Monday, October 27, 2008

Fish, trees and brakes: guess the connection

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
(Chinese Proverb).

Now here's a shameful confession from someone who has cycled to work almost every day for the last 10 years: I have practically no bicycle maintenance skills.

Naturally, I blame my parents (or rather my grandparents). My Dad never learned to ride a bike, and girls in my Mum's generation were not taught such dirty mechanical things as how to fix a puncture or change a wheel. Growing up we didn't even have a pump in the house, and I had to go to my friend's house to get her Dad to do even the smallest of repairs.

When I started to commute by bike in Glasgow, I had a series of crappy old rustbuckets that I bought second-hand, and swapped for slightly less crappy and rusty models when the repair bills started to cost more than the bike. I did learn to fix punctures though, a more or less monthly occurrence on my glass-strewn (but pretty) river-canal-woods route.

I'm on my second Canadian bike now, both bought new. And I have spent a lot of money on fish, or rather extravagant repair bills at various local bike shops.

But no more!

After a lovely long spell of dry autumn weather, during which I was taking my time on my commute and admiring the trees,

My route takes me along the Eastern edge of Queen Elizabeth Park

it started to rain again. Approaching a major intersection at the bottom of a steep hill, and realising that my brakes were not going to cope with the wet oily road, I put my feet down to avoid sliding out into traffic and decided that it was about time I learned to change my own brake pads.

And I knew exactly where to go for my fishing lesson.

The last time I needed new brake pads (hey, I ride down lots of hills in idiotic traffic; I burn through them pretty quickly), I wandered into what looked like any other bike store, hoping to drop my bike off, go for brunch with my friends, and pick up my fixed bike later that weekend. It was not to be... turns out Our Community Bikes operates on a completely different model. They provide stands, tools, and advice, and teach you to fix your bike yourself.

Unfortunately I was not looking for such a service on that particular occasion, but they did agree to fix my brakes while I had brunch. I came back to find that "my" technician was doing some pretty extreme multitasking, helping about four other people with their own fixes, and was only about halfway through. So I waited, and waited, and waited, and then got a very stern lecture about how dirty my chain and gears were. (Apparently "it's a theft deterrent" is not a valid excuse). Slightly disgruntled, I paid up and went home.

But this time I knew what to expect. I spent an hour at home, cleaning my bike, and headed (carefully) downhill to learn how to fish.

I got the last available stand in the crowded shop, and signed up for the "help me a lot" option. Well, apparently I hadn't cleaned my bike well enough, and I was instructed to scrub all the road gunk off my wheel rims with rubbing alcohol and a rag. One hour and much elbow grease later, I was ready to actually start.

Turns out it's actually pretty easy to remove the old pads and put the new ones on. My friendly mechanic showed me what to do, and I got stuck in, feeling all important with my array of tools and filthy hands. However I fell apart at the fine-tuning stage. Each time I summoned my multitasking mechanic to check my work (which took up to 15 minutes a time; he was crazy busy), the pads were set too wide and I had to reverse the nuts and bolts to bring them closer to the rim; or they were slightly too high; or my angle was slightly off.

Eventually (like about three hours after I arrived at the store), I was done! Filthy and with tired crampy desk-jockey hands, but done!

All my own work

At this point the mechanic pointed out that the "noodle" that guides the brake cable into the rear brake was too long, and was introducing a slight kink to the cable. No problem, their extensive stock of used parts included a shorter noodle.

Unfortunately, as I was threading the cable through the noodle, I somehow managed to shred the outer layer.

An hour later I was even more filthy, frustrated, with very tired very crampy desk-jockey hands and ready to go home, but I also knew how to change a brake cable.

I cashed out, using the notes I'd kept of how much time I'd spent working by myself ($5 per hour), working under verbal instruction ($10 per hour), and having hands-on help ($15 per hour). Including new parts (brake pads and cable) and some used bits and pieces, my total came to less than $50 - a bargain!

My four hours in the shop were sometimes frustrating, but always interesting. Most people in there were of the "alternative", build-your-own-fixed-gear-bike-from-used-parts crowd, but there was a great sense of community and several people stopped to chat to me or offer advice, despite my Gap jeans and hybrid commuter bike. I also saw a very clean-cut guy being taught how to fix a puncture, with hands-on help from his filthy-but-thrilled young daughter, which made me smile.

If previous experience is any guide, I shall be back in a few months and changing my brake pads again with (hopefully) minimal guidance. I will also probably need to learn how to fix a broken pedal shaft, bottom bracket / rear axle, and gear system at some point in the next couple of years. But for now I can ride downhill with confidence and get on with enjoying the trees.

More trees. I am a little bit obsessed right now (see Facebook for more photos). This block is approaching legendary status; I've seen two or three other people taking photos in the last couple of weeks, and two pedestrians, three cyclists and one guy in a car stopped while I was taking my own shots to express variations on "isn't it fabulous?" You should see it at dusk with the streetlights coming on behind the trees (my photography skills do not stretch so far as to do it justice).


  1. What a great idea for a shop! I wish I had thought of it. I will definitely check them out the next time I need to do some maintenance.

