Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hard Core Bicycle DIY: Is It Worth It?

Over his year and a half of adult bicycle ownership, the Co-Habitant has progressed from not knowing much about bicycles at all, to completing two full bicycle builds from scratch. In the course of that time, knowledge was gradually gained, tools were purchased one by one, and increasingly complicated procedures were mastered. I helped when I could, but mainly the mechanics are his thing. I will stick to writing about it, thank you.

It certainly would be nice to write an inspiring post about what a rewarding and empowering experience it is to do one's own bicycle builds and overhauls. But the truth is, that I do not necessarily believe that to be so - which is why I do not do it myself. Assuming that we are speaking of serious DIY here, beyond simple maintenance, these projects require the investment of considerable amounts of time, energy and money. At the risk of coming across as discouraging, here is how I see it:
It is worth doing your own bicycle mechanics if...

...You truly enjoy it and look upon it as a hobby to fill your spare time with. That is the #1 reason in my view. If you do not enjoy it, the process can be extremely frustrating. Also, keep in mind that like any hobby, this one will require spending money on supplies - some of which will be wasted on trial and error. You will surely ruin cables and cable housing, possibly even components. You will order the wrong parts and will need to return them. Sometimes you will only realise that they are the wrong parts after you try to install them and scratch them up - making returns or exchanges impossible. You will have to make multiple, unexpected trips to bicycle shops and hardware stores for things you will suddenly realise you need. All this better be enjoyable, or it makes no sense.   

...You own multiple bicycles, plan to build up multiple bicycles, and/or foresee yourself frequently changing components on your bicycle(s). Only then does it make financial sense to invest in the many tools you will need to do your own overhauls and builds - and to go through the learning process before you actually get good at it. Things like a proper bike stand and a standard tool kit will already cost more than most bicycle shops charge for a bike build. And then there are the less common, but often necessary tools, such as headset presses, cotter presses, bottom bracket tools, dremels, and so on, that raise the cost of DIY even higher, if you properly account for it all. 

...You are good at bicycle mechanics. If not, then it is just plain dangerous to work on your own bicycle. While some mistakes make for good learning experiences, others - especially when it comes to brakes, steering and the drivetrain - can have disastrous consequences. 

...You are, at least to some degree, a control freak and like everything about your bicycle to be "just so". Sure, a bike shop may do an all right job. But you would just feel better if you trued those wheels or tensioned that chain or installed that bottom bracket yourself. 

If all of the above apply, then by all means - full speed ahead with the DIY. You will enjoy it, and it will be rewarding. However, if your primary goal is to save money, I would suggest you think twice. It is not just about buying all the necessary tools that you may seldom have occasion to use again, but also about time. While on the surface it may seem that I would save money by doing a bicycle build myself, in economic terms this is actually untrue. In the time it would take me to build up a bicycle, I could instead take on an extra freelance project in my own line of work - and the income from it would be greater than the money I'd save by building the bike myself. Financially speaking, the wise thing to do would be to allocate that work to an experienced mechanic while using the time saved to earn money in my own field of expertise.

I am fortunate to live with someone who enjoys working on bicycles (see his description of his travel tool kit!) and is quite good at it. I am also fortunate that he had some time off this summer and actually wanted to spend it working on bikes. Now that he has accumulated all the tools he needs and sufficient experience, we can do pretty much anything bicycle-related at home - and I appreciate that very much. But I by no means think that it is every "real cyclist's" duty to be able to do these things on their own, just like I do not think it is every "real home owner's" duty to be able to do their own plumbing and electrical work. If you are passionate about bicycle mechanics and are good at it, then certainly it can be fun and rewarding. Otherwise, it is best left to the experts - for the sake of your nerves and your wallet. 

72 comments:

  1. Could not agree more. It is invariably cost effective to generate income in one's area of expertise and hire someone competent to do tasks in one's areas of relative incompetence...unless it happens to be a passion or a hobby. Time is the irreplaceable commodity--it is hard to remember that, but our best memories are not generally generated whilst cleaning the toilet....

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  2. I agree with this entirely, although with a couple additions:
    1. Many people that have never paid for bike mechanic work before are surprised at how expensive it can be - like all skilled labor, it's not cheap.
    2. The hassle of trying to get the bike to the shop and leaving it there at least 24 hours is often inconvenient enough to convince people to do maintenance themselves.

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  3. I agree somewhat. There are trade-offs in everything in life, and bicycle repair is one of them. In our case do 99% of our own bike builds and repair. We do it to save money, we do it because we care more about the end result, we do it for precision, and we do it for our own sense of self-reliance (and dependence on our bikes!).

    I just got a new headset. I paid Harris to do it in their press. We don't get new headsets often enough to justify buying the press. But I also got new brake calipers. I'll be installing them myself when I get the bike home. I know better than they do how my old cable stops work (much better without those endings), I want to adjust my position on the bike, and I want to save the money for the installation of something that is rather straightforward.

    As for the expense of tools, Boston and other large cities like San Francisco have wonderful operations like Broadway Bicycle, Bikes Not Bombs, and Bicycle Kitchen where a person can work on his/her own bike, using their stands and complete sets of tools, for a relatively small hourly fee. Missing a washer? Not a problem.

    So I agree with your overall sentiment with the caveats that one need not purchase every tool made, and one need not go cold-turkey on getting some jobs outsourced professionally. Always a trade-off!

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  4. I completely agree with Reuben, with this addition: Bike shop mechanics are becoming less competent, since most bikes come pre-assembled from Taiwan. The ability to be self sufficient and then choose to delegate is another reason to learn about your bike. Murphy's Law being what it is, problems can and do happen at the strangest times.

    It is better to have the knowledge and not need it, than to need it and not have it. I am not saying that a complete tool kit that allows major work on frames is necessary, but a basic knowledge of how to replace and adjust parts is very important.

    The big risks are the two Reuben said, plus incompetent "mechanics" at some bike shops, and the biggie is dealing with stuff that happens on the road and being competent enough to fix it, or better yet, keeping the bike in good enough shape to prevent the problem!

