Tag Archives: bicycle maintenance
Perhaps it’s just me but I’ve never had the least objection to having mudguards on my bicycle. In fact, I rather like the look of them. Having them there speaks of purpose and preparation and the fact that your bicycle represents to you a genuine vehicle, a means of transportation as opposed to a piece of sporting equipment, ready for use in all winds and weathers, and able to take you wherever you want to go.
I don’t have mudguards on my Pegoretti – that’s true – but then that’s a different case; I’ve never regarded the Pegoretti as transportation but a delightful bit of escapism on fine spring mornings when the hills of the Sussex weald beckon. All my other bicycles, however, going back thirty years at least, have all had mudguards.
Aside from rounding out the open road aesthetics of a tourer, mudguards (or fenders if you’re an American) are an extremely practical accessory and not just for keeping slush and grit off yourself, and anyone else who might be riding behind you. They protect your bicycle. All that yucky puddle water that gets flicked up by your tyres as you roll down a wet street can make a mess of your drive train. It is gritty and dirty, contaminated by salt and diesel. And once it gets flicked onto your chain your pedalling action will ensure that it gets worked right into the bushings and spread around the whole system.
It needn’t happen; a set of mudguards can solve that problem. To be sure, not every bike is designed to take mudguards – the tyre clearances on road bikes can be especially tight if you are trying to fit mudguards in there too, but these days there are plenty of options designed to work around all that. Crud Road Racers (rrp £29.99) are one option that immediately spring to mind. SKS are another. German made and unbreakable, they are the Rolls Royce of mudguards and come in a wide range of fittings to suit all kinds of bikes. I have had a pair of full-length SKS Chromoplastics (their flagship model; rrp £32.99) on my Thorn eXp tourer/winter bike for thirteen years now and although they are badly worn by now and look like hell, they are still functional.
Another option, costlier but more stylish, are the stainless steel mudguards from Gilles Berthoud. These ooze quality (at a price rrp €38.90) and better still can be fitted with an optional Gilles Berthoud oil-impregnated leather flap (rrp €19.20) that is extremely effective in keeping anything out of your drive train (alas, you cannot use these handsome sturdy leather flaps with other brands of mudguards; they fit only Gilles Berthoud mudguards) To be sure, they are a luxury, one I pursued when I specced out my bespoke randonneur. I have not regretted it. For a special bike they are a great fusion of style and functionality. You can get even fancier ones. For carbon fibre aficionados and weight weenies, Gilles Berthoud even make (or at least they did make) a lovely set of carbon fibre mudguards as well. I cannot find them at present appear on Gilles Berthoud’s website, so perhaps they’ve stopped making them, but I still see them listed in America for a princely $US289.
An expensive indulgence, these latter ones perhaps, but if you’re going to ride your bike through the winter, or regularly in the rain, the savings in drive train wear make mudguards a worthwhile investment – and once you learn to see the beauty, you’ll see they add character and style as well.
Winter bikes certainly don’t have it easy. As I sat on the train this morning, with my old Thorn eXp I found myself passing the time looking over its very hard-used, high-mileage components and wishing I had the means to give the bike the makeover it deserves after all these years (13) and miles (well over 80,000). I was taking the train to Tunbridge Wells, to a bicycle shop there called Wildside where I hoped to have the threads on the drive side crank repaired. Some weeks ago now on my morning ride along the Bexhill seafront the pedal came loose on that side, the threads having apparently been stripped.
Just how the threads came to be stripped remains something of a mystery, although I suspect a great deal of the blame can be sheeted home to a certain bicycle shop in Islington, since they were the last ones to have had the pedals off and I already know, from painful experience, that the mediaeval workmanship they performed on the bike when they gave it their gold-star service was dangerously bad.
This ghastly servicing was some time ago, though, and so I bear some degree of responsibility for 1) not checking that the goof ball they had tinkering on my bike put the pedals on properly and 2) not taking the pedals off myself in the intervening period and re-greasing the threads as one should do every year. Had I done so I feel certain I would have spotted the problem and remedied it. I didn’t and evidently have been riding around on pedals that were either cross-threaded or had been installed with no grease on the threads which in turn over the course of the seasons and through a process of electrolyses allows the aluminium crank and the steel spindle of the pedal to ‘weld’ themselves together and seize. Whatever the reason, the threads were ripped right out of the crank.