    I agree that the trees are amazing. I love our street at the moment, despite the grumpy stata members who want to cut the trees down as it takes too much work. Some people are just made of Humbug :).

  2. Yeah, they're great! Apparently it's quieter on rainy days!

    I hope you win the battle with the grumps. I was devastated today to see the trees opposite my building being torn up to make way for the (admittedly very important) new facility that is going up. Couldn't they have moved them to Stanley Park or something? There were lots of big mature trees there.

  3. Crap. Didn't realize DrDrA had already tagged you, but what the heck:


  4. I've never, in all my years of living on the Wet Coast seen trees this red - it's amazing!

    I celebrated by taking a vacation day and going for a three hour walk along the seawall - I have lots of photos too!

  5. Isn't it amazing? Everyone is talking about it. Something to do with the warm, dry weather in early autumn apparently.

  6. You are awesome - I'm impressed by your masterful repair skills and by the gorgeous photos. :)

  7. I realized what was wrong this weekend. It is cold now, we had like 3 C this morning but the trees are still all green.... it does not really feel like fall since the trees are green and the few leaves that have fallen are yellow/green.... no red as far as the eye can see....

    the photos are beautiful!! I am envious once again.

    Id better stop being evious and love the place I am in, right?! ;)

  8. How I miss the fall colors! I guess that's what I pay for still wearing a t-shirt!

  9. That's good stuff - well done!!

    I, despite much cycling, have little in the way of repair skills also. I can do brakes and punctures and know that the rims must be kept very clean to minimize break wear (not that this translates into rims being actually clean), but aside from that I have little knowledge so I'm probably going to sign up to a maintenance clinic run by my friendly bike shop. It annoys me I don't know how to adjust the cables or the gears - it can't be rocket science surely?

  10. I need to get such lessons too. My dad never showed me - he has great skills but has not much patience with ignoramus shuch as me...

  11. Good on you! Despite having used a bike a my main mean of transport for more than 25 years, I don't even know how to fix a puncture. Strangely enough I don't mind fixing things around the house but for some reason the bike has always been the responsibility of father, various boy friends or when in lack of those, various competent bike repair shops... I never really felt bad about it but maybe I should?!

  12. Wow, those are some gorgeous trees! They have a similar store in LA.

    I am extremely bike-phobic though, so I don't anticipate owning a bike anytime soon. I learnt to ride a bike in suburbia, and I just can't imagine riding a bike through London traffic.

  13. I'm rather impressed. I bought a book a while back on bike maintenance, but somehow I feel that hands-on learning would be better. (Especially because I wouldn't have even known that the brake cable was too long!)

    The photos are beautiful. I wish the trees changed to that color here, too.

  14. Thanks post-doc! We'll see how impressive I am when I have to do it again... if lab work is any guide, I need a couple of supervised run throughs before I master a new technique!

    Chall and ScienceGirl, I am a true Northern child; I couldn't cope with Southern summers and I love the autumn and the trees! (And the snow!). I don't even mind rain too much. I just don't like the long dark nights in winter. Apart from that I'm living in the right place!

    Dr J, it depends on how good you are with detail. I had no problem with the big chunky stuff, but like I said the fine tuning was a problem.

    I will definitely be cleaning my wheel rims more often!

    Stepwise and Lisbeth, isn't it funny how that happens? I consider myself to be a feminist but this was always a case of "I'll pay a man to do that for me". My liberation continues - at the weekend I pressure washed the front steps and path, getting filthy and soaked in the process, while my husband stayed inside and washed the dishes! Yay!

    Ruchi, I wouldn't ride in London either! Maybe you could take a train trip out to the countryside and rent one though! Oh and my sister says the London park trees are looking nice too.

    Amanda, I have a book too, but you're right, hands-on learning is so much more effective.

  15. it is so beautiful isn't it! monkey was sick over the weekend so we couldn't hit the pumpkin patch. I am totally debating taking a day off just to take him.

  16. that is the COOLEST idea for a bike shop!! I'd totally go there to get the equipment, like not have to have my own bike stand or truing stand or anything. it's a pain to buy all the tools.

    if you ever want to do stuff on your own without going to the shop, i highly recommend sheldon brown's website, who is like a god of cycling maintenance (who sadly passed away recently). He gets down into the NITTY GRITTY.

    Fortunately, Mr. PhizzleDizzle read the whole website, then taught me how to do almost everything (I'm better with hands-on learning) and now I consider myself a reasonable bike mechanic!!!

    Self-sufficiency is a beautiful thing :).

    And your photos are byooooo-tiful.

  17. omg! it is absolutely gorgeous where you live! so jealous! post more pictures, k?

  18. ScientistMother, you should totally do it!

    PhizzleDizzle, thanks for the link, I will check it out! Sounds like you could give me a lesson or two!

    Crystal, thanks! There are lots of photos already up, check out the "photos" tag on this post. Every year I mean to take photos of the spring cherry blossom, and I always forget, but I will hopefully remember next year!


I promise to respond to all respectful non-spam comments! Don't be shy! Oh, and please don't type my surname in your comments; I know you all know what it is, but I'd prefer Google to rank other pages before this blog.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.