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  5. i can see where you're coming from, velouria, but i disagree on the "if all of the above apply" part. in truth, if only the first of your multiple criteria is met ("you truly enjoy it and look upon it as a hobby") then it makes perfect sense... even if, in the long run, it isn't cost effective. if it costs you money to do what you truly enjoy, then so be it. i know plenty of people who spend big chunks of money on the things the love: gardening, travel, cooking, various forms of art, etc... these things are ephemeral in nature and not generally income-generating, yet they provide some form of satisfaction to those endeavoring to do them. (personally, i can't understand how my sister can spend the countless hours she does weeding a garden that she only gets to enjoy a few weeks out of the year).

    so, i wouldn't necessarily advise that one needs to be both passionate *and* good at something to derive fun and/or joy from it; i would advise that if it makes you happy, go for it... simple as that.

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  6. Problem: many cities don't have ANY competent bicycle mechanics. In Boston, Harris Cyclery is the only place that I would trust with large repair jobs. When I lived in a smaller U.S. city for some time, there was no way in hell that I'd leave my bike in any of the bicycle shops.

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  7. oh, and as for tools: true, it can be expensive, and as charlotte pointed out, it doesn't make sense to buy an esoteric tool just to use once in a blue moon. however, the way i see tool acquisition is like this: if i can do a certain job that requires a specialized tool by purchasing the tool for close to what it would cost me to have it done professionally, then i typically choose to purchase the tool and do the job myself. specialized tools also tend to hold their value, and if i ever get bored with working on bikes, i can sell many of my specialized tools for what they cost me, or close. (it helps to seek out used tools in the first place!). besides, for some people (myself included), collecting tools, in and of itself, provides a form of satisfaction. this brings me back to the essence of my original comment: if it brings joy, it's all good!

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  8. Re places like Broadway Bicycles and Bikes Not Bombs - You have to live near enough to them to drag the (often non-functional, or frame-only) bike there, and your schedule must correspond to their opening times. This does not work for us, but I can certainly see how it could work for others.

    somervillain - You can enjoy DIY very much, but unless you are also good at it, it is irresponsible to, say, build up your daughter's bike. I don't mean literally "you" of course; I know you are good at it! And I think it is very fair to say that every bicycle DIY-ist has at least *a bit* of the obsessive/control freak in them.

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  9. As someone who truly enjoy working on his bikes and, at the same time, sucks badly at it, I think your points are well taken...
    But, no offense meant, I would challenge the idea that to assemble bike parts is to "build a bicycle from scratch". That's glorified mecanno. It takes skills, patience and taste,and it may well be beyond my abilities, but it's not remotely close to genuine bike building (which starts with frame welding IMO)

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  10. Re bike shops and competence - I initially included this point, but decided to omit it, not wanting to offend any of the local shops. Maybe I will think of a way to rephrase it.

    But basically, I think that bike shop competence is largely a matter of preference and has a lot to do with how particular we are about our bikes. I have been to several local shops with excellent reputations and after chatting with them for a few minutes it became apparent that I knew more about some aspects of vintage bikes than they did. Needless to say, this did not inspire confidence for me to allow the mechanics in these shops to touch my bike. Yet others rave about the very same businesses, so maybe it depends on who you happen to talk to.

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  11. velouria, it's also irresponsible to do *any* form of DIY that poses a risk: the DIY plumber who tries to remodel his own bathroom and ends up destroying his house from water damage; the DIY electrician who burns his house down; the DIY auto mechanic who causes his brakes to fail. of course there are some things better left to "experts", but implicit in the DIY tendency is a certain degree of aptitude. most people who lean towards doing things themselves have at least half a brain and a desire to learn. those with closer to a whole brain *should* also have a healthy risk/benefit sense: enough sense not to tackle something beyond their means, for risk of a negative consequence, whether that be injury, financial loss, etc...

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  12. phillipe - "Completing a bicycle build" refers to building up a bicycle from the frame up. It is standard phraseology, not glorification. Clearly we do not claim to have built the frames. I think "assembly" differs from a "bicycle built", in that the former suggests a pre-determined kit. For example, you receive a disassembled bicycle in a box, and it requires assembly. A bicycle build, on the other hand, requires decisions and calculations about components.

    somervillain - agreed!

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  13. Looking at bike work as having two levels (i.e. basic maintenance and "hard core" mechanics) is perhaps one reason more folks don't do more of their own work.

    The more I learn, the larger my "basic" category seems to grow, and now overhauling headsets and BBs seems basic to me. Wheel building is still somewhere in the middle, and frame building (actual designing and welding) is the only thing that seems hard core any more.

    My point is that a bicycle is a relatively simple machine, and that understanding deeply how it works and how to fix it when it breaks is easily worth the time and money investment, even if it's not your favorite thing in the world to do.

    Also, the misperception that "I'm just no good at that kind of stuff"--which a lot of people say about a lot of things, is a limiting world view that keeps people from doing things they might otherwise enjoy and be good at if only they gave themselves some credit and time to learn.

    Golly, that got preachy there at the end! Of course, everybody has to make the choice for themselves, whatever the reasons ultimately end up being.

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  14. I don't think it's fair to characterize someone that doesn't know what they're doing tinkering around with their own bike as inherently dangerous. The beauty of bikes is that they are extraordinarily simple machines that pretty much anyone can figure out if they stare at one long enough. That's not to say that there aren't some jobs better left for pros, but adjusting brakes or something isn't rocket science.

    Sure there's the off chance that a poor brake job leaves you without brakes while careening down a dangerous hill. But far more likely is that they'll fail while you're still in your own driveway. Nobody should attempt jobs that are beyond their mechanical skill, but nobody should be afraid of adjusting a bicycle just because they've never done it before.

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  15. @V:

    Competence is not even that abstract of an issue. Take cotter pins for example, many shops will tell you up-front that they don't want to work on your bike, or worse, they'll do it destructively. (Like the time a mechanic took a hammer to my BB, ruining the bearings and denting the lockring.) Just by itself, this makes it very hard to take in old 3-speeds for service.