Although I had bought a new replacement crank I was loath to get rid of my old Shimano crank from the late 1990s, a cold forged aluminium beauty made for square tapered bottom brackets in the days when things were built to last. So as a last ditch effort I called up Wildside in Tunbridge Wells, about whom I had heard good things, and asked their guy if he could get the pedal out and re-thread the crank with a helicoil – something I am simply not equipped at home to do. He said they’d give it a go. I took it up there and – bingo! He sorted it. The good old original pedal is on the good old original crank, and the whole seems good for another few years. Alas, not so my old Suntour cantilever brakes, whose spring on the right front arm snapped leaving the brake pad pressed against the rim. I have spares here at home and can fix this, but as I cast appraising eyes over the rest of the components – too tinged with rust and grime for my liking, and with nobody to blame for that but me, I find myself itching to take it all to pieces, strip it down, replace the old rusty drop-outs, have it re-sprayed with a jaunty new livery and build it up again, respectfully, lovingly, with the components it deserves after so many years of long faithful service – but alas, there is no money and no time, and as autumn closes in and the rains come one more, I will be calling upon it once more to carry me through another English winter.
Following on from yesterday’s thoughts about winterising bicycles and sealed cable systems for brakes and gears, and in keeping with the motif of the Alaskan fishing village where I happen to be at present, I thought I would make mention of some really good all-weather rim-brake pads: Koolstop Salmons.
I tried them for the first time a couple of winters ago and have been really impressed with their wet-weather performance, their modulation and durability, especially given all the slippery-yet abrasive gunk that seems to collect on rims when you ride a lot on lumpy, puddle-strewn English country lanes. They really do a superb job of stopping you – noticeably better than standard Shimano or Campagnolo pads that come with the brakes, and which the manufacturers prefer you to buy. As I say, they are especially good in the wet.
By the way, the ‘Salmon’ in the name refers to the pinkish colour of the rubber compound, which has been designed for more extreme conditions and wet weather performance. Black is their standard model, best suited to generally dry conditions, but they make pads in a variety of colours as well for various types of specialty rims (ceramic, carbon, Rigida CSS etc) and to suit a range of road or trail conditions, and some dual and even triple compound pads for all condition use. They also make them to fit just about every kind of rim brake on the market. I use the Eagle 2 for the old-fashioned Suntour cantilever brakes on my Thorn. (See the Koolstop site here)
I have used the dual compound black-and-salmon (they were my first Koolstops) and I liked them quite a bit, but when I had a hard time finding the dual compound ones to replace my original worn-out pair I just went with the easy-to-obtain salmons and have been quite happy with them.
Another really good brake pad to consider for wet weather breaking is Swisstop Green. I think it would be fair to say that performance-wise these exceed even the top-notch performance of the Koolstops, but then they also cost twice as much. And I would add that the Koolstops also seem to have a slight edge when it comes to durability, but then this durability comparison is based on my own very limited personal sampling. Chose either. Both of these brake pads – Koolstop Salmons or Swisstop Greens – are about as good as you can get for wet-weather (or fair weather, too, for that matter) braking.
Having just this week spent some time in a very quaint and remote village of McCarthy, in the heart of the vast Wrangell-St Elias National Park, where the buildings are all original Klondike-era false front and streets are made of mud and quite a few of the local populace gets around on bicycles, I found myself thinking approvingly of the sealed-system gear and brake cables I have installed on all my bicycles, and marvelling that you don’t see these things in use more often. I suspect it is because they are not well known.
Mud and grit, as well all know, are the bane of smooth shifting – and of bicycle components in general, but particularly of sensitive things like cables. It doesn’t take much to gum up the works, and if you ride a lot of miles through an English winter (or an Alaska summer, on the muddy streets of McCarthy!) you could easily find yourself either going through a set of cables a year, or fussing over them along to keep them clean and your indexing precise. Being a thoroughgoing cheapskate, as well as reluctant to attend to the fiddly business of replacing or maintaining cables, I never much cared for that aspect of cables and usually tried to wrangle an extra season out of them and shruggingly put up with a bit of dodgy shifting as they deteriorated.
