I learned how to ride a bike when I was 7, when my dad and Howie Stolz, beers and Rothmans in hand, took me and the Stolz kids to the top of a hill in a German campground, balanced us on our bikes and let us fly downhill. By the end of the weekend, knees embedded with gravel, we knew how to ride bikes.
My bike has been freedom, openness and adventure ever since. But despite riding for 45 years — 3500 km last year — I’ve never been able to keep it healthy and running myself. But I’m planning a solo, unsupported trip this summer in the Baltics, and I finally had to come face to face with learning basic bike repair. My 4.5 decade strategy of having reliable bikes, befriending people with skills, hoping for the best and knowing that I can always call someone to come and get me if things fall apart won’t work when I’m alone in Latvia and Estonia. So. I spent last Sunday in a one-on-one bike clinic with an amazing mechanic I met on the Bike Rally last year.
Alex is an excellent mechanic, a born teacher and just an all round lovely human. We spent 6.5 intense hours together, and I felt like my bike was slowly peeled apart and revealed for me. I was literally and emotionally given the tools to move into an empowered, more intimate relationship with it.
I’m not remotely mechanically inclined. I’m also a total klutz. I once punched myself in the mouth and made it bleed trying to put a tire back on after changing a flat. (I also recently dropped a cup of coffee in my work bag and destroyed all of my electronics, but that’s another story). So I’ve always engaged in bike maintenance with some indifference, a little fear, and a high sense of incompetence. I oil my chain and keep the tires pumped, can put a chain back on on a ride, and once adjusted my gear cables. But as much as possible, I outsource my bike care.
Until now. Last weekend, I learned and did a 7 point A-B-C-D safety check (an intense 2 hours), adjusted my brakes, learned how to adjust my gears using three different points on the bike, created and fixed a flat, fixed a broken chain, replaced a spoke and trued a wheel by carefully adjusting spokes. I completely changed a brake cable, adjusted the headset, and learned how to tape my handlebars.
Several times, I felt like the bike was inside out. We pulled the handlebars and stem RIGHT OFF the fork, and I felt actual anxiety when the handlebars and cables dangled down over the front. But I also *felt* my bike in completely new ways. By running my fingers down every cable and housing and threading them back into their slots, I felt like I was finding my bike’s veins. By pulling on the cables and derailleur gently and watching the gears shift, feeling the exact moment where the tension wasn’t perfect, I felt a new flow, the real connection between clicking the gear shifts and the bike’s response. Gently tightening and loosening to find one spoke after another until the wheel spun evenly was meditative, truth in my fingertips.
A bike is physics, and craft, and engineering, and magic. The spokes act in tension and compression to distribute the weight of the bike and the person as it moves forward without allowing the wheel to squish — but there is, apparently, still a debate about exactly how this works. Looking at the bearings on the inside of the wheel axle, I understood in my hips how balance happens when you’re pedaling. By feeling the layers of how the chain links slip effortlessly together, how to tighten them, I had a little physical sensation of movement.
There was a lot of laughing, and I had a lot of “ahas.” What felt scary and foreign became intimate. Alex taught me mountain biker tricks about how to get “back to camp” even when your bike has been, basically, run over by a car, by twisting spokes together and whacking the wheel back into something approximating round. She broke me of my lifelong habit of trying to adjust both sides of the quick release wheel at once when putting it back on, explaining that the little acorn nut is the only one that really moves, and you don’t have to worry about the balance. (This will change my life — I take my wheel off a LOT). She also explained that it’s my habit of changing trying to shift the gears too hard on hills that makes my chain fall off so often — that I should just look ahead and start out in a gear closer to something I can sustain. Changed. My. Life.
By the end of the day, I felt a tiny bit of shame that I had waited so long to try to understand my bike like this. It feels like I’ve taken my bikes for granted my whole life, deriving huge pleasure and trust in them without bothering to really get to know them. Feeling a bike from the inside out, gaining intimacy and familiarity with parts I’ve literally never looked at — it makes me feel like I’m honouring what my bikes have given me. Bikes are miracles and deserve care. And knowing how to listen differently, know what that noise means, how to respond to things that could go wrong out in the world, how to care for the parts — makes me feel more intrepid, like anything is possible.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto where she works as an educator and strategic change consultant in academic healthcare and other socially accountable spaces. She blogs here on the second Friday of every month. If you’re interested in deepening your own relationship with your bike, leave a comment and she will hook you up with Alex, who does freelance coaching and repair instruction and riding skills workshops — and is awesome. (Alex is also reachable on twitter at @legslegum).