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Bike Maintenance Is a Feminist Issue

Anatomy of a bike.
Anatomy of a bike.

My road bike still scares and intimidates me a bit for a few different reasons. One of the biggies is that I don’t know a lot about how to take care of it. I had an embarrassing moment about a week ago when I couldn’t figure out how to put air in the tires.

You’d think it’s obvious. Put the pump on the thing and start pumping. It worked like that last fall, didn’t it? I posted to FB and tagged a few people whom I thought could help me, including Sam and her partner, Jeff. Jeff came through pretty quickly with, “Did you unscrew the valve?” Me, “What valve?”

I went out and had a second look. Sure enough, road bikes have a little thing on the air valve that you need to unscrew to pump up the tire and then screw back on when you’re done. And I don’t mean the cap. I know about the cap. No, this is a different thing that screws up and down at the tip of the air valve.

Me: “Oh!”

Then there were the responses to my query about bike racks for the car.  The most popular comment was: you don’t need a rack if you’re just taking your bike and perhaps one other.  You can just take off the front wheel and stick the bike in the car.

Take off the front wheel, you say?  But I don’t know how to take off the front wheel. [That was then]

So as you can see, my bike knowledge is, let’s just say, limited. This might be okay if I’m just commuting here and there around town on my sturdy commuter bike. I’m never so far from home that I would be totally stranded.

But if I’m doing the bike leg of a triathlon, or riding with a group who I don’t want to hold up, I better know something about the bike. Like how to fix a flat, for example. Until Saturday, I would have been kind of stuck, or at least thoroughly dependent on the good will of others, if my tire went flat while I was out on the road.

This makes me feel a bit more dependent than I like to feel, which is why I think bike maintenance is a feminist issue of sorts. I’m not averse to asking for help, or to accepting it if it’s offered. And I think there are some things that require specialized knowledge and skill, and I’m okay with that.  Basic, day to day bike maintenance isn’t one of them.

What changed on Saturday? I attended “Bike Maintenance 101” at our local MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op–love it!). Sam emailed me a link about it  a few days after the tire pumping and bike rack queries (she’s subtle that way). Before Saturday, the only thing I ever did to maintain my bikes was to put air in the tires. Maybe, if it was a messy day, I’d run a rag over the frame to get rid of the grit.  But I didn’t pay much attention to what’s called the drive train.

On Saturday, I learned that this is without question the most important part of the bike!  Who knew? (lots of people, apparently).  And it doesn’t just need to be repaired when somethings goes wrong. No.  It requires constant attention.

Back in the fall Sam told me she cleans her bike (the nice one anyway; not sure about the commuter bike) after every ride. This struck me as going overboard but I didn’t say anything. But the bike mechanic guy, Trevor, who ran the workshop at MEC also cleans his bike after every ride.

So, first new habit I need to integrate into my biking life: regular cleaning and maintenance of the parts of the bike that make it go: chain rings, derailleurs, chain, and a few other essential bits.

I arrived at MEC to find a semi-circle of chairs set up near the front of the store with a bike up on a repair stand in the middle. We had eight men and five women in our session. Other than myself, who asked a ton of questions, there were a lot of very vocal men, happy to jump in to answer them.

The main lesson was about chain cleaning, which you can do with a rag and oil if you do it every time you take the bike out, or with a special gizmo and chain cleaning solution if you let things build up.  I’ve never cleaned or even considered cleaning a bike chain before in my life. Honestly, I’ve never even added lubricant to my bike chain before.

That might have been okay before, when I had a $200 bike. But now I have two bikes that are a lot more expensive than that, so I’m going to do the chain cleaning thing. You use a brush to get the grit off, and a rag to wipe it down. You can use one of those things that you clamp onto your chain. Here’s what it looks like:

Bike chain cleaning tool from MEC.
Bike chain cleaning tool from MEC.

Trevor gave us a handout with a detailed anatomy of a bike and a “beginner’s home shop checklist.” It was a very long list that included spare tubes (check — I have ONE spare tube), tire levers (not sure if I have that), a patch kit (got it), a pump with a gauge (got it), various tools and cleaning supplies and three kinds of lube (wet, dry–said to be optional–, and grease).

The clinic was a bit haphazard, truth be told.  He kept asking whether there was anything specific that we wanted to know. After the basic drive train maintenance (you don’t just clean it, you also have to lube it regularly to keep it moving smoothly, and not overdo it or the oil will splatter all over the wheel. You’re also supposed to check your chain from time to time to make sure it’s not stretching out — I will leave that to the bike shop when I take the bikes in for tune-ups), and a demo about how to take the front wheel off, I asked about repairing a flat.