But a few years ago – four, now – when I was speccing out components for my Pegoretti, I came upon these completely sealed system of gear and brake cables made by a French company, Transfil. They’re called (presumably ironically) Mudlovers and they come in Road or MBT variations. Like most good innovations, it is simple: the stainless steel cable runs through a thin membranous sheath its entire length, from shifters (or brake levers) all the way to the business end, so that it is simply never exposed to the elements at all. I liked the sound of this and had them installed on my new Pegoretti. They’ve been wonderful – shifting as perfectly now as they did four years ago, and with zero maintenance in the interim. So impressed was I with these Transfil cables that I installed them on my Thorn expedition bike as well and have been similarly impressed. And unlike the Pegoretti, which is generally babied, the Thorn sees tough use as a winter bike in all weathers and conditions. Once again, the shifting as has remained pristine and with shockingly little maintenance; none, actually.
For the Enigma tourer – my Elgar – I tried a slightly different tack, speccing a similar style of sealed cable system made by Gore, partly because I wanted to try out their version for comparison and partly for aesthetics: the optional white outer housing looked nicer with my chosen paint scheme. It is early days yet for comparison purposes, both seem to do the job superbly and so on that basis I suppose you’d have to give the nod to Transfil since theirs costs only half as much. We’ll see how they compare a few thousand miles further down the track, but frankly, with four years’ hard service already behind them, with nary a glitch, it is kind of hard to see how the Transfil ones are going to lose; at best a tie, perhaps. At any rate with autumn advancing and four weather soon to set in, either of these surprisingly uncelebrated sealed cable systems might be worth a thought. They are not hard to find and not that fiddly to fit. The Gore website (here) has some installation tips and a how-to video that’s worth looking at before you plunge in.
If you take your bike to a shop to have them installed it might pay to alert the mechanic to the fact that these are different than the usual run of cables – many bike shop mechanics are not familiar with Tranfil or Gore Ride-On sealed cables and they might just put them on as they would any other sort, and trim those nifty membranous liners to match the length of the housing, thereby nullifying the sealed properties of the system. It’s happened.
It had to happen sooner or later, I suppose – the doughty old Thorn expedition bike that over the past thirteen years has carried me to Zanzibar and Istanbul, and the length and breadth of Britain and over many, many thousands of miles along the leafy lanes of Sussex and Kent would finally come down with an ailment that couldn’t be quite so readily fixed with just a simple tyre patch or new set of brake blocks. The right crank failed, or, to be more specific, the aging threads holding the aged and battered Shimano bear-trap pedal in place seemed finally to have crumbled away, leaving me with a dangerously loose and unstable pedal and (grudgingly, for safety’s sake) a three-mile walk home.
It could have been much worse. Fortunately for me I was riding along the seafront at Bexhill when it happened, not fifteen miles further away at Herstmonceux where I had been only an hour earlier. If I was grateful it waited until I was only a couple miles from home, I was also a bit flummoxed as well. I’ve never had any sort of mechanical issue I couldn’t repair on the spot – certainly never something as major as a failed crank. But then I’ve never had a bicycle with anything like the mileage this one has, a good 80,000 to 85,000 miles. At least. And hard miles at that. And virtually everything on it is original (other than the usual consumable items like tyres, brake blocks, chains, cassettes and bar tape). I’d been rather proud of that, perhaps even a bit complacent and smug – the way we middle-aged codgers tend to be sometimes about our own fitness and abilities as well.
In retrospect, of course, it seems pretty obvious that I should have seen something like this coming – if not the crank, then perhaps a corroded drop-out or a sudden nasty grinding noising telling me the bearing races in the grubby old high-mileage hubs were well and truly shot. And I suppose in the back of my mind I had been expecting something – but not right away. Not in my face like this, not so… immediate. But age and deterioration isn’t the procrastinator that I am. Things wear out and although I’ve been trying not to notice, my beloved old expedition bike is showing its age – and so am I come to think of it. I turn fifty four in a fortnight. Maybe this is a sort of vicarious wake up call – time to shed the excess weight and ease up on the rich cheeses and caffeine.
