Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Accidental Mechanic

I never considered myself mechanically inclined. I took devices as I found them. Growing up, I did as little as possible to any of my bikes, and never dug into the mysteries of mechanisms, as my older brother did.

By the time I got into college, I had started to do a few minor things to whatever car I happened to own, though nothing major. Then my mechanically-inclined brother sparked my interest enough to get me to buy a bent used Peugeot ten-speed.

Under his instruction, soon reinforced by a classmate who had been a year behind me in high school, I found myself ripping bearings apart. The classmate, a girl named Diane, had grown up in a machine shop, so she wasn't afraid of anything. She went on to become an expert wheel builder, then a torch goddess, and now practically starts by mining her own iron ore when she wants to build something.

I stopped short of that, but the simplicity of the bicycle showed me I could have transportation independence very cheaply. I couldn't afford a good work space and all the heavy tools to keep a car going through all the things that might go wrong with it, but I could completely overhaul my bike in my apartment. If I laid down some old newspapers, I wouldn't even be a landlord's nightmare. It could be socially responsible, yet revolutionary.

Even the heavy tools, like a shop-quality workstand and truing stand, fit in an average room. A dedicated workshop is nice if you're going to start lathering solvents around, but you can do a decent overhaul at your kitchen table if you're neat and patient about it.

I guess maybe I am a little more mechanically inclined than I thought. The number of people I meet who find the inner workings of a bicycle mysterious still surprises me. Or maybe it's too trivial to be worth their attention. Being good at bicycle mechanics often seems about as respected as being good at armpit farts.

In need of a day job, I got sucked back into the bike industry in 1989, and have remained the itching powder in its bike shorts ever since. I won't leave, because I like getting parts and tools at cost, but I won't play along with the dispos-a-bike trend in sophisticated, temperamental componentry. I still want to be able to fix it at my kitchen table, or in a camp site somewhere. At heart I remain sympathetic to the consumer. That will put you on the outside of most industry trade groups.

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