Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Joys of Wrenching Your Own

When I started riding again six years ago, and it became evident that I was in it for the long haul this time, I set my mind to learning to repair my own bike.

Wrenching at home eliminates a trip to the bike store -- where I might have to wait a day or three for my bike, and pay a nice chunk for the privilege. It increases my confidence on long rides, knowing I'm less likely to be stranded.

Perhaps most precious, it's a feast for the senses.

it puts my hands on something material and finite, a small metal and rubber puzzle waiting to be manipulated, twisted, aligned. It replaces rushing and talk and noise with the quiet tapping of metal on metal and the measured click-click-click of the freewheel. The heft of the bike as I put it in the stand, the cool feel of steel and aluminum, the balanced weight of a well-made tool in my palm, the satisfaction of dirt, grease, and grass disappearing beneath an old rag. The bouquet of quality machine lubrication, a scent I often leave on my hands for the rest of the day, to bring a smile as I sit before my computer or my clients, groping through the realm of abstractions.

Here's what I've been able to learn so far, in no particular order:

  • Repair flats, in all the many varieties
  • Apply handlebar tape
  • Install/remove pedals
  • Remove, replace, adjust front and rear derailleur
  • True a wheel with either traditional or bladed spokes
  • Straighten derailleur hanger
  • Remove/replace handlebar stem
  • Lower/raise handlebars
  • Adjust sidepull and mechanical disc brakes
  • Install/remove fenders, rack
  • Properly fit a bike -- seat height, bar reach, etc.
I'm proud of this list because it took years to compile. I'm not essentially mechanically oriented; Mrs. V. does almost all the repairs around the house, having been raised by a very handy father. 

About the only items that caused long-term frustration were the front and rear derailleur adjustments. I went years before I realized the role that the limit screws can play in easing a shift up to the bigger ring in the front. I was setting the screws by the book -- allowing a minimal clearance between derailleur cage and chainring -- and then trying to make the cable do all the work. Allowing a bit more play in the limit setting allowed me to ease up a bit on the cable tension and nail that shift. No mechanic, including the one I'd paid to teach me, ever mentioned this. Perhaps it's not even kosher -- but it works like a charm, every time.

In the rear, the magic wand was my new derailleur hanger adjustment tool. It's a beautiful Park Tool piece which cost upwards of $50.00, but was worth every penny. No one ever told me that some derailleur hangers bend when you simply look at them funny, nor that the very slightest misalignment means you will never, never be able to properly adjust your shifting in back. If you're unable to find the sweet spot with your barrel adjuster, and you've got trouble shifting both up and down, and your chain and cassette are not worn out, don't worry: you're not crazy. You just need to align your hanger. Once you do, the thing will shift just as smooth as silk, and your next ride will be soooo pleasing.

Finally, here are the repairs I'd still like to master:

  • Remove/install chain (this one probably just requires an occasion to try)
  • Install/remove brake and derailleur cables/housing
  • Install/remove crankset
  • Install/remove bottom bracket
  • Install/remove cassette (probably just need chain whip)
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(Edit, 9/7/13: Added "apply handlebar tape" to can-do list.)

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