July 25th, 2009
I suppose (and always feared) that it had to happen eventually: a catastrophic bike failure caused by my work as a mechanic. It could creep up from anywhere, like neglecting to tighten a bolt/screw, not seating the tire bead properly, not having the derailleur limit screws set well, or from any minute detail of the job not done right. Resulting in death, injury, or at the very least, annoyance. My worst professional fear. And this week it finally happened.
Customer came into the shop for a tire change and an accessory install. 30 minute job, one that would not typically call for a test ride around the block. I performed the services requested and sent the customer on his way.
Well as I learned the next day, I must have left the skewers too loose because the gentleman’s rear wheel dislodged and slid forward while he was riding, seizing up the bike. The bike had those anti-theft skewers which require an allen wrench to open up and close. The good news here is that the victimized customer only experienced annoyance, and not death or injury, from my slip-up. It could have been worse, much much worse …. sudden wheel seizure, in traffic, maybe taking a turn, or going fast or downhill ….you get the picture. But luckily no faces met the pavement in this instance.
Still, the incident left me shaken up for days. I made a pretty huge mistake — my biggest ever as a wrench, as far as I know. Everyone at the shop has been pretty understanding, not pleased of course but understanding, maybe because they see how serious I am taking it, and maybe because they know that ultimately everyone makes mistakes.
June 10th, 2009
Recently (oh, fair warning, this paragraph is not suitable for squeamish people, take a hint from the title), another new mechanic at the shop was installing fenders, and was trying to really torque down on a stay bolt, pushing in on the screwdriver, while stabilizing the bike by pulling in on frame. His open palm was in a direct trajectory line of the screwdriver if it were to slip. There was a slip. I am SO glad I wasnt there to see what happened next, but when he came over next door with his hand bandaged up and described how he had put the screwdriver almost completely through his hand, to the point of having the back of his band swell up from having the screwdriver push up the skin from underneath, I got (and am now again) considerably queasy. Luckily for this guy, the doctors assure him no longterm damage was done.
This job carries the potential for injury, but most dangers can be avoided through appropriate technique and attention. After my first week on the job at the bike shop, my hands felt and looked pretty awful. Apart from being dry and dirty, I cut and bruised them constantly from tool slips, and remember having to wipe my blood off spokes and rims on more than one occasion. But my hub adjust techniques have gotten better, and I have learned to use tools more carefully in general, and lately I havent had to the nightly neosporin-and-bandaid regimen i had going early on to take care of those gashes.
Everybody work safe, you hear? Think about where things (tools, knuckles, etc) are likely to end up in case something slips. Push away and down instead of up and in on things. Use a breaker bar in lieu of unwieldy body force for greater torque. pay extra attention at the grinding wheel.
While cuts and impalings can be pretty much eliminated with proper technique, I do worry somewhat about developing hand problems, like RSI, down the line. Most bike mechanic work involves tightening or loosening threaded parts, and my palms at first were as sore as they had been since my flirtation with keyboard-induced repetitive stress injury at an office job. That’s gotten better with time as well, but when installing tires and truing wheels I still sometimes need to take a break and shake my hands around for a while. The really experienced mechanic I work with tells me that indeed he needs to sleep with those RSI wrist straps at night, and that he has suffered pinched nerves from pressing in on tools for more torque.
The job is probably not great for the eyes, either. I feel eye strain working on bikes and parts that are mere feet away from my face all day,and feel the need to go over and look out the window every once in a while. But on second thought I guess this job is no worse for the eyes than any office/computer job would be.
Oh, and there’s a lot (100%) of standing involved, but that hasnt been an issue at all for me. And I breath a lot of airborne lubricating oil, but I havent noticed any ill effects of that. But all in all, so far, it’s been a great job and the work ambiance is positive on the whole.
I haven’t had a chance to post anything lately mostly because i’ve been busy working and living. here’s what’s new.