For now though I am in the market for a new square-taper touring crank, and the bottom bracket to go with it, and like any good cardiac Catholic I find myself thinking I might want to go over the rest of the old bike the next fine day that comes along, and take a long hard look, and see what else I need to change.
Another day another downpour as what it apparently the coldest wettest summer in living memory continues to slide by. It seems we have an unusual and prolonged meander in the jetstream to thank for our weather woes. Normally it would be arching north of us this time of year, dragging up all sort of delicious summery warmth from southern climes and allowing the Azores High to set our weather patterns. This year, however, and for reasons unknown, it has dipped well below us and stayed there and so it has been the Icelandic Low that have been giving us our cold, blustery, rainy weather.
It is getting a little tiresome. I can appreciate moody weather with the best of them but we are now in the middle of July; I’d like to be going out for my rides dressed as though it were summer, not a blustery March that has come in like a lion. All this wet weather hasn’t been doing the roads any favours either, the frequent almost tropically intense downpours washing out the rather feeble attempts the council made to fill in last winter’s potholes. This summer has definitely been one to keep on using the winter bike, with its sturdy expedition rims and wide tyres. Horses for courses, as it were. My doughty old Thorn was built for riding on the rough and poorly finished roads of the Third World and by golly…
The lousy weather and perpetual dampness is telling on the bike, too, with unsightly surface corrosion forming on the faces of the bolts holding my cantilever brakes to the frame bosses, the steel caps on the cables and around the straddle wire. The pads are wearing quicker too, what with the grit and gunk that gets flicked up on the rims during the ride. I give everything a decent wipe down when I finish, but what the bike really wants is a thorough scrub, and maybe a new set of pads or at least some finessing of the old ones. Alas our shed is far too small for me to work in – it is cramped enough in there with the bikes – while the fickle weather and soft muddy grass in the garden has relegated my usual summer evening pastime of tinkering with my bicycles to just a wistful memory. For now it is a matter of riding and getting wet, wiping the bike down afterwards with a rag, and taking what pleasure I can from the dramatic skies I see unfolding around me whenever I go out for a ride.
We’ve all been there – those times when you’ve been distracted while tinkering with your bike and then you step back – ta-da! – and discover that while you’ve been humming along to the radio or sorting out the world’s ills or rehashing the brilliantly clever bit of repartee you should have said the other day but didn’t, you’ve managed to do something stunningly dunderheaded like re-installing your cranks so that they are now both pointing in the same direction. You feel like getting angry and busting someone in the nose, imagining a grinning leering puckish fate having a hearty laugh at your expense, but there’s no point, because you know damn well that you have only your own absent-minded self to blame and there is absolutely no satisfaction in self-recrimination.
My own favourite fettling comedy was one time a couple of years ago when I heard a lot of unpleasant crackling, grating noises coming from my front hub. And so I dragged out the tool box and the work stand, rolled up my shelves, spat on my hands and got stuck into the job of overhauling the hub. Hubs, I should add, are really not very hard to overhaul, particularly front hubs, and it wasn’t long before I had everything apart.
In looking over the bearings and races I couldn’t see anything wrong, certainly nothing that would account for all the rasping – but no matter. I cleaned out the races, repacked them with grease and some nice new stainless bearings, then reassembled the hub. An important part of overhauling a hub is making sure you have put the right tension, or load, on the bearings. It is something best done with a couple of cone wrenches. It’s a fiddly process, or it can be, if you don’t do it often. It took me about twenty minutes or so before I felt that I had the bearings running sweetly.
Rather pleased with myself for my forthright handling of this maintenance issue, I put the front wheel back on the bike and gave it a spin – only to be rewarded with an unpleasant yet familiar rasping sound. I removed the wheel and when to work once more with the cone wrenches, not quite understanding why the wheel should be running so roughly when it had turned so nicely in my hands but quite ready to believe that I had somehow missed something. I fiddled with it a while, and once again happy with the result, slipped the axle back into the drop-out, took the bike off the stand and when for a spin. I didn’t go ten yards before the rasping was back. A little alarmed now, I put the bike back on the stand an had yet another go with the cone wrenches – this time with the aid of Leonard Zinn’s handy maintenance guide Zinn and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. I was now no longer quite so confident that I knew what I was doing. More fiddling, yet still no joy. The rasping was as bad as ever. Now I was getting a little worried. I’d followed Leonard Zinn’s illustrated guide to overhauling a hub and reloading the bearings to the letter and still I had this unpleasant noise.