    I'm also not a huge fan of "self-help" at the Broad Bicycle School. It gets quite expensive quickly and working under the clock is a *really* bad idea unless you've done a particular repair many times before. Even then, doing any kind of repairs in a hurry is a *reallly* bad idea.

    I'll also mention the issue of cost again. Paying top dollar for quality service is one thing, but more often you end up paying for poor judgment, bad advice, and unnecessary work. (Recently at a LBS, I saw a customer having to pay for a wheel rebuild after requesting a truing on a new bike.)

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  16. Reuben - I don't know, I could tell you some stories of people getting hurt because a friend fixed their bike, or even an incompetent bike shop mechanic. This is not to strike fear into anyone who wishes to attempt DIY, but to reinforce the idea that when a bicycle is to be used for transportation, the person working on it must be competent. Brakes are important not only when careening downhill, but also at busy traffic intersections. Competence is important.

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  17. i really think it comes down to personal comfort level, and perhaps confidence level, although the two are intertwined. the question of "is it worth it" is not easily answered, because it's a question of how much time/effort/money is invested into something from which to receive a certain reward, and what is the value of that reward to the individual.

    funny side note: this summer i bought a vintage 1940s tractor (!!!) for my summer home property, and the hydraulics are acting flaky. i know zip about hydraulics (neither in theory nor in practice) and my initial instinct was to bring the tractor in to a specialist for a rebuild. but then my DIY tendency kicked in, and after a few hours googling hydraulics, i decided to tackle it myself (project for next summer). i will have to invest at least $200 in parts to do a complete rebuild, and there's a very real possibility that i will have wasted a day out of my vacation, (on top of of a $200 outlay), on a complete failure trying to tackle the job myself. but it's not going to stop me from trying... the potential satisfaction of having learned a whole new area of skill holds a personal value greater than the risk of failing.

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  18. Also forgot to mention that many bike shops have the "We the experts know best." (more like "How dare this loser with a 30-year-old bike tell me how to do my job!") that makes it very difficult to explain what you want to have done. Sometimes they won't even listen to what you have to say at all, and will instead insist on identifying any problems by themselves.

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  19. @V & R: Speaking of brakes, I once witnessed a "professional" bike mechanic making a very dangerous and irresponsbile improvised repair in this area. So...

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  20. On one hand I can see how many people don't have the time, knowledge or money to do their own bike maintenance. None the less, one of the primary benefits of the "neuvo retro" bicycle is the accessibility of it's design. Sure bleedling hydralic disc brakes is probably beyond most people's range of expertise. So is rebuilding an internal gear hub. But for the most part bicycle maintenance is something that every cyclist should know how to do, even if they choose to pay someone else to do it better. As a professional mechanic I see so many people come to me with infuriatingly simple bicycle conundrums, and unfortunately a large percentage of them are women. I wish that people would take the time to think of the implications of the choices they make when it comes to their personal autonomy. If you choose not to learn something simply because you know that there are plenty of "mechanically inclined" men about who are happy to save you the trouble, you are willingly surrendering your hard won liberty as a woman. Sure it may be challenging, sure there are people that do this kind of thing for a living. But what about when you are riding by yourself and something on your bike breaks and you can't figure out what happens? It doesn't matter how much money you have, or how good your bike mechanic is at home. If you can't at least diagnose the problem, even if it's as simple as turning a screw or tightening a cable a millimeter you are shit out of luck. You have no choice but to give up and wait for someone to rescue you. And what if it happens to somebody else. If you don't even have the basic knowledge yourself, how can you possibly empower other with less knowledge and experience than you? Learn how your bike works. Share that knowledge with others. That's liberation. Don't take that freedom for granted because there will always be somebody more than happy to take that freedom away from you. The bicycle is equality, so fight for equality.

    With respect and encouragement,

    Evan in Seattle

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  21. I would say that whether it's worth it is an individual decision that is best made after trying --- but then I am one of those people willing to give most things a go at least twice. Start with the basics, test in the stand (or while holding the bike up), and then at slow speeds in the grass.

    One needn't always go it alone, either. Some bike shops and bike advocacy groups run bike maintenance classes that provide a gentle and safe introduction.

    As another poster commented above, bikes are simple machines and I think it's generally a good idea to understand the machines we use. I also think the best way to understand a machine is to work on it.

    This is all a very long winded way of saying, trying or not trying is all up to the individual. However, in my opinion, it's generally a good idea.

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  22. With regards to the competency
    of bicycle shop mechanics, I agree
    that is does depend to some extent on the customer expectations.
    For example, in Germany and the Netherlands, bicycle mechanics tend to be qualified and have high standards, that match the expectations of their clients.

    Another aspect of this is that bicycles are becoming ever more specialized, and so are the mechanics. I have a shop nearby that is comfortable dealing with hub gears and drum brakes. Another shop is expert at rebuilding suspension components and hydraulic disk brakes. So you do need to pick your mechanic.
    Take your Gazelle to a mountain bike shop
    and you will get blank stares.

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  23. Taking your bike to a co-op would save almost all of the expense of buying tools, and knowledge is readily available these days. But certainly some problems are more complicated than others and everyone's time is valuable, so I wouldn't question anyone's decision to take their bicycle to a shop. I just hope that owners would not dismiss working on their bicycle out of hand.

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  24. BTW Charlotte - How did you get the frame and fork to Harris in order for them to install the headset? I have not found a good way to transport frame and fork by bike, especially over such long distance.

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  25. Improving my bike-wrenching skills over the past year has been a great joy.
    You bet, I get frustrated when things don't go as planned. But it's so rewarding to restore a clunker into a thing of beatuy.
    Velouria, you are absolutely correct about devoting your time to working in your field instead of truing spokes and rebuilding hubs. It's called competitive advantage.
    If I tried to make a living as a bike mechanic, I'd probably starve to death because I'm so slow. But I still have fun.
    And now we know why Velouria has accumulated so many beautiful bikes these past few months -- to keep her spouse busy.