I’ve transitioned to working in the annex on most days. This is the employees-only back-area where bikes are stored and where there are a few work benches set up for a mechanic to work throughout the day uninterrupted by customer walk-ins. So I went from doing flat fixes and spoke replaces all day to doing tune-ups all day. No interruptions make a huge difference, The first day went awesomely, i got 6 tune-ups done without a hitch, which i thought was really good for the first day over on the other side. The next day kind of sucked, though. i got hung up on a few complicated projects and only got to work on two and a half or three bikes the entire day. So from now on we are making sure to have me work on relatively straight-forward tuneups while the more experienced guy does the projects. I somewhat miss seeing and talking to customers, and it’s weird to barely see the boss now, after spending the first 3 or 4 weeks constantly at his side, but on the other hand the pace is much faster, and i am working on setting up the stereo system to play music i bring in.
One thing that happened a little while ago which still lingers with me a bit, was that we had a customer bring in a newer, medium-quality bike into the shop for some quick repair, and when our part-time, recently-hired mechanic laid eyes on it, he said with a snide tone, “Ahhhhhh…. the [brand] [model]” (the specifics arent important.) the customer who was wandering the shop, looking at accessories, overheard this and quickly interjected with “its just a beater bike that i don’t wan’t to worry about getting stolen,” but the truth is this was maybe a one or two year old bike, and maybe it cost four or five hundred dollars, and there was no reason to denigrate the bike and force the customer feel the need to defend about it. I felt bad for him, it is not cool to have a mechanic condescend your wheels. Even when people bring in almost undeniably junky bikes and maybe make an excuse on its behalf or otherwise talk negatively about the bike, i try to say something positive, like “see, it’s a mixte, that’s neat,” or “it was made in America, and almost nothing these days is” or “if you took steel wool to that chrome, you’d be surprised at how good it would look.” something along those lines. oh well, that whole exchange bothered me but hopefully the customer has thought it over less than i have.
Wrenching fulltime is sculpting my body, for real. I recently moved and there was a gap between my switching gyms, and after a couple weeks on furlough from lifting weights I was surprised to realize that I was in really good shape, to the point where i don’t need to work my arms, deltoids, or abs at all at the gym. My metabolism has really picked up and to where being vegetarian/freegan is more or a hardship than before. I’ve always been lifting weights and/or playing basketball and/or swimming on a daily basis, but seriously almost nothing has compared to wrenching all day every day in terms of affecting me physically, except maybe high school sports back in the day.
Every once in a while we’ll have a regular customer / shop rat come by around closing time with a 12 pack of cold beer. Man, nothing hits the spot more than knocking back a cold one with the gang after a day of hard work, especially on the hot days we’ve had. It’s also an awesome way for a customer to win the affection of his or her bike shop.
Coming soon I hope to write some more article-ly posts about the ups and down of the bike mechanic job, probably less day to day and more geared towards a career outlook, for the benefit of those people googling “bike mechanic blog ” and coming upon this one.
April 17th, 2009
My shop does a lot of work on police-mounted bicycles, to the point of sometimes having three or four uniformed officers milling around the shop at the same time. It’s the safest bike shop in the city for sure. I think we have some sort of contract worked out with some city and university police units. They ride on these hulking 21-speed Specialized or Fuji ATBs with 26″x2″ knobby tires, the very antithesis of the typical minimalist ride of that other professional city bike rider, the courier. While messengers are notorious for riding the hell out of their bikes, I think it’s quite possible that these cop bikes ultimately take more of a beating. For one thing, while many couriers who are reed-thin due to some combination of 1) the physical demands of their job, 2) living at or near poverty, 3) being vegetarian or vegan, most police officers trend towards the 6’4″, 250# demographic, so that’s some heavy mashing they’re doing. Secondly, the bikes are shared within the squad and are used by different officers on different shifts, so the bike itself could end up being ridden close to 24 hours a day. A bike like that might need to be tuned literally every few weeks.
