A programmer's love letter to bicycle maintenance and repair

#bikes #life
2022-02-06

It was the 28th of June, 2020; the perfect summer day. I remember it distinctly because of two important events that took place on that day. The first was the unfortunate discovery that I am highly sensitive to the venomous hairs of the Oak processionary caterpillar. If you’ve never wished you could use a cheese grater to remove the skin off your arms and legs just to be rid of the itching, then you can’t really understand how I felt for two whole weeks that summer.

The second thing that happened on that 28th of June was the seemingly inconsequential purchase of two secondhand bicycles. My wife and I drove out to a local park to test ride a couple of ’90s-era Trek 970 bikes that a guy had restored in his garage. We didn’t know a thing about bicycles, but we liked what we saw; the bikes worked great and felt very nice to ride around the park–the fact that I also happened to ride through a floating cloud of Oak-processionary hairs would only become apparent the next day.

So we took our new old bikes home, and we started riding them around. We got into bicycle touring too around that time, and that’s worth an entire future post on its own for the joy it’s brought us, but for now I’d like to get back on track. See, I kept thinking about the guy we bought the bikes from. I don’t know if he did this as a hobby, side business, or what, but I became increasingly fascinated by the idea of fixing up and restoring old bicycles. As I said, at that time I didn’t know a thing about bikes; I couldn’t even change a brake cable, but I’d always wanted to pick up a hobby that would take me away from the computer, something that would get my hards dirty at the same time, so why not give this a try?

Back then I still had my previous bike too, gathering dust and cobwebs somewhere in the basement. It was a Cube Aim that I’d had for at least a decade and had practically never serviced. It worked like crap, but I suspected most of it was just lack of maintenance and proper adjustment. In fact, it was in a lot of ways a nicer bike than the one I’d just bought. So I set a goal for myself: I would take the bike apart, down to the last bolt; I would clean everything up, change whatever parts were broken, and put it back together again. After all, how hard could it be?

At its core, a bike is a very simple, very old machine. The basic operating principles have remained virtually unchanged since the first “safety bicycle” of the late 19th century: you push on the pedals to rotate a crank arm; a chain transfers the power to the rear sprockets; the sprockets turn the rear wheel. That’s it, that’s all there is to it; a wonderfully simple device that is nonetheless the single most energy-efficient mode of transportation humanity has come up with.

Of course, modern bikes are a lot more complicated than that: inflatable tires; the freewheel; derailleurs; suspension; hydraulic disk brakes; electric motors and electronic gear shifting. Every major technological advancement has brought with it increased safety, ease of use, and performance, at the cost of adding extra layers of complexity on top of the basic initial machine. It’s increasingly rare now for people to know how to repair their own bicycles, and bicycle mechanics themselves have more and more skills to learn if they want to keep on top of the fast changes in their field.

Which brings me back to my modest Cube. I grossly underestimated just how complex a task I’d set for myself, of course, but at the same time I also underestimated just how much I would love doing it. I had never considered myself mechanically inclined; my dad didn’t teach me much, and by that time I hadn’t yet truly internalized something that has since become one of my main mantras in life: what one man can do, another can do (by the way, if you haven’t watched The Edge yet, you really should). Thankfully, we live in glorious informational times that our forefathers didn’t even dream of. A trove of knowledge of incalculable value is available at the fingertips of every self-learner, and bicycle repair is no exception. YouTube channels like Park Tool or RJ The Bike Guy provide a visual, hands-on learning experience that is in my mind comparable to the tragically fading practice of apprenticeship. Internet forums like /r/bikewrench give one the ability to pick the brains of real-life professional mechanics (although, just like every other subreddit, it does have its idiots that one needs to learn to steer clear of), and no list of bike repair resources could be complete without mentioning the Bible, the website of the late Sheldown Brown. May he rest in peace.