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  26. It occurred to me that bicycle repairs and maintenance seem to follow an exponential curve when it comes to tools. The "basic stuff" requires basically nothing more eclectic than a screw driver and a decent set of alan wrenches, but once you start getting into more complicated repairs and you start having to buy bizzarre and expensive tools you've never even seen before. I tend to limit myself to stuff I can do with the tools in my tool box at home and leave more complicated stuff to the LBS.

    Although I recently acquired an old raleigh built Eatons Truline Glider which is tempting me to restore it...it's chrome fenders call to me even as I write this!

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  27. It's definitely an area where everyone has to make their own choices as far as what tradeoffs make sense for them. I think that anyone who rides should be able to do basic maintenance tasks like cleaning your drive train and adjusting cable tension. Having an idea of how your bike works is good, and being prepared for emergencies is good. But when it requires expensive tools that don't get used very often, I'm willing to let the shop do that. Part of it for me is that I don't want to be without my bike if I don't really have to be. If I can take care of the problem myself, then I can ride the next day.

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  28. RE: transporting frames and forks. Over the shoulder works pretty well as long as you remove the fork!

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  29. The idea of being a control freak about all things to do with my bikes is so very attractive, just like I love the "idea" of DIY, carpentry, bricklaying etc.. Problem is I'm crap at all those things, and bike mechanic I'm not!

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  30. Herzog - I did that in Vienna, when I had to transport my fixed gear frameset to my apartment from the guy who gave it to me. The trip was just over a mile and left me with bruises, plus I had to make more than a couple of emergency stops when the thing would suddenly slip off my shoulder. Can't imagine making this sort of trip from Boston to West Newton and back!

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  31. Hi Velouria,

    Love your blog! I'm a newbie (female) bicyclist who has had her bike for about a year and I've found your blog to be super helpful and informative.

    I just wanted to add in the comments though that I've found doing my own relatively minor repairs (not really serious DIY) has given me more confidence as a girl bicyclist. I live in car-obsessed Southern California and am mostly a commuter not a weekend warrior like most are here. Working on my own bike has helped me feel more confident and self-sufficient, and it's given me a deeper connection to my bike. Now when something doesn't feel right I don't get frustrated at my bike, I think about what might be wrong and how to fix it.

    I've changed out brake calipers and levers, handlebar and stem, cables, and made lots of overall adjustments in order to figure out what works best for me (this has changed over time). I am super lucky to have a partner who's been building his own bikes for a while who will check my work when I'm done if I ask nicely (and has tools). It is super time-consuming, especially because I'm almost doing something for the first time, but fumbling my way through it has been totally worth it for me in every way so far.

    Like others have mentioned, I've also had negative experiences at bike shops. I've been flat out lied to about my parts so that they could try to sell me components (this later confirmed by bike-knowledgeable friends) and insulted about the relative low-endness of my bike as they were trying to sell me a new one. I'm not suggesting that all shops are like this of course, in fact the guys at the local shop where I bought my bike are pretty nice. It's just that this all contributes in my mind to the relative merit of working on my own when I can.

    Anyway, I just wanted to add my own experience (plus it was a chance to comment on your blog, which I've been reading for so long). And it's definitely true that not everyone will have the lucky situation I do, but when my boyfriend started with bikes he learned it all at Bike Kitchen and by making friends in the local bike scene. So there's that too =).

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  32. Velouria. Time for an Xtracycle! I recently brought home a boxed up bike on mine. Much fun.

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  33. It all depends on how you qualify the particular effort. If you qualify it as a learning experience or an entertainment experience, than sure, regardless of the materials and cost in time, then extreme DIY cold be worth it.

    JS

    HTTP://www.flyingpigeonproject.org

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  34. I spent my entire childhood under my dad as he was working on cars - granted, I became rather mechanically inclined. To the point that, by the time I was 14, I owned a car, when I was 16, it was running 12's in the 1/4 mile, and now, it's facing a total rebuild. I got back into biking after college, and find it rather relaxing working on them. I'd actually say that I like working on them at least as much, if not more so, than riding them.

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  35. We've talked quite a bit about DIY and it took months to get comfortable with the simplest tasks. A lot depends on which kinds of bikes you have, how many and whether you live near good shops. The experience one gets from working on 3 speeds is not quite enough to jump into derailer bikes. On the other hand, I've learned quite a few things from just talking about my "projects" with mechanics at Harris Cyclery. I've made a few bike-savvy friends. It's great fun so long as I don't try to add up my "savings." :)

    So, yeah, if one point is clear it's that money won't be saved working on your own bikes, all factors, time, efforts, damaged parts and learning considered. The co-ops may help, of course, and it may even make sense to get a rebuilt bike from one of them to get started. I assume most readers here already have a bike or two so the advice to go to the local co-op and seek used working bikes may come too late.

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  36. matthew, similar story here! except substitute for my dad my neighbor/grey market auto importer. it was working for him rehabbing healeys, MGs and jags from age 13-18 that fostered my love for wrenching and paved the way for my obsessional approach to all things mechanical.

    MDI, i don't think i agree with the idea that money won't be saved working on your bikes. after the initial learning curve, the savings become clear. the difficult task is separating money you spend on your bikes out of the obsessional need to tweak, improve or otherwise needlessly modify, versus that spent on necessary maintenance/repair. if the latter, savings are assured.

    being the penny pincher that i am, one of the biggest motivating factors behind my starting to wrench my own bikes four years ago was being charged $40 labor to change the tires on my wife's raleigh sports. when i later realized i could do it myself in about 1/2 hour's time, it became clear that i could save money doing my own repairs. sure, i've wasted some money and damaged some parts early on in the learning process, but that's a pretty minimal loss for the experience gained. so what's clear (to me, at least) is that money definitely can be saved by working on your own bikes.