Anyway, I work on a lot of cop bikes, and inevitably the cops will say, “thanks buddy” or “pal” or “jack” or “guy” or whatever other masculinity-affirming nicknames there are to be had. They’ve all actually been perfectly cordial and pleasant customers, obviously the context of these interactions is key here, but anyway I’m starting to come around to the idea that maybe cops are human, you know in the genetic sense of the term. (and besides, who else are you going to call when a cabbie sideswipes you on your bike and keeps driving?) However — this hasn’t stopped me from racking my brains for weeks now trying to think of something devious to do while these bikes are in my possession. I don’t mean something dangerous or offensive, but just some kind of little clever twist to put on the bike before I roll it over to the barrel-chested sunglass-clad officer. if the guy behind Golden Stash has any ideas, I’m listening. oh well I’m drawing a blank, and ultimately I know this is a no-go, because there isn’t anything I can do that would only been seen/understood by non-cops while evading detection/comprehension from the badges themselves. still just seems like a lost opportunity here…
April 7th, 2009
I just picked up a Chiorda Safari folding bike, with I coaster hub and I believe 16″ wheels, and a leather seat. Made in Italy, and has a decal from a Hudson, NY bike shop. I havent really done a lot of research on this bike yet but I think its from the early 70s. I’ll try to track down more info when i get a chance. I bought it off a Puerto Rican gentleman who resides in the south end. He said it was his son’s bike, and i don’t know how old the son is, but amazingly I — all six foot plus of me) can ride this bike with ease.
vintage folder bikes make me really happy, I can hardly explain it. When was in Europe last summer I was fascinated with them and couldn’t stop photographing every one I saw. Then one day I was walking through a flea market in Frankfurt and spotted a yellow one with 24″ wheels, made in ‘West Germany.'(photos here) Had to have to it, and had a huge smile on my face every time I hopped on it. But the time I got to Prague I knew it that schlepping it from city to city, much less flying it home, would be impractical, so I left it with a buddy over there for him to enjoy.
Ever since I let go of that Kalkoff, there’s been, well, a void in my life. UNTIL NOW!! Yesterday I brought my mom into the bike shop and we were strolling thru the streets of the south end (which by the way is like a really nice historic neighborhood. like the back bay, but bigger. that was news to me), when I spotted in the distance in front of a public housing development an unexceptional kid’s bike with a ‘for sale’ sign on it. But next to this bike, was another bike, and for a moment I thought I saw a Brooks saddle, so went over to get a closer look, and it wasnt Brooks, but when I saw the bike … my heart skipped a beat. a vintage folder, with an integrated rear rack, and looking more closely, made in Italy. The resident came out of his home and said that bike wasnt for sale, but he would check with his son. I gave him my number, walked away, and got a call back 10 minutes later. The sale was good to go.
Today I came back with the cash during my lunch break, and then I rode it up the street back to the shop, and I came in the shop grinning and sort of making pleasure-induced grunting noises; “guys, look! yeah!?! right? huh?” Another mechanic we have, who is always being hilarious without intending to, looks up, nonplussed, and says with sincerity, “oh you found it in the trash?”
It needs an overhaul, and maybe i’ll think of something more creative to dowith too, but I’m pretty happy with it as it is.. It will be project #3 behind getting an early 80s Ross Gran Tour up and running as my primary commuter, as well as overhauling Swedish-made Crescent I picked up last month as a rain bike. So I may not get to it for a while. but man is it going to be sweet to bomb down Mass Ave on this.
April 6th, 2009
My trial employment period for the mechanic position had come to an end, and today I had a bit of an anticlimactic meeting with shop owner , as all indications (more or less) over the past 1.5 weeks pointed to my staying on. I was being introduced to shop regulars as “the new guy,” I got my own key to the backdoor, an apron was ordered for me, etc… but slight uncertainty hung in the air, since when I was given that key I said “so boss I’m staying on right?” and he sort of looked down and murmured something like, “well um the key just makes things easier for now, uh..”. I am pretty excited, this is a permanent, year round position, and I think I really like this place. It’s my best shot at developing into a competent mechanic because it’s a tight-nit place and the two other mechanics have been at this shop for 25 and 20 years each.
Still waiting for the new employee handbook to get the details on benefits, though I know there ought to be the possibility of an extended vacation during winter (boss says 1-2 weeks but I’ll see if i can stretch that out to 2-3, or maybe more. I’m not cool with winter) and no< possibility of employee health insurance, which means I need to do my research on the commonwealth’s universal health care system.