For me, that was the highlight. I know there’s a ton of info available on YouTube the shows all sorts of things, but seeing it done right in front of me where I could ask questions demystified it for me. I do think that’s something I can learn how to do. They recommended practicing removing the wheel and loosening the tire from the rim a few times. Not only will that make me more efficient, but it makes it easier to work with the tire after a few times.  Only thing is: beware of pinch punctures–that’s when the tube gets caught between the rim and the tire and gets a hole in it.

Yes, this is a very random list of what was taught and what I learned.  I feel slightly more independent about my bike.  I don’t have a partner who can help me out with this (e.g. when I couldn’t figure out how to put air in the tires Renald said I should take the bike to the shop; he’s a lot better with sailboats).  I also feel in a better position to care for my bikes in the way they deserve to be cared for.

I do feel that bike maintenance is a bit of a guy thing. The men at the workshop were more vocal and more hands on than the women. In fact, besides me, only one of the other women even asked any questions. Responding to this tendency for the men to dominate, there’s a group in Toronto called Wenches with Wrenches. They offer bike repairs for women, by women. And they have workshops.  I don’t know of anything like it in London, but I can see why it would be a good thing.

After the clinic I took the shopping list in hand and it felt overwhelming. I re-grouped in the clothing section and chose a new jersey. I had no idea what I already had in my patch kit at home, so I thought I should check. I bought a multi-tool, which I turned out to have already in my road bike patch kit. I tossed it into my commuter panier. You never know when you’re going to need a screwdriver or an allen key.  I also bought some lube.  I will acquire other things based on what I end up feeling I need once I get into maintaining my bike and what others recommend to me as essential tools.

With this basic knowledge in my repertoire now it’s probably time for me to get on my road bike. I’ve not even had it out once this season yet and the clock is ticking towards the Cambridge Triathlon on June 15th.

The bottom line is: my bike will be in good shape between more significant tune-ups at the shop and I will not be a damsel in distress at the side of the road if I get a flat. I can do this.

15 thoughts on “Bike Maintenance Is a Feminist Issue

  1. You’re funny! And no, the commuter bike doesn’t get much in the way of cleaning. Could use more.

    And I only clean the good bike every time I ride it in the spring. The roads are covered in grit and crap and it gets everywhere. Once the roads are clear and the weather is better I’ll just do it on the weekend after my long ride.

  2. Oooh, your kit might have a tire lever, but if you need to buy one, splurge on the Crank Bros Speed Lever ($4 US). SO MUCH FASTER, imo. Might not fit in smaller seat bags, though.

  3. I am really glad you got so much out of the session at MEC! I teach that one at the Calgary MEC (7:30 on Friday nights) and it’s one of my favourite things about my job. I firmly believe that learning how to care for your bike, and learning how to deal with flat tires, are deeply empowering; I’ve met too many people (men and women, but sadly mostly women) who limit how far they ride or when they ride, out of fear they might have to call someone to pick them up. Calling for help is totally okay, but it’s nice to have it as a *option* rather than a necessity.

    And when you understand how your bike is supposed to work, it’s easier to pick up on things that aren’t working quite right, and address them before they become big problems. You also end up being better able to separate bike issues from your own ability/strength/etc; a lot of women blame themselves (“I’m in bad shape, I suck at cycling, I’m a wimp”) for problems that actually belong in the realm of “your bike is a rusted-out hulk” or even just “your bike could use a tune-up because the brake is dragging on the wheel and you can’t shift out of the second chainring.”

    (Conversely, men seem much more likely to blame the bike for problems that are not actually mechanical in origin).

    Bike maintenance is totally a feminist issue. I seem to have accidentally ended up in the front lines of this particular battle, but I have to admit I really, REALLY enjoy messing with people’s perceptions of when a bike mechanic looks like and what she does 😀

    (I am a young-looking 40, and I do present a fairly traditionally feminine appearance, with long hair and jewellery. This is quite deliberate).

    1. Thanks for this. I would LOVE to have you as my bike mechanic. I don’t know of any bike mechanics who are women here in London. I think busting stereotypes like that goes a long way to showing other women that they can do it, and showing everyone that this is not a male-only domain. Ride on!

  4. I’ve been there. I had a flat the day before I was to do the bike leg of a rather tough triathlon and even though I knew technically how to fix it I hadn’t changed a tube entirely by myself before. I did fine but I spent most of the ride the next anxiously thinking that I had screwed up and I was going to get a flat on the course.
    Another time I was out riding by myself and got a flat on my back tire, oh no!!! So much more complicated. After a bit of trial and error I got my new tube in and the tire back on the bike. I felt so triumphant! I began pumping and my pump just cracked apart. Thank goodness for cell phones and nice friends who will pick you up on a moment’s notice.
    Now I’m looking into using the CO2 cartridges. I’ve had two pump malfunctions so far and need another solution.