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  37. Well said Velouria, but I also think that anyone who has an interest in DIY will either quickly find that doing even the small easy stuff fails to achieve the necessary degree of practicality or that , like the Co-Habitant,that it is a satisfying challenge they get comfortable with pretty fast.(actually, maybe that's what you are saying too...)

    If you think you might want to try it don't feel like you have to do the whole cost/benifit calculation before giving it a shot. Somervillians comments on wether it's "irresponsible" or not seem to be on the mark. I'd just like to add that bikes are one of those rare, really sophisticated devices left that one really can find real usefull help/information on and the basic tools really don't need to include much bike specific stuff to do the simple stuff.

    I really love messing around with bikes and I've been at it so long my perspective is probably skewed, but I cling to my belief(maybe foolishly) that bikes are basically freindly things that seem to want to make us look good.

    Spindizzy

    P.S. The bamboo frame is about half done now and it may not end up horribly deformed and revolting afterall... The basement stinks like epoxy though.

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  38. When I was a teenager, I was going to run away from home on my bike. When I thought about it, I decided I would take off the day of my high school graduation. Though I didn't carry out my "plan", it did motivate me to learn how to fix my bike. I figured that it would come in handy if I were stuck in the middle of nowhere.

    I started with a copy of the first edition of Tom Cuthbertson's "Anybody's Bike Book." Really, anybody could learn how to do bike repairs from that book! I'm not a mechanically inclined person, but I've assembled and fixed bikes in three different shops, and I can honestly say I've done everything short of building a frame.

    Now I'm glad I have those skills because, as fortunate as I've been to find a couple of good, honest mechanics (and shops), I know that milieu, like so much of the rest of the world, is a man's domain. I, and two female friends with whom I sometimes ride, have stopped in shops on our rides and have had mechanics, sales people and manager/owners try to sell us items or repairs we didn't need, or stuff that wouldn't work on our bikes. Many male bike shop personnel still seem to think that one has to have a "tool" in a particular area of one's body in order to competently twiddle wrenches.

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  39. I am enjoying that your post is very timely with my adventures in bicycle mechanics and maintenance. Last weekend, I did the following to my husbands vintage touring bicycle: installed a new stem, new brake and derailleur cables and housing, new aero brake levers for the drops and interruptor brake levers, and changed the downtube shifters for bar end shifters. I was feeling pretty handy and proud of myself, and then, in the inaugural short ride, my husband attempts to downshift the front derailleur, and the cable rips clear out of the fastening point. Ok, so I did not tighten the screw that holds the cable enough-- no big deal. I then move the chain onto the granny gear in order to get back home, and then after two pedal strokes, the granny gear FALLS off the crank. It turns out that it was only being held on with one or two screws, but I had not noticed. This experience rattled my and my husband's confidence in my abilities. So I went to the LBS with my tail between my legs, and I found out that I actually did a fine job with the brakes, and they were able to put a new granny gear back on since the old one was really bent. So, we are back on the road, and in the end, I am glad this happened because it taught me a lesson to make sure all the important bike parts are really affixed to the bike as they should be!

    Just tonight I readjusted my rear derailleur, and I am really glad I know how to do this-- otherwise I would not be able to ride my workhorse bicycle every day.

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  40. Having said what I said in my previous comment, I should add that I do less and less of my own work. It doesn't have to do with my gender change; rather, it has more to do with the fact that sometimes I have to choose between working on one of my bikes and riding when I have time. It also has to do with getting older: I don't have as much time left on this planet as I had when I was younger, so I think more about how I want to spend it. While working on my bikes is not disagreeable, and is sometimes relaxing (in a similar way to cooking, interestingly enough!), there are other ways I'd rather spend my time.

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  41. I read your post along with Bike Snob NYC's posts about expensive bikes and clueless owners. Please tell us that you support everyone learning how to fix a flat regardless of their desire to engage in further mechanical adventures.
    BTW, Harris is conveniently located (for us South Enders) at the West Newton commuter rail stop on the Framingham/Worcester line.
    Mark

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  42. I see this as a gray area more than you do; while it certainly does not make sense for you to work on bikes if you find it stressful and it is easy to find individual assignments, I'd agree with other posters that learning a little or a lot more repair can make sense depending on where and when you ride. Even learning small tasks can expand the usefulness of your bicycle dramatically.

    Taking the bike to the shop costs time as well as money, and leaving without the bike and returning can be time consuming, especially if you don't have a car, or many qualified bike shops in a reasonable radius.

    Like Somervillain, I find many new tools cost about the same as a repair; in this case going to a bike shop can take as much time and more money than buying the tool and making many repairs over time. Used tools make DIY even more attractive, and there are low cost substitutes for bike stands or cotter pin presses (C clamp and socket).

    Similarly, knowing how to fix flats, change tires, or make small adjustments (brakes, gears) lets you ride in areas where shops or buses are not close by.

    This is even truer if you want unusual bicycles; as you noted the vintage bikes are very attractive in terms of style and reliability, but many shops don't know how to fix them, and are more interested in selling new bikes with much lower utility value.

    In my case, I'd be spending money to take time to go to the shop and be encouraged to spend a lot more money on a bicycle that will do less than vintage bikes that are fairly simple to fix. For many riders, it can easily make sense to find 1 good shop than can overhaul internal gears every 20,000 miles or so, and replace tires, chains, brakes, and perhaps cotter pins or bearings themselves.

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  43. Mark - I think it is absolutely up to the individual whether they find it worthwhile to know how to fix a flat. On certain bikes, like Dutch bikes and English Roadsters, it is actually pretty difficult, because it is a lot of trouble to remove the rear wheel. In many ways, I think it is better to suggest that beginner cyclists get really good tires with puncture protection, than learn how to fix flats. In general, I don't see why our attitude to bike DIY should be any different to our attitude toward other types of DIY: some people like it and find it easy, others do not.