As far as the wrenching goes, if I was writing this yesterday morning, I would say that work has been going smoothly and that I’ve found a rhythm and feeling more and more comfortable at the workbench. That’s how I was feeling until yesterday afternoon, when a guy brought in a Walmart Schwinn for a flat fix and brake adjustment. Simple enough, right? Showing my inexperience, instead of giving the bike a good checkover before taking it from the customer, I said, “no problem it will be about 15 minutes.” Then I go to turn and wheel the bike toward the stand, I do this by taking hold of the saddle, and the saddle falls apart in my hands. Not the seat off the seat post clamp, not the seat post out of the seat tube, but the springs under the seat itself come loose and the seat unit falls apart in my hands. I laughed and said “Uh you got a seat problem too,” but that should have been a BIG GIANT RED FLAG to not take this bike. I proceeded to spend 45+ minutes working on this piece of garbage, and Sundays are only 5 hour workdays. When I was done with it, the brakes still didnt adjust right (needs new calipers) and the seat moved up and down in the seat clamp (needs new seat post). The customer, who couldnt afford the new components, was pissed he had to pay
$8 $38 parts and $16 $24 labor for a bike that still was hardly functional, and I was ever so frustrated for having put in all that time and effort to no. Who else must have been pissed? How about the four people with bikes at hip who were waiting to speak to me and the other mechanic on duty, and were being ignored?? Two of them turned around and walked out of the shop. lesson learned, the hard way: take a GOOD F-ing look at a department store bike before agreeing to work on it. I’m a little fuzzy on the store policy but from now on I have a personal policy on refusing to spend more than 10 minutes on them. It doesnt make me feel that great because people with these bikes generally are low on funds, but there is no way am I going to put myself through what happened yesterday again. It’s a no win – the shop can’t afford to repair those things (don’t even want to call them bikes) and neither can the customer. Blame the folks who’re making a buck at exploiting the poor by selling them dirt.
As an aside, I just took a walk around Harvard Square and there were a suspiciously abundant number of Walmart Schwinns locked up on the streets. I guess what they say about Harvard students lacking all common sense or ability to operate in the real world is true. I saw like 5 chrome and purple aluminum mtn bikes and felt like I was under psychological attack by some devious horror-movie character, you know the unseen guy with the grave voice who somehow knows and controls everything . Every where I turned I was like, ah no not again please!!
I also saw so many lock-up fails it made me wince. Get out of the library and learn to function in society, Harvard nerds.
A nice coincidence that made me feel a bit better was when that dept store bike finally left the store, the very next customer was this cute girl who was flirting with me every chance she got. I think I sort of prompted it by — possibly accidentally, or more probably sub-consciously — winking at her. She’ll be back for her bike and shop dynamics would have to be just right, and I would have to operate really smoothly, for me to score a date. But both the former and most certainly the latter condition are quite unlikely to be met. In any case it helped lift my spirits that day after getting my soul crushed under the brutality of imported plastic bikes.
Coming soon (fingers crossed): a New Bike Day post!! Hint: it’s a vintage Italian-made steel. Double hint: the first hint is just going to throw you off!
April 4th, 2009
of all the types of thieves and possibly criminals in general, bike thieves have to rank up there with among the scummiest. At best they are ruining someone’s day and costing them a lot of money, at worst they are taking something that someone really depends on away and causing a lot of pain. I remember seeing a stat that said that a lot (most?) people who have their bike stolen either buy a cheaper bike the next time, or quit biking altogether, discourages by the lost sunk costs.