Eventually, I finished the project. It didn’t go smoothly at all. On more than one occasion I realized I was missing some vital tool, or some tiny part that I hadn’t even known existed until I suddenly needed it–like cable ferrules, or a star nut–and without which the whole project ground to a halt. Nevertheless, the bike progressed, then finally it was done, and from that moment on I knew I was hooked. I’ve been working as a web developer since 2006. Coding has always been my great passion. I have literally lost count of the number of apps and projects I worked on for the past sixteen years. But let me tell you something: not a single launch has given me the same high, has been as memorable or as character-defining as rebuilding that cheap bicycle in 2020; I simply had to have more of it.

Almost two years have passed since then. I’ve rebuilt almost twenty more bikes in that time. I’ve learned to reliably build wheels, and I’ve become the go-to guy for bike repair in my circle of friends–and even for some folks who I didn’t even know before. There isn’t a single bicycle repair task that scares me anymore. I’ve gone from not being able to change a brake cable, to bravely taking apart complex components or hacking them for use-cases that they weren’t designed for. We have since sold the bikes we bought back in 2020, and both my wife and I are now riding bikes that I’ve built from scratch. The pride I feel when we go out on a ride cannot be overstated, and I love biking now more than I ever did as a result.

I realize this may sound overblown, but the changes this hobby has wrought in me go beyond just teaching me a fun and useful skill. Learning to fix bicycles has changed my outlook on manual labor, on the nature of work, and ultimately on life itself:

Thinking versus doing

Looking back, I realize I had a terribly naive perspective on manual labor. I lived with the misconception–drilled into me since childhood–that work can be neatly split into two categories: knowledge work and manual work; that there are those who think, and those who do, and by extension (and it greatly shames me to admit this) that there is a clear difference in value between the two.

I have since realized that the line that separates thinking from doing doesn’t actually exist; instead, the two are facets of the same coin, and neither can exist in isolation. This came to me when I noticed that there is just as much thinking going into solving a bike repair problem as there is in solving a bug in my code (and, incidentally, the same high when I finally crack it). I later ended up reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford; it was an eye-opening read that eloquently put into words a concept I had merely sniffed the edges of. I highly recommend you give it a read.

What one man can do, another can do

I touched on this a bit earlier in the text. I have a lot more courage now in tackling all sorts of repairs around the house, not just on bikes. This is because I now know that I have the capacity to learn the necessary skills, but more importantly, it’s because I’ve learned to look at objects and see them. Something has shifted inside me, and it has altered my perception of the world. Before, I used to look at an object and only see it on the surface; I saw the function it performed and nothing more. Now I see the bolts, the screws, the cables, the hinges, the motors, and I know that each one of those can be fixed or replaced independently of the object as a whole. Maybe this has always been obvious to you, but as I’ve already said, I didn’t learn much of this stuff growing up; it’s a failing I put on my shoulders and the shoulders of my father both, and it’s something I’m only truly making up for now, in the fourth decade of my life. Better late than never.

Tangibility, of objects and people

At work I build websites. Well, that’s not strictly true. I build web apps, I write unit tests, I manage databases, I architect and set up the cloud infrastucture, I set up continuous integration and continuous delivery pipelines, and sometimes I even help my colleagues fix the Docker setup on their machines. My daily conversations are peppered with such acronyms as PHP, TDD, CI, CD, K8s, SQL, JSON, AWS, GCP, CF, SSH, SSL, and on and on and on.

If you’re not an IT person, most of these words won’t mean anything to you, and therein lies my next point. Conceptually, it’s easier for humans to relate to occupations that produce something you can point a finger at. The further removed a person is from the results of their own work, the greater the disconnect they feel, and the greater the chance they’ll conclude they’re working in a bullshit job.

Now, I don’t actually believe I’m working a bullshit job. I don’t really believe they exist. I believe jobs provide value even when the value is not immediately, tangibly apparent. But I do believe in the disconnect that makes people feel this way, and I do believe that’s a distinct hallmark of the modern service-oriented industries. You’ll never hear a baker say their job is bullshit.

And it’s not just the tangible aspect of the work itself, either. The same can be said of the people who ultimately benefit from the work. Websites that I’ve built are being used right now by hundreds of thousands of people, yet for some reason I still feel I’m making a greater impact when I see a person ride away on a bike I’ve just repaired for them. It’s senseless, yet there it is.

If you'd like to get in touch, feel free to drop me a line. My email address is on the About page.