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  44. Velouria,
    With regard to changing flats, I agree completely in the case of Dutch Bikes and English Roadsters that stay close to home. However, until we have AAA for bicycles, if one wants to venture far away one had best know how to patch together enough of a repair (on any part of the bike, not just the tires) to get home or at least to a train/bus station to get home.

    As for getting a frame/fork to Harris, in that case I'd probably pad it and attach it securely to my rack. In this case it was my fully built 3 speed with front and rear racks that needed the work so 1) I couldn't do that and 2) I wasn't going to disassemble all that for a headset upgrade. My other headset was barely functional and before I add anything more to the bike I thought it was time to get it upgraded. Hopefully the new one won't slip so badly. At any rate I had to leave the bike for several days, and so made both trips to Harris in a car. So you see I'm not a 100% purist in bike repair OR transportation modes!

    While the bike was in the shop I got to commute to work on my husband's Brompton. What fun!!!!! But that's a subject.

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  45. Cars break down in far-away places too, and most people I know would just call a tow company (if they have cell phone signal, that is...)

    I see beginner cyclists warned about the importance of road-side repair, but I don't often see new drivers lectured on being able to operate a jack and change a wheel on their car. Both skills can be important, but let's not forget that some people simply can't enjoy bikes (or cars) when faced with all this DIY peer pressure.

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  46. Regarding changing flats and other easy repairs: I know that this is somewhat of a controversial issue, with one camp saying that it is ridiculous to be a cyclist and not be able to do it, and the other camp saying that a sign of a truly "healthy bike culture" is not having to know how to do it. My view is somewhere in between, but closer to the latter. Yes, if you go on a long isolated tour alone, you should be able to fix a flat (and adjust your derailleur, and do a few other things too!). But even long daytrips (in reasonably populated areas) don't warrant it, in my opinion. There are so many excellent kevlar protection tires out there, that the chance of a flat is as slim as a chance of more serious bicycle malfunctions. I would rather that beginner cyclists invested in those tires and felt free not to worry about flats.

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  47. PS: On a previous post, some readers suggested a number of clubs and companies that provide bicycle road assistance. For example, this.

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  48. My dad wouldn't sign off of my driver's license until I could change a tire, and explain what a cam shaft was, what a carburator does (did), and the correct procedures for jumping standard and automatic transmission cars. Must be us independent Western folk!

    But no doubt, if you're riding to Walden Pond you're not going to die of exposure on your walk to the commuter rail should something go wrong. (hopefully!) :)

    Tuesday night in the South End I did see a guy on the cyclist's "walk of shame". It was dark, he was in full lycra kit, walking in his socks, carrying his Look shoes, and beside him his carbon-fiber rocketship. I was confused for a second but his very unhappy expression filled in the story - he must have just gotten off of the Back Bay commuter rail after waiting for a post-rush hour train, and there was something wrong with his drivetrain as the chain was sagging. Whatever happened certainly spoiled his evening!

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  49. on a slightly different note, i just wanted to mention that your mixte is looking great! folks, it looks even better in person than in the pics. i saw it in person probably minutes before these pictures were taken (velouria, you were either inside and didn't want to come out to say hi ;-) or i just missed you). agreed, the cohabitant has DIY skilz!

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  50. For me, it's a hobby, so I do it. Since my job is in a "human" field, I find the finite nature of mechanical problems very soothing -- when the machine rolls, you know you did it right and you're done. Teaching just isn't like that.

    However, I don't promote bike DIY -- even the minor stuff -- to other people, and that's because I do want transportation biking to spread beyond the small circle of hobbyists.

    While some people do enjoy DIY auto mechanics, too, the vast majority of motorists have no interest whatsoever in how their car works. Biking should be the same way -- a hobby for a few, but a normal way of life for most.

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  51. Thank you for your informative and always deli ghtfully written pieces. I always felt inadequate having to take my bike to the "shop" for overhauls, but have gradually learn't my limits. I can strip, clean and repair. fix punctures, change cabling, grips and "consumables". I no longer feel the need to be an expert, and have a reliable expert to take bearing changes and servicing to.

    love the blog v.

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  52. somervillain - I totally agree with the obsession! I'll spend an hour after changing cables adjusting the brakes to get them JUST RIGHT. I think that's my hang up with most index systems - they're just too frustrating for me. If 5th gear shifts up with a clatter, it's not right, and won't be right, and needs to be fixed. I've spent hours on a cannondale I recently picked up trying to get the indexing just so. Finally, I switched off the indexing and forgot about it. No sense driving myself crazy when there's a better system out there already!

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  53. I'm not sure I agree that you need to own multiple bikes in order to justify the cost of tools, but it does help if you have a long-term view...

    I have acquired my tools bit by bit over 30 years - somewhat recently, my car was broken into, I didn't care about the electronics, I was totally bummed that my bike toolbox was gone! Fortunately, the goods were recovered - what are the odds of that?!

    I find that repetition helps, along with books and, occasionally, knowledgeable friends. The Internet can be really helpful.

    Anyway, when I was in college, I had a lot of time on my hand and would completely disassemble and reassemble my bike every month or so just because I had nothing better to do. This helped me feel more and more comfortable with the procedures.

    Once in a while I make a mistake, but rarely the same one twice, and nothing was dangerous. In fact, it was a poorly adjusted low gear limit that allowed my chain to jump into the spokes and break one, this caused me to evaluate the whole drivetrain and upgrade from 80's 6-speed to modern Shimano 9-speed (Harris did the job, I was afraid to bend the rear stays). So maybe the mistake was an actual benefit! (okay, it was an expensive benefit... :-)

    Probably the most embarrassing mistake I made recently was not putting enough torque on a friend's rear derailer pulley bolt. The pulley fell off on a ride, good thing we were near our destination. I felt really bad, so I spent a half-hour looking for all of the parts. Fortunately, I found everything and it's been good since.

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  54. It has been nice reading everybody's points of view and I am surprised at the amount of discussion this topic has generated.

    One thing to clarify for those who have commented that "this is a gray area" or that my view is "extreme". I stand by what I wrote, and would like to direct your attention to how conditional (the opposite of extreme) my point is.

