Grit, part 2: taking charge of my own bike

Last week, I wrote about our cycling trip to Newfoundland, which was, as Sam put it, an “immersive experience.”  The riding was tough but all consuming, the land was gorgeous, and the overall effect was to lift us completely out of the things that dominate our daily lives.

In my post, I called the force that takes over in this kind of experience “grit” — the dig-deep, find-your-animal kind of movement.  Finding that grit also gave me the push to tackle something I’ve been avoiding my whole life:  putting my bike back together after we got home.

I think of myself as a pretty committed bike rider, ever since I first got on a bike when I was 7 and took off for independent explorations.  But one thing I’ve never been confident about was the mechanics of it all.  I’m going to confess something now that I can’t believe I’m going to admit:  as much as I fight this, I have a deep-rooted inner dialogue — a barely conscious bias — that fixing your bike isn’t something girls do.  In my queer landscape, this translates into “this is a butch thing” — and I have a story that it’s not something I can do.

The bonkers thing is, I happily do many things that can be described as “butch” things — I have power tools, I drill things, I assemble things, I lift heavy things, I chop wood, I climb ladders and fences to hang things, I rewire light fixtures, I fondly stroke visible muscles on my legs and arms.  There is no other area of my life where I make an internal division between masculine/feminine things and decide that I “can’t do” the masculine thing.  (Well, except for wearing a tux or a masculine-cut suit — I do not suit this look).

I know this about myself, and have fought it — but the bike mechanics thing is my nemesis.  Two years ago, I spent a day doing a one-on-one basic bike mechanics course with an excellent not-male bike mechanic, and I have all the tools and manuals and good intentions.  But even doing that, my quiet internal story was, “oh, if my bike breaks on the road, I can always get someone to take me to a bike shop.”

Here is another confession:  I have never replaced a tube.  I know *how*, and I have assisted at many, but the one time I tried to do it on my own — about 20 years ago — I wrestled with the tire jacks getting the tired back on and ended up punching myself in the mouth and then taking it to the corner bike shop.

I expressed some of this anxiety on our first night in NFLD when we were eating dinner before tackling the assembly of my bike (I was the last to arrive).  I had paid my bike shop to pack mine up for shipping, with the rationalization that it was a brand new bike and they could tweak some things at the same time.  And now I had a bike-in-a-box that I had to ride 92 km the next day.  “It’s so surprising you have this anxiety,” said Sam or Sarah or Susan.  “I KNOW!” I said.  “So who’s going to help me put it together?”

Sarah led the putting of my bike together, while I held things and encouraged her, and Sam sat on the folding camp chair and read us what we were going to do the next day until the mosquitoes drove her inside.  (Susan quite handily put her own bike together).

Sarah and I had a few confusing moments because the disk brakes with thru axles made putting my back wheel back on a bit weird — but I just thought, “oh Sarah’s an engineer, she’ll figure this out.”  Letting go of the accountability altogether.


When I rode the bike around the parking lot to test it out, it felt like magic. My bike was in pieces, and now it was a bike again. A magic a “person like me” wasn’t capable of.

At some point during our trip, when I was singing the praises of my new bike, Sam asked if I’d start bringing my own bike when I traveled instead of renting. “Yes!” I said.  But my anxious inner dialogue was: but I’ll never be able to put it together myself.

Somewhere amid all the road and emotional grit of our ride, that anxiety transformed into determination. On the night before we left, I first asked Sarah to help me again, to pack my bike up this time.. Then something clicked and I thought, I’ll just see how far I get.

Packing up the bike behind our motel room wasn’t super fun. The foam wrapping bits kept flying around the parking lot, the case kept falling shut on my head, and I struggled to figure out how to get the back wheel to drop out. Figuring out exactly how to pack it in the rented case was a bit of a puzzle, and it didn’t look as tidy as it had when my bike shop did it.  And found myself adjusting some cable that wanted to poke out when I had to open it at the airport security the next day. But I did it.


(Those are Susan’s wheels in the background).

IMG_9148The whole flight home, I had a thrum of anxiety. Was it safe? Could I put it back together? Or would I do something irrevocable and ruin my perfect, intrepid companion Gudridor?

The case arrived intact, but I put off opening it for two days.  Then, suddenly, I was determined. So were the cats.

The process was not… simple.  It was all unfamiliar, like trying to cook in someone else’s kitchen with random utensils picked up by the side of the road.  I found the fork weirdly slidey, and then I put it on backwards (which I didn’t realize until much later).  The front wheel went on fine, and then… the back wheel.


The chain looked like this –>

Just in case you’re not familiar with bikes, it’s not supposed to look like that.

I cannot overstate how long it took me to unravel the mystery of this looped chain (a thing that apparently happens when you let your chain go slack).  There were texts to Sarah, a youtube video she found for me, a phone call with my brother in law, and some unhelpful advice from my neighbour as I sweated over it in the hot sun on my terrace.  (“Your hands are really dirty!” he observed).

Three clues got me through it:  Sarah’s assurance that if I hadn’t taken the chain off to screw it up, I wouldn’t have to take it off to fix it; the cute british guy in the video telling me it meant up had become down and vice versa; and my brother in law saying, start with the derailleur and then go from there.

I finally got the chain set to rights, and then wrestled with the back wheel, trying to figure out where the eff I actually needed to stick the cogs into the chain to make it all work.

Sarah suggested I look at my road bike to see how *that* situation all worked.

Literally for more than an hour, I had my road bike and my touring bike up on their faces in my living room, trying to figure out just how to move the derailleur — surprisingly sproingy! — to get the wheel on.

My brother in law tried to walk me through it on the phone, but he was calling me from his motorcycle, which I disapproved of, so I decided to give up.  I sat on the couch and had a gin and tonic and looked at my upended bike for a while.  Then I went to bed.

Sarah texted me to ask if I’d fixed it.  I admitted I’d given up.

But something clicked.  I didn’t want to be that person.

I got up, stripped off my jammies, put on the grease-streaked gloves, and within three minutes, found the correct angle.

Click, whirrrrrrrr, flllllllk.

That was when I noticed the front and back brakes were on different sides, and the front wires were twisty — how could I not notice this?   I unscrewed the handlebars, flipped the fork around to the right direction, put on the seat — and there it was.  A bike, again.


The next day, I rode it 20 km.  It worked.  I made a bike.

Grit. Getting under your skin and dislodging old, useless stories.



Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here two or three times a month, and who knows she should take the wheel on and off a whole bunch of times just to feel really confident.  She’s working up to that.



5 thoughts on “Grit, part 2: taking charge of my own bike

  1. Yes! Doing it yourself is so different than watching. Good job and it’ll be easier next time.

  2. I’m still a little bit in shock given how much you ride alone. Do you just not get flats? Curious. Also it totally doesn’t match my image of you. Glad you found your bike assembling grit.

    1. I know! In the last 10 years two of the flats I’ve had have been on my city bike and both were total blowouts after collisions where I needed a new tire/ new wheel. The only flat on my road bike happened when I was pulling it out to take it in for a tuneup anyway. I had the same tubes for 9 years.

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