well at the shop the other day, we had another customer coming in, dragging his rear-wheelless bike into the shop. this really broke my heart. it was an older gentleman, most definitely qualified as a senior citizen, and he clearly depending on his bike on a daily basis. the combination of seeing him physically struggling with dragging the bike into the shop, exclaiming that he has carried it “from Dudley!”(which is far on foot to the South End for anyone), seeing that he likely did not have a lot of disposable income (what an awful first-world phrase that is, by the way), and seeing his bike which evidenced a lot of heavy winter riding (grime would not come off the chainstays or drivetrain!) was just crushing for me. I wanted to go out to the “shitwheel pile” we keep and fit a wheel on that would work for him, but the shop ended up selling with a used wheel with freewheel, and a new tire and tube, which along with labor cost this gentlemen over 80 dollars. I know the shop can’t be a charity but I do wish we had just given him a wheel that was headed to the dumpster, trued it up, filled it with air, and got him riding for, say 20 bucks. (and i wish i hadnt given my own spare junk wheel away eariler this week to that other guy who had his wheel swiped — at least that guy could afford new digs, and was upfront about being willing to pay for it. of course i couldnt foresee into the future and know that, No i shouldnt give away this wheel for free to this guy, because a needier person will walk in a couple days later).
Well, its not any consolation for me, but I know that its not my or the shop’s fault for the trouble these two victims have had, it was the asshole thieves taking rear wheels from beater bikes. Oh man I just get the urge to go to law school and work in the district attorney’s office for 25 years and then get appointed Judge by the governor just so i can sentence bike thieves to real hard time and kick their ass around a bit. bike theft is a real quality of life issue; it can really sour someone on a city or particular neighborhood, not to mention bike ownership/riding. I wish MassBike took this up as an advocacy issue.
I also wish bikes didnt have quick-releases as standard issue, actually. as a biker how often do you use the QR?? how much more likely is the quick release going to be used by a thief rather than the owner???
ok well rant over. deep breaths… in….out…. haha. the lesson to learn is, secure both your wheels when locking! and your seat too.
late nite edit: as i think it over more, i am kicking myself for not going over to the cafe 3 doors down and buying the guy a coffee and some baklava. fuuuuuuuuccccck. ok goodnite.
March 31st, 2009
bloody knuckles!! everyday I am cutting my knuckles on spokes, bottom brackets, or whatever gets in my way when the wrench slips under a lot force.. need to pickup up some bandaids and neosporin tomorrow morning.
Last week a guy came into the store, with this awful rusty/corroded mountain bike. it was actually half a bike because the rear wheel was gone — stolen overnight. Well I know that sucks, it happened to me once when I was out in Berkeley for a summer. sucked, for two days until i got back in the saddle. Anyway this guy comes into the shop the other day with the same situation. incredibly, we had no used tires/cassettes, so even with a used wheel he was going to be looking at upwards of $80-100 to get his wheel back. not worth it for this bike, but he said OK just do it and I’ll be back next week. (tho today i found a whole pile of used tires and wheels. i think the manager is in such a peak-performance mindset that he didnt consider that a janky wheel is all this guy needed.) Well over the weekend in the process of moving into a new apartment in Cambridge, I found an old salvaged rear mtn wheel in the basement. I brought it into work today, bungeed to my back as I finally got ride to work instead of taking the T (!),slapped it on the guy’s bike, and it worked just fine. didnt even have to adjust the derailleur save for the high limit. Called the guy and said, Good news, I found a wheel for you, and its free. his
girlfriend wife companion came by and rode off with it today. happy ending, i would say.
I almost built my first wheel today! Mavic Openpro on Phil Woods, I laced it under direction and supervision from the manager, though i still managed to mess up pretty badly. for one thing I was putting in the spoke nipples upside down! Boss said, with a smile, “I have never seen that.” yeah well neither have I ever seen spoke nipples, practically. not too much experience with spoke nips under my belt yet…. then as I was almost done with the 3-cross lacing, it was brought to my attention that I managed to lace the last quarter (or maybe third quarter) set of spokes into the wrong accompanying rim holes, so that had to be redone. Then I got distracted with customer with a flat fix and the manager just took over and finished the build as I watched. so not exactly a home run there at my first at bat, but its ok he has been patient and great with me so far.