    What I am basically saying, is that complicated DIY is worth it, if you enjoy it, are likely to do it multiple times, are good at it, and have exacting standards. And that it is not worth it if your main motivation is to save money. Perhaps that train of thought got lost in the details of the post, because otherwise I am surprised that it can generate so many alternative views.

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  55. gosh, yeah, I'd been meaning to chime in on this thread but kept getting distracted by other blog topics as they come up :)

    anyway, I think your point about not doing it if "your main motivation is to save money" is fine, but I think that it's also very easy to read your post as essentially saying that only the dedicated should bother to learn how to maintain and/or do major repair/upgrade work on their bike. Everyone else can trust in their mechanics to do the job correctly.

    (or to paraphrase barbie: "bike mechanics are hard! let's go shopping!")

    I think part of that is you use the phrase "if all of the above apply" instead of "if any of the above apply". I think that it can still be immensely satisfying to work on one's bike even if they aren't anal, but enjoy learning how the machine works. You're also missing a large gulf of conditions between being a hobbyist and wanting to save money. Plus there might be some leftover ruffled feathers from your prior recommendation about how learning how to fix a flat is unnecessary. (which, yeah, I kind of disagree with, but that's another thread)

    anyway, I tend compare my interest in bikes with interests in computers. I like building my own computers from parts because I like having the control over how the machine is configured and I like being able to fix things on my own without worrying about the competency of a third party. Like bikes, building a computer from parts rarely makes economic sense; but there's no price tag that can be placed on freeing oneself from having to call tech support everytime your computer acts wonky.

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  56. Cris - I think that you hit the nail on the head with the Barbie comment: If I were a male, I don't think this post would have been interpreted in quite the same manner by some of the readers. But because I am female, perhaps the assumption is that I like to play the "helpless damsel" role and cannot be bothered to learn bicycle mechanics because shopping is occupying too much of my time. Hardly seems fair.

    As for the fixing your own flats comment on the other post: I stand by it, for the simple reason that someone has to. From direct conversations with fledgling cyclists, I have a very distinct impression that many are just too intimidated to cycle because of all the guilt-tripping about all of the things they "have to" do as cyclists. There ought to be at least a couple of voices out there that tell them they do not "have" to do anything, other than ride their bike. That is the point of view I am trying to express.

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  57. PS: If you like DIY on the road and a point of view that directly opposes mine, have a look here at the Co-Habitant's insane, I mean lovely, description of his tool kit. Enjoy : )

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  58. When I bought my first "10 speed" back in the 70s as a teenager, I took advantage of the free bike maintenance classes the shop offered and have always been glad that I did.
    Even if you choose not to actually do the work yourself, I recommend learning how it is done. You get to know your bike better, you're less likely to be ripped off by a dishonest shop, and if you're caught out far from home or shop with a problem, you may be able to come up with a temporary fix that will at lest get you home.

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  59. It took me a long time to get comfortable with bike stuff, including to learn the volume/boundaries of what I don't yet know and to learn how to approach a new-to-me bike task/job. In addition to time spent, money was spent as well and some other things I am also theoretically good at were not pursued during this time. So, was it worth it? I don't know, it depends on my priorities and life's goals, doesn't it? What could have I done instead?

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  60. MDI - The last part of what you wrote is an important point, that I've also failed to bring across (gosh, my post in retrospect seems like a such a failure). There are so many things that it would be good to learn in order to be self-sufficient: home repair, proper penmanship, basic first aid, sewing, knitting, growing your own food, cooking from scratch. Are these more or less important than bicycle mechanics? And if you have a job (or two), and other interests in life besides, how to prioritise your time between all these equally important and interesting things? To my mind, ti has to do with which of it you enjoy more and are naturally better at.

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  61. I'm one of those new-to-enthusiastic-cycling (as opposed to very minimal bike commuting) people, and am VERY grateful for the loud clear voices saying that it's ok not to know how to fix or upgrade one's bike, even with such basics as flats (which I've never successfully fixed! - an inability which put me off bicycling 10-15 years ago). I'd like gradually to learn more (because I'd like to feel more confident on longer rides, alone in the countryside). But I think that the dominant ethos here and in England has been to overemphasize the importance of bike DIY (often for good, feminist reasons, which are well-meaning, but which can backfire). So even if you did slightly overstate the other side, Velouria, (and I'm not sure that you did!), it was worth it, to set your more relaxed view against the prevailing winds.

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  62. I don't mean anything as guilt-tripping, but the most wonderful thing that working on bicycles taught me was not to assume that anything is beyond my capacity to figure out, whether that's plumbing, computer repair, or whatever else. Working on bicycles has made a huge difference in my life because I don't automatically feel helpless when the technology in my life breaks down. No one should feel obligated to learn how to repair a bicycle, but I promise that the effort can be very empowering in all facets of living.

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  63. Eric - Granted, *but* (and yes, I am going to continue arguing my point!) why assume that the fictional reader who is considering bicycle mechanics is generally helpless and not already self-reliant in other areas, such as home repair, carpentry, and so on? I promise you that once you make your own table and chairs and are sitting there enjoying your meal on them, it is extremely empowering. So is wearing the clothing you made yourself, and so on. So how do I, a busy woman, choose between mastering bicycle mechanics and home repair? That is where things like enjoyment, natural skill, and the other factors I mentioned come in.

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  64. I would suggest the point about money NOT being a reason to justify some amount of DIY is dependent on how much money you have/make. In my experience, money is certainly saved by doing even just basic/repetitive maintenance tasks, regardless of whether you enjoy it or not. Bikes are simpler than I feel you are making them to be - most bike DIY tasks would perhaps be more comparable to doing house chores than home repair... and though we may hire a plumber if a pipe bursts, most of us don't have maids.

    I think for many, the savings can be reason enough to attempt some basic work.

