone to bed.

  • Phil Barns says:

    I am comfortable doing most of the routine maintenance tasks on my bike including bearings, but wheel trueing is beyond me at the moment, and as Doug in Seattle said headset tools are very expensive. Wheel building courses are few and too costly in the UK. The one basic task which really grinds my beans is fitting pedals- I can never get the threads to mesh, and it always ends with me admitting defeat and taking them to the shop, where I’m sure the mechanics have a nice chuckle at my incompetence after I leave.

  • Doug R. says:

    Alan, thanks for the Zinn! Oh, I just cut the cables and resized them for my Pashley, and I still remember how to solder on cable ends. I put a Soma Arc bar on and the old motorcycle shop brain cells are still firing on all cylinders. ( For now anyway! ha, ha,). Dougman.

  • RI SWamp Yankee says:

    The best part of doing your own work is that you get to mod your ride, and fix all of the little annoyances (or just make it look cooler.)

    I’ve been running a stock Townie 21 for most of the winter, and I’ve pretty much figured out what I like (“pedal forward”, long wheelbase, low seat height, fat city tires, mega-range freewheel) and what I don’t (ape-hanger bars, over-stuffed seat, cheap-o suspension fork, plastic pedals, crummy derailleurs, freebie plastic half-fenders the LBS put on it.)

    This week, I’ll be putting in real fenders (V.O. 60mm stainless), and swapping out the bar for a V.O. North Road clone with shellacked cork grips. This will address my biggest beef with the Townie, the “sit up and beg” position that hurts my back and numbs my hands. Lowering the bars, and sweeping back the angle at which I hold them, will help a lot while keeping the upright riding position.

    The next job is to replace the P.O.S. Shimano junk-drawer derailleurs. They miss shifts and spit the chain off on a regular basis, no matter how much I tweak and tinker with them. I haven’t decided on where to go in terms of replacement – maybe Sunrace’s higher-end stuff for the novelty of it. (Good rep for tight tolerances, too.)

  • Sharper says:

    I’m a bit spoiled since I’m a *cough*frequent*cough* volunteer at the Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen. The wealth of tools and knowledge has made it really easy to ramp up my mechanical skills. So much so, in fact, that I’ve only ever taken my main ride inside a shop once — for a professional fitting.

  • Ryan says:

    I am with DougP – I do everything except headsets and wheel building although I do have a specialized front hub that I plan on using to build a wheel one of these days.

    And I Second Alan -love the Zinn, mine is dogeared and grease smudged and has been a great reference. Also checkout Parktools website they have a number of how to videos that are nice when you need a bit more than the written word.

    Never thought of myself as particularly mechanically minded so being able to work on my bike gives me a real feeling of accomplishment.

  • Andrew says:

    Glad to see this poll up here, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the results. I didn’t really get into wrenching until this summer when I moved into a very bike-friendly household; one of my housemates is currently in the process of opening up a new DIY bike repair shop in the city, so I’ve now had plenty of opportunities to practice my wrenching on old bikes that need to be restored for sale.

    Most of my practice has been in restoring my dad’s old Italian road bike, though. I’m now pretty much completely comfortable doing anything to do with brakes, derailleurs, chains, hub rebuilds, and all that. Next task to tackle is tearing down the bottom bracket, and maybe the headset if it needs it. I also do basic lateral truing, but getting even tension and making sure that it’s totally round as well remains a bit of black art. Suffice it to say, I’m still not quite willing to build my own wheels.

  • tim says:

    i love working on my bikes almost as much as riding them. i keep it simple, friction shifting, no suspension, interchangeable parts for all my bikes and anything else i can do to make the task easier. the one question i have is, what is the crankset in the photo? very handsome.

  • tim says:

    just figured it out. a ta carmina. the price? ouch!!!!!!

  • Alan says:

    @Tim

    “just figured it out. a ta carmina. the price? ouch!!!!!!”

    As they say, “If you have to ask…” :-)

  • Alan says:

    @Tim

    PS – That was a rare one with 155mm crank arms…

  • Tim says:

    I learned how to fix and maintain my bikes because I put half of them together in their current incarnation. Almost all of my bikes are rescued from garages and trash heaps, rebuilt for my purposes. My commuter, for instance, is an old Giant hybrid from the early ’90s that I overhauled, put drop bars, fenders, and racks on.

    Also, I play hardcourt bike polo. If you have ever played, or seen this played, you’ll know that if you don’t learn how to do your own repairs, you’ll be paying out the wazoo on a near weekly basis. I of course have a bike specifically for this, which is built like a tank with 26″ 48 spoke wheels and tons of BMX parts (hubs, brakes, pedals, etc.) In fact, I didn’t learn how to true wheels until I started playing polo. It’s definitely made me keep up on all of my bikes.

  • tim says:

    alan,
    yes, you’re right, “if i have to ask”. maybe someday.

  • 2whls3spds says:

    i apparently followed a similar path as your older brother…I tore my dad’s first power lawnmower down at age 7 to see what was inside the Briggs and Stratton motor. I blame it on him, because he was always working on his Volvo B18, rebuilding pieces and parts on the kitchen table. I did get the lawnmower back together, and it did run. Still tear things apart today to see what makes them tick and quite often to repair them.

    When it comes to bicycles I do most if not all of my own work. I do have to leave some things like BB facing to those that have the proper tools. I occasionally pay to have wheels built due to time constraints.

    Aaron

 
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