  5. Is it a guy thing, bike maintenance? Depends on the guy. I’ve ridden with some university men who were squeamish about getting bike grease on their hands. It’s also a class thing. I think the same thing about car maintenance and changing flats. I know some men who were annoyed that their fathers never taught them basics about tools and repair but their dads were proud that their sons wouldn’t have to do that.

    I blogged a bit about tool phobia here, http://fitisafeministissue.com/2013/09/28/wenches-wrenches-and-tool-phobia/

  6. Great blog post, Tracy.
    I carry a pump and Co2 cartridges for puncture repair. This is for speed and redundancy on longer rides.
    But I carry a lot of ‘ just in case ‘ supplies on my bike…just ask Sam.

  7. Excellent post! Your last two sentences are brilliant.

    Had a pinch flat from a cavernous post-winter pothole yesterday on the way home, in fact. Normally I’m up for changing a tire, but for various complicated reasons I had no tire lever or toolkit with me yesterday. And the tube had been winter-schmutz-bonded to the tire inside, and the tire was a really tight fit on the rim. Then it turned out my pump wasn’t working either. Then it started to rain. If I’d had a cell phone I’d definitely have called home for a lift, to be honest, but when I started thinking about trudging up to the stripmall to find a payphone, I just got bloody-minded about it and decided I would have a wrestle with the thing. Long story short, the process took a wee bite out of one of my fingers, but I took the pump apart, put a thing that looked like it belonged on another thing back on that thing, put it back together, discovered it would then at least gently exhale some air, got the tire changed, and nursed the bike home gingerly with about 20 lbs pressure in the tire. Anyhow, the point is: the know-how wasn’t the whole story — the bloodymindedness played a load-bearing role, and was barely sufficient to the occasion. So I think you’re right to flag not only the knowledge you acquired, but your “I can do this” approach. Good luck!

  8. Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I still don’t know how to change a flat tire even though I’ve been shown several times and have observed several other women friend cyclists, change bike tube when they got a flat when I was with them. And cycling has been my daily lifestyle for over last 20 years.

    Ok: I found a friggin’ floor bike pump where I didn’t have to wear out my 100 lb. body weight on the pump. Thank God. Last time, I broke the tire valve. Well, duh.

    I personally know a few women who have taken their bike completely apart. I mean completely and put it back together again.

    Shall we make this feminist also?
    a) Lift and carry a bike up a steep, long flight of stairs. I just can’t do that since I’m short and don’t have a carbon bike.
    b) Studded bike winter tires -enough said.
    c) Lifting your bike into and out of a bus bike rack while the whole bus of passengers watches you. Practice this once or twice and you’re fine.
    d) Biking with weighted panniers front and back. (It amuses me that racer cyclists are so freaked out just to even have a saddle wee bag.)

    In the end, if one cycles often, daily….it is just easier to talk about cycling with other men and women.

    I’m a true cyclist, because…I only carry a real purse less than 10 times annually. I don’t lust after $150.00 leather purse, I lust after $200.00+ pair of Arkel bike panniers. (made in Quebec).

    1. Jean, I would never question your credentials as a true cyclist or as a feminist! Thanks for adding to the list.

      1. 🙂 If this would comfort any cycling women here:

        My partner who built his own farm house, has a civil engineering degree, doesn’t actually like changing bike tires. But he will do it, but not with huge enthusiasm. He is a lifestyle, commuter and touring cyclist. Today he just finished swapping studded winter tires for road tires…it took him over 45 min. He wondered if he had pinched a rubber edge somewhere..

        This is why I don’t beat up myself for being overly klutzy about bike tire changes. Otherwise, a lot of women would not cycle far in their own city if they worried too much about changing a flat tire.

  9. I always tell people to pick an evening, bring their bike inside, and practice taking the wheels off and changing the tires, over and over and over. Drill the muscle memory so that you aren’t trying to figure out what you’re doing when you’re cold, wet, stressed, and late (or in the middle of a triathlon).

    Nobody is born knowing how to do anything on a bike. We all have to learn, and practice. For some people it will come more easily than for others, and there will be a lot of different reasons for that, but I firmly believe it is possible for everyone to get there in the end.

    1. That’s excellent advice and I should follow it. I never get to change my own flats b/c I’m not the fastest and the group is anxious to get moving. That’s fine. I’m good with that. I carry a pump, spare tubes, and CO2 cartridge. But I should practice.

      1. Even if 9/10 times someone else will change it for me, I wouldn’t want to be DNF in a race because I couldn’t take care of my own flat.

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