its Judgment Week because this is supposedly the final week of my trial employment, at the end or middle of which The Man will tell me if i am staying or not. I think I’m doing about as good as someone with no previous experience can be expected do to. I am definitely still slow on some jobs and that’s been ok so far but soon it will get busy and become noticeable if my pace doesnt pick up. But I think the decision about my employment is mostly out of my control — there’s not much I can do to make up for not having experience yet, and it will just be a matter of whether the shop decides it has the patience to tolerate me, or would rather just bring on someone with some years of experience already. I definitely like the place where I’m at, I like the neighborhood ( its the South End, hint hint) the diversity in the customers and their bikes, the possibility to train and apprentice with the owner/manager, and I think I like the immediate work environment, though they could use another light source out near the workbench; my eyes get a little bleary. So I’ll find out soon enough i I’m staying on or not, and hopefully if the answer’s yes we can hash out the details, like seasonal/year-round, benefits, and perhaps most importantly, SHOP DISCOUNT!! I’m ready to talk, boss 🙂
I did do an interview with another shop last week, its got a ‘hip’ reputation but to my surprise I didn’t like their vibe much at all. getting paid on a per-unit and/or commission basis?? any student of marxian economics can identify this as alienation and exploitation of labor to nearly the grossest degree. Personally i would not want to shop at a place, bike shop or otherwise, if i knew that the salespeople received commission. how can you trust them?
Apparently there is a new bike collective starting soon in boston, called free wheels. don’t know the details or timeline but sounds like good news and I’ll looking forward to following the progress there. link
March 25th, 2009
… of work is not going so well. Mostly because of the bug I caught at the end of last week, and the continued lack of rest I’m getting. I’m going to have to stay home for a day or two, which I should have done earlier, but really was trying to avode doing since I’m on trial employment. I know it was just my illness (fever or something) showing though, but yesterday I was having all of these negative thoughts racing through my mind, like Maybe I really will hate this, and Maybe people are right when they say I should find a more comfortable career and just do mechanics as a hobby, but I’m not thinking that today so I know it was just a physically tough day from being sick.
The other day I spent a couple of hours working on two WalMart bikes. I’ve seen some bike shops’ websites with stated policies of refusing to work on department store bikes, but after changing flats on a number of cheapo bikes my first week, I decided that those shops were being total a-holes. The people I saw with dept. store bikes don’t have a choice; they can’t afford anything better and they rely on their bike for transportation nearly 100%. Well, after performing actual maintenance on these bikes, as opposed to just changing out tubes, I now see why a shop would refuse to service these POS-es. Basically the bike is constructed out of plastic and a material slightly stronger than aluminum foil. Once it reaches the shop, it’s totally overdue for service and seemingly needs everything done to it– the cables are rusty and shredded, the drivechain is worn, brake pads are gone, wheels untrue, you name it –but since the customer doesnt want / can’t afford the tune-up package, they go for just the most critical repairs, like cable replacements. But fine-tuning is near impossible on these components and you end up spending way too much time and willpower just to end up with bike that still performs like it’s trash/recycling ready. It is really a frustrating, and pretty humiliating actually to work on a bike like that for so long and feel like it’s kicking your ass. So it’s tough situation I think when a bike shop is faced with servicing a dept store bike, on the one hand the customerr probably really needs a functioning bike but on the other niether the customer nor the shop can afford to do the kind of work that would be required for that.
I sound so doom-and-gloom all of a sudden! It’s just the fever talking, things at work have not really been so bad. I can think of two nice anecdotes from last week. A guy came in with a bike similar to the above-mentioned (his was from Target, he told me, $159) needing a flat fix. While I was working on his wheel he had a nice talk. I learned he was a Chinese immigrant, started out working under the table at a restaurant for less than minimum wage, now worked at a bank and spoke flawless English. He asked how I got interested in mechanics, and when I said “it doesnt hurt anybody, it’s not evil,” he understood what I meant. We just went back and forth talking, it was nice, and I found and pried out a piece of metal he had run over. Then when the cashier went to ring him up, this customer gave a couple every dollars extra and asked that the change be given to me. My first tip! That meant a lot to me knowing how hard he had to work to earn his money. We thanked each other again before he left.