Frowning, hands on hips and looking stern, I gave the whole front of the bike a thorough going over – the kind of going over I should have given it, say, an hour earlier before I started taking apart the hub. And in doing so I discovered a leathery dried leaf that had become caught up in a rivet on the underside of my mudguards. Red of face, I removed it then replaced the wheel, looking furtively around, grateful that no eyes were upon me. Sweet silence returned. I put away the tools a wiser man, recalling a hilarious riff on bicycle maintenance I’d read in Jerome K. Jerome’s cycling classic Three Men on The Bummel, published in 1900. That too had involved overhauling a hub that required no repair. It was one of the funniest ‘set pieces’ of cycling writing I’ve ever encountered.
For those who’ve never read the book I’ve excerpted the chapter here. I hope you enjoy it.
I have had experience of this “overhauling.” There was a man at Folkestone; I used to meet him on the Lees. He proposed one evening we should go for a long bicycle ride together on the following day, and I agreed. I got up early, for me; I made an effort, and was pleased with myself. He came half an hour late: I was waiting for him in the garden. It was a lovely day. He said:-
“That’s a good-looking machine of yours. How does it run?”
“Oh, like most of them!” I answered; “easily enough in the morning; goes a little stiffly after lunch.”
He caught hold of it by the front wheel and the fork and shook it violently.
I said: “Don’t do that; you’ll hurt it.”
I did not see why he should shake it; it had not done anything to him. Besides, if it wanted shaking, I was the proper person to shake it. I felt much as I should had he started whacking my dog.
He said: “This front wheel wobbles.”
I said: “It doesn’t if you don’t wobble it.” It didn’t wobble, as a matter of fact-nothing worth calling a wobble.
He said: “This is dangerous; have you got a screw-hammer?”
I ought to have been firm, but I thought that perhaps he really did know something about the business. I went to the tool shed to see what I could find. When I came back he was sitting on the ground with the front wheel between his legs. He was playing with it, twiddling it round between his fingers; the remnant of the machine was lying on the gravel path beside him.
He said: “Something has happened to this front wheel of yours.”
“It looks like it, doesn’t it?” I answered. But he was the sort of man that never understands satire.
He said: “It looks to me as if the bearings were all wrong.”
I said: “Don’t you trouble about it any more; you will make yourself tired. Let us put it back and get off.”
He said: “We may as well see what is the matter with it, now it is out.” He talked as though it had dropped out by accident.
Before I could stop him he had unscrewed something somewhere, and out rolled all over the path some dozen or so little balls.
“Catch ‘em!” he shouted; “catch ‘em! We mustn’t lose any of them.” He was quite excited about them.
We grovelled round for half an hour, and found sixteen. He said he hoped we had got them all, because, if not, it would make a serious difference to the machine. He said there was nothing you should be more careful about in taking a bicycle to pieces than seeing you did not lose any of the balls. He explained that you ought to count them as you took them out, and see that exactly the same number went back in each place. I promised, if ever I took a bicycle to pieces I would remember his advice.
I put the balls for safety in my hat, and I put my hat upon the doorstep. It was not a sensible thing to do, I admit. As a matter of fact, it was a silly thing to do. I am not as a rule addle-headed; his influence must have affected me.
He then said that while he was about it he would see to the chain for me, and at once began taking off the gear-case. I did try to persuade him from that. I told him what an experienced friend of mine once said to me solemnly:-
“If anything goes wrong with your gear-case, sell the machine and buy a new one; it comes cheaper.”
He said: “People talk like that who understand nothing about machines. Nothing is easier than taking off a gear-case.”
I had to confess he was right. In less than five minutes he had the gear-case in two pieces, lying on the path, and was grovelling for screws. He said it was always a mystery to him the way screws disappeared.
We were still looking for the screws when Ethelbertha came out. She seemed surprised to find us there; she said she thought we had started hours ago.
He said: “We shan’t be long now. I’m just helping your husband to overhaul this machine of his. It’s a good machine; but they all want going over occasionally.”