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  65. Whoa, who said you have to buy tools to work on your own bike? I barely own any bike-specific tools but barely ever pay for service. Between friends and local bike shops that let me borrow their tools, I have no need to buy them. And if you live in a big city, like Boston, I'm sure there are at least a couple free clinics that will show you how to do bike maintenance as well as provide tools.

    I've built up many bikes with a standard tool set and then just gone to the LBS to borrow some tools for the finishing touches.

    And as far as not knowing what you're doing a bike is a ridiculously simple mechanism and doing a tiny bit of reading is all you should need to approach any problem, in the few cases where it's not obvious by looking at another bike.

    Not to harp on you but I don't think you should be discouraging people from doing something that doesn't actually need to be nearly as expensive or difficult as you're making it out to be.

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  66. I think that a lot of people are missing your point that some things in bike repair require not just force but also fine motor skills that aren't available to some people, especially not in combination. There are some things for which a bigger lever is not the solution (sorry boys! :)) but where you need a combination of a hard pull and a directed twist at the same time (attaching my shifter cable to its hub is an example). My limitations (mostly weaker hands) cause me a lot of frustrations when working on bikes and cars, where I know exactly what to do, but am physically unable to do it. While there are special tools (blow torch for rust removal anyone?) there are limits to what can reasonably expected of a person who just wants to ride a bike.

    I think it is empowering to know _how_ things work, and God knows I have a wicked DIY streak (although I think I draw the line at tractor hydraulics Somervillian), but I wouldn't think less of anyone who wasn't interested in working on their own bike. I think the analogies you make to growing your own food and sewing your own clothes are apt. No one would question for an instant a chef for going to a grocery store, or anyone (especially a fashionista) for not sewing all their own clothes.
    And while I have been known to raise an eyebrow at those without basic cooking skills, I know from experience some days takeout is the answer.

    While we have some great bike repair options and trusted mechanics here in Boston/Camberville, they are a minority in a lot of the country (vide the current story line on Yehuda Moon) I think that a little research (Thank you Sheldon!) goes a long way in feeling like you understand how your bike works, and in feeling comfortable either in doing something yourself, or being confident that someone else is doing it right for you. And fortunately a bike is conceptually a fairly simple machine, without needing to get into the details of french tubing and italian threading.

    I think your readers, or at least the above commentators are a biased sample who tend towards a slightly more techie skill set. While I include myself in that group, I agree with your basic premise that doing your own work should not be something one should feel obligated to do to consider themselves a cyclist. To quote John Romeo Alpha- Get up go ride- that's all it takes.

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  67. One does not have to rise far above the skill level of the everyday utalitarian cyclist to have enough competence to do more than basic repairs. Hell, most bike owners dont do any form of DIY at all! So if one can clean and oil the bike and check for wheel trueness, and adjust brakes and tighten all screws once a month you´re fine! Some posters claim the bicycle is a simple machine, and that is true, but to be able to order, and even substitute, parts in all the myriads of different standards there are, is prolly more brainwork most users are willing to do!

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  68. I worked as a professional bicycle mechanic during graduate school.

    One issue that hasn't yet been mentioned here is that extremely high end bicycles are designed for set up and adjustment which is very near to perfection, IF SUFFICIENT TIME AND ENERGY ARE DEVOTED TO THE TASK.

    Commercial bike shops simply cannot afford the time it takes to set up/adjust high end bikes to that level of perfection.

    I'm not, as you called it, a control freak who needs to do all my own mechanical work; in fact I'd love to outsource it. But unfortunately, it isn't really possible to purchase the level of work that I want for my bicycles.

    Since for high end bikes, the difference in how the bike performs varies noticeably depending on how perfectly it's been set up and adjusted, it's worth it to assure that the set up is, well, perfect.

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  69. I currently work as a workshop manager (professional bike mechanic) for the UK's leading quality retailer with 48 stores and £100 million annual turnover - I work in one of their most profitable stores in London

    I've worked as a bike wrench for 20+ years including several years as the co-owner of a downhill mountain bike frame manufacturer who also did lots of research and development for major manufacturers

    bike wrenching is something I enjoy to do...but I get frustrated at the sad state that many bicycles are in, when they arrive at my workshop

    many riders don't appreciate simple maintenance tasks like keeping tires inflated to recommended pressures, cleaning the drive train and oiling the chain, or not ignoring strange noises like creaks / clicks and looseness in rotating parts like bottom brackets, hubs and headsets

    with motor vehicles, motorists generally need to know how to fuel their vehicle, add oil, add water and check tire pressure at the garage

    somewhere along the way, the bike industry has forgotten to inform new riders of simple maintenance tasks, and their bicycles suffer, as do their wallets

    we get lots of repair bikes from regular commuters who have run their bikes into the ground by failing to undertake basic, regular maintenance (we are not talking wrenching with specialist tools, but pumping up tires, cleaning / oiling, etc.)...

    ...and end up with so much damage to components that its more cost effective to buy a new bike than repair their existing bike :(


    bicycles are wonderful pieces of equipment and easily one of the finest inventions that mankind ever made (for human powered transportation, or just fun riding!) but its a great advantage to undertake a basic maintenance course so you can fix a puncture, adjust your brakes for wear, set up your gearing indexing and learn to clean your bike properly as this just improves your riding experience, durability of your bike and reduces the impact on your wallet

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  70. At one point it is about money. Bringing a bike for an overhaul or drive training cleaning is too expensive, if you have two kids in day care. I replaced a chain and cleaned the drive train in a friend's shop recently and it was far harder than I thought (the last shop put the chain rings on the hub incorrectly) but worth far less than the shops charge, assuming your aren't fixing someone's insidious problem. And I want to learn. I have the advantage that I have seen every bearing in my old bike so I know how frustrating it can be (as you note - unscheduled trips to the bike shop or hardware store) but I need to both relearn and retool. So it is a function of economics and a desire to see how things work, and be able to do the work.

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  71. Just came across this post two years late! Hilaire Belloc said it all-

    "Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light.
    It struck him dead. And serve him right!
    It is the business of the wealthy man
    To give employment to the artisan."

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