Another time a customer came in, right before closing, and was pointing at his chain, making hand gestures and speaking in broken English in a european accent. Well I happen to speak Russian so I said “Ruskie?”and kind of looked shock and said “da“. He needed a new chain so while I took care of that for him we spoke in Russian and told each other our life stories, more or else. This young man had just moved here from Russia month ago on tourist visa, to live with his fiancée, who’s a dual-citizen. He bought his mountain bike on craigslist for a hundred dollars, it needed a derailleur limit adjustment and brake tightening too, which I did while he was being rung up for the chain replacement. He was really grateful and we shook hands before he went on his way. So that made me feel really good as I left the shop for the day.
March 20th, 2009
details coming soon -i’ve been so busy this week. …update: This is now (for how ever briefly) officially a bike mechanic’s blog! Soon after filling out job applications at five local shops, I got a callback from one and an interview was set up. I thought the interview went well, I didn’t try to over-represent my skills, I was honest and said I was just starting out and I was looking to make a career out of bike mechanics, and that I had a lot to learn. I asked previously whether I would be working on a bike during the interview as a demonstration, was told ‘maybe’, and ultimately did not. We just had a good, long conversation, but with zero professional experience the manager told me I was not the ideal candidate for the job, as a veteran mechanic with a number of years under his belt was had just given notice, and a replacement was being sought for him. But the manager floated the idea of having me come into the shop, and work for a few weeks under him to see how it goes. It basically allows him to keep taking applications while evaluating me, and allows me to get a feel for what working at this shop would be like, get more mechanical training and practice, and retain ith the freedom to interview at other shops (which I will be doing at at least one other LBS next week.)
The manager/owner and I agreed to give this trial employment thing a shot, and that’s what I’ve been doing this past week. So I’m working as a mechanic in a shop now, but I don’t have a job offer yet. It’s not the most reassuring or stable situation obviously, but it has definitely been worth doing so far. I’ve been at this for a week but I haven’t had a chance to put pen to pad, fingers to keyboard, so what follows is a hodgepodge of experiences, observations and thoughts that I’ve had since starting work.
-I mostly like this shop’s dynamics. It’s been in the same location for decades and there are a bunch of regulars, some even let themselves in through the staff-only backdoor entrance, and then stand behind the counters and workbenches chatting up the employees. Some of these regulars are real characters, let me tell you. The employees are nice, one thing that I think would bug me if I stayed here is that no one else is in their twenties, and socially it may not be that great if I stay on here. The shop has an annex space with a separate workbench, where a mechanic can work on bikes without being uninterrupted by customers. Sounds cool because you can play whatever music you want and be ‘one with the bike’. But I haven’t actually spent any time working in the annex because I can’t stray too far from the manager’s shadow, and he is mostly up front with the customers.
-most customers have really simple needs, like a flat fix, tune-up, brake adjust, etc. which I can take care of most of the time. Anything complicated or involving diagnosis is usually handled by the more experienced staff. Most customers, actually all of them so far, are really nice and appreciative of the work done at the shop. I never though of myself as a people person, but so far i have enjoyed interacting with customers. Most of them really like their bike, and I’ve realized its important to show enthusiasm for their bike too so they feel good about having it and riding it and taking care of it.
-I am really amazed that some bike couriers in this city don’t know even the most simple things about bikes and maintenance . This week I showed a courier how to tighten his brakes using the barrel adjuster, and told two mess’ers that it’s important to clean and re-lube the chain after a day of riding in the rain, which they didn’t know. I thought all messers did at Winthrop Square was talk shop all day long… guess not?
-I’ve been assembling boxed bikes and that has been going well, as I was pretty prepared and trained for it. They are simple and cheap bikes — 7 speeds, flat bar, threaded headset — and assembling like 5 or 6 of them has gone off without a hitch, more or less. They come partially assembled, I’m not sure how long it takes me to finish one completely, but I havent done more than two in a 7 hour work day.
– While I’m assembling a boxed bike, a customer might wheel in their bike and in tell the person at the counter, or sometimes me, the problem with their bike, and if I can handle it (flat fix, tuning, truing, chain replace), I interrupt my assembly and take care of the work order on the spot.
– Installing new Armadillo tires was a real fight! My forearms were throbbing after doing two in a row, like I was lifting weights in a gym. After getting through them, my thoughts turned to protein bars, as if by Pavlovian conditioning.