Ethelbertha said: “If you want to wash yourselves when you have done you might go into the back kitchen, if you don’t mind; the girls have just finished the bedrooms.”
She told me that if she met Kate they would probably go for a sail; but that in any case she would be back to lunch. I would have given a sovereign to be going with her. I was getting heartily sick of standing about watching this fool breaking up my bicycle.
Common sense continued to whisper to me: “Stop him, before he does any more mischief. You have a right to protect your own property from the ravages of a lunatic. Take him by the scruff of the neck, and kick him out of the gate!”
But I am weak when it comes to hurting other people’s feelings, and I let him muddle on.
He gave up looking for the rest of the screws. He said screws had a knack of turning up when you least expected them; and that now he would see to the chain. He tightened it till it would not move; next he loosened it until it was twice as loose as it was before. Then he said we had better think about getting the front wheel back into its place again.
I held the fork open, and he worried with the wheel. At the end of ten minutes I suggested he should hold the forks, and that I should handle the wheel; and we changed places. At the end of his first minute he dropped the machine, and took a short walk round the croquet lawn, with his hands pressed together between his thighs. He explained as he walked that the thing to be careful about was to avoid getting your fingers pinched between the forks and the spokes of the wheel. I replied I was convinced, from my own experience, that there was much truth in what he said. He wrapped himself up in a couple of dusters, and we commenced again. At length we did get the thing into position; and the moment it was in position he burst out laughing.
I said: “What’s the joke?”
He said: “Well, I am an ass!”
It was the first thing he had said that made me respect him. I asked him what had led him to the discovery.
He said: “We’ve forgotten the balls!”
I looked for my hat; it was lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the path, and Ethelbertha’s favourite hound was swallowing the balls as fast as he could pick them up.
“He will kill himself,” said Ebbson-I have never met him since that day, thank the Lord; but I think his name was Ebbson-“they are solid steel.”
I said: “I am not troubling about the dog. He has had a bootlace and a packet of needles already this week. Nature’s the best guide; puppies seem to require this kind of stimulant. What I am thinking about is my bicycle.”
He was of a cheerful disposition. He said: “Well, we must put back all we can find, and trust to Providence.”
We found eleven. We fixed six on one side and five on the other, and half an hour later the wheel was in its place again. It need hardly be added that it really did wobble now; a child might have noticed it. Ebbson said it would do for the present. He appeared to be getting a bit tired himself. If I had let him, he would, I believe, at this point have gone home. I was determined now, however, that he should stop and finish; I had abandoned all thoughts of a ride. My pride in the machine he had killed. My only interest lay now in seeing him scratch and bump and pinch himself. I revived his drooping spirits with a glass of beer and some judicious praise. I said:
“Watching you do this is of real use to me. It is not only your skill and dexterity that fascinates me, it is your cheery confidence in yourself, your inexplicable hopefulness, that does me good.”
Thus encouraged, he set to work to refix the gear-case. He stood the bicycle against the house, and worked from the off side. Then he stood it against a tree, and worked from the near side. Then I held it for him, while he lay on the ground with his head between the wheels, and worked at it from below, and dropped oil upon himself. Then he took it away from me, and doubled himself across it like a pack-saddle, till he lost his balance and slid over on to his head. Three times he said:
“Thank Heaven, that’s right at last!”
And twice he said:
“No, I’m damned if it is after all!”
What he said the third time I try to forget.
Then he lost his temper and tried bullying the thing. The bicycle, I was glad to see, showed spirit; and the subsequent proceedings degenerated into little else than a rough-and-tumble fight between him and the machine. One moment the bicycle would be on the gravel path, and he on top of it; the next, the position would be reversed-he on the gravel path, the bicycle on him. Now he would be standing flushed with victory, the bicycle firmly fixed between his legs. But his triumph would be short-lived. By a sudden, quick movement it would free itself, and, turning upon him, hit him sharply over the head with one of its handles.
At a quarter to one, dirty and dishevelled, cut and breeding, he said: “I think that will do;” and rose and wiped his brow.
The bicycle looked as if it also had had enough of it. Which had received most punishment it would have been difficult to say. I took him into the back kitchen, where, so far as was possible without soda and proper tools, he cleaned himself, and sent him home.
The bicycle I put into a cab and took round to the nearest repairing shop. The foreman of the works came up and looked at it.
“What do you want me to do with that?” said he.
“I want you,” I said, “so far as is possible, to restore it.”
“It’s a bit far gone,” said he; “but I’ll do my best.”
He did his best, which came to two pounds ten. But it was never the same machine again; and at the end of the season I left it in an agent’s hands to sell. I wished to deceive nobody; I instructed the man to advertise it as a last year’s machine. The agent advised me not to mention any date. He said:
“In this business it isn’t a question of what is true and what isn’t; it’s a question of what you can get people to believe. Now, between you and me, it don’t look like a last year’s machine; so far as looks are concerned, it might be a ten-year old. We’ll say nothing about date; we’ll just get what we can.”
I left the matter to him, and he got me five pounds, which he said was more than he had expected.
I’ve always been a reasonably dab hand when it came to looking after my bikes and making them go again when bits stopped working, but a few years ago I decided I needed to learn a whole more. With that in mind I signed up for a two-week residential course in bicycle maintenance at the Bike Inn, up in Lincolnshire, which would lead to my earning a City & Guilds qualification as a bicycle mechanic and wheel builder.
The course was taught by Alf Webb, an old-school bicycle shop owner and mechanic who’d had about fifty years’ experience in the trade and knew all the tricks – the ones that were shrewd and clever and would save you time and possibly money, and he put you wise to the old wives’ tale myths.
It was an excellent course, intensive, intimate and very hands-on. There was only about half a dozen of us taking it, which was as big a class as Alf cared to have, so there was plenty of personal attention. Everything was covered. Days started early, went until evening and afterwards we would all go over to the Red Lion, a pub in nearby Spalding, for a coupe of beers and talk over bicycles a bit more. Alf always bought the first round.
The second week we went into wheel building in a big way. I loved wheel building; that was my favourite part of the course. The last two days were taken up with exams – written, oral and practical. It was surprisingly tough and very thorough. Two people failed, the other four of us passed and got our certificates. In theory that made us qualified mechanics, although in reality, of course, it takes a lot of hard-won practice and shop experience to claim that distinction.
Nevertheless I was pleased to have done it and to have earned the certificate – the inner knowledge that I could look after my bicycle so completely, could undertake any repair, has somehow enhanced the sense of independence I feel when I am spinning down the road on my bicycle. It still does.
In my breezy eagerness yesterday to put winter behind me once and for all and get out on my springtime randonneur I not only forgot to take an air pump with me – an omission that fortunately had no consequences – I discovered later when I got home that I’d also forgotten to pack my on-the-road chain tool as well. There it was, still tucked securely in the side pocket of the Carradice saddlebag on the back of the now-idled Thorn where it had ridden around (unused, thankfully) all winter.
As with mini pumps, chain tools are never good things to leave behind. If you need one, you need one and nothing else will do. And while a chain breaker of some description is generally included in the Swiss Army-style assortment of gadgetry on most mini-tools, I’ve always preferred to have a separate, dedicated one. I find the chain breakers on mini-tools never sit comfortably in my hand when I am using them and, in general, they don’t seem to be as nicely machined or as precise as I’d like. You want precision in a chain tool, whether you’re on the roadside or in the shop. Sloppy installation is one of the primary reasons chains snap.
At the same time you don’t really want to be lugging around a workshop tool to cover yourself for an eventuality that, happily, is pretty unlikely to happen – at least not the way I ride. Knock on wood, I have yet to snap a chain in more than forty years of cycling. My roadside experience with chain tools all comes from assisting others who either weren’t carrying a chain tool themselves or didn’t know how to use one.
But like the Boy Scouts, I like to be prepared. I do know how to use one. After experimenting with a few different makes and models (I like buying bicycle tools) the one I settled on and particularly like to carry is this little folding number by Park Tools, the one they call their CT-6. While it is not as wonderfully precise as my Rohloff chain tool – a marvel of engineering, that – it is as near to workshop quality as I have yet come across in a roadside tool, and when you’re done using it the thing folds up neatly into an oblong package the size of a gentleman’s penknife. The simplest thing in the world to tuck into a saddlebag – and then forget it’s even there.