– I screwed up badly twice, that I know of. One was a front derailleur cable install, on rapid fire shifters on a beat up Cannondale. I could tell this was being ridden someone who had no choice between a bike, a car, or public transit, and depended on this bike for primary transport. This bike was really dirty and muddy, had a plastic bag over the seat, and a rear rack that clamped to the seat post. The ULock was attached by bracket on the seat tube, and I had no place to clamp the bike to the stand. I had to let it dangle by the nose of the seat, putting me in a low and uncomfortable position.
First I wasn’t placing the head of the cable into the right spot on the shifter, and then I had trouble clamping the end onto the derailleur the right way, because it had dual top/bottom pull capability. I had to throw away the first cable I used and start over, and the whole thing took forever, with the customer standing right there in front of the mess. The end of the cable started to fray at where I was the clamping blot was being applied, and i had to cut and crimpy the end shorter then would have liked. Finally I got the bike back to the customer, he leaves the shop, and within seconds he’s back in the door, talking to the manager, who is making an adjustment for him. Fuck! Now the boss gets to see the hack-job I put on the cable install. He tells the guy it’s all set now and gives him back the bike… and guess what, the customer comes back in the shop within seconds again. He’s annoyed, natch. Chain not shifting into the largest chainring. I take the bike this time, use the barrel adjuster to tighten the cable, make sure the derailure can shift to all three chainrings, and say That should do it. He takes the bike out the door, and I don’t see him again that day. Did we fix the problem for him, or did he lose patience with us and vow never to come in again? I may never find out unless I see him again sometime in the shop. lesson learned: make sure to put the bike on the stand in a way that I easily reach what needs to be reached. that means asking for the ulock key to make room at the seat tube, etc. Also take closer not of how the old cable went into the shift mechanism and derailleur before removing it and installing a new one.
The other bad screw-up was with spoke-install slash wheel true. Two spokes were missing on the drive side of a single speeder, and the wheel wobbled badly. Of the two other ‘real’ mechanics at the shop, besides the manager, one was on vacation and the other had gone home early. Suddenly I found myself alone in the workbench area of the shop, wearing a shop apron, as if i was the face of the shop’s repair operation. not cool!! The job was promised to be ready at something like 5, but I didnt even touch the that wheel until 5! (the manager was busy with a phone call of something). The customer came in the shop exactly at five, and was told 15 more mins. I had never installed spokes before but had seen it done, I got a hand for another staff member for picking out the right spoke lengths. I removed the freewheel, but I had to back off the cones and locknuts to get access to the spoke holes on the hub. I was doing something wrong there, was afraid I was misaligning the axle with the way I was wrenching the cone off, and had to get help again for that. Then I spent literally like 35 or 40 minutes trying to true this wheel. I had to go over to the guy and say, Oh, 10 more minutes, sorry to keep you waiting. At least he had a book to read, and he sat down and did that. Every time I thought I had the wheel perfectly true, I would de-stress the spokes, spin again, and the wheel was insanely untrue. My face was flush from frustration and fatigue. I finally gave the SOS to the counterperson, “please page the manager!” Then I realized I hadn’t adjusted the hub after easing off the cone and nut on the drive side, and that’s what was messing me up. The spokes were too tight all over, and the wheel was out of dish. The manager came over, was very patient with me, cleaned up my botched work wheel explaining what he was doing,. I turned my back to the seated customer and whispered to the boss, ‘this guy has been waiting for this wheel for like an hour, I feel really bad, can we cut him a deal or something?’ When the manager gave the finished wheel back to the guy, he only changed him for the two spokes, no labor cost, and the customer was beaming at both of us as he left– I guess he figured waiting an hour is worth saving 30 bucks. I am really not confident that that wheel is going to stay straight once he starts riding on it again. I later realized I also didnt use any spoke prep on those new spokes, either. ugghh…. so that sucked. lesson learned: don’t let the first time I do a certain kind of bike work be on a customer’s bike, call on someone else if I’m not confident to handle something myself, use spoke prep, and remember to have the hub adjusted right before throwing a wheel up on a truing stand.
-My hands are sore and dry from wrenching and from washing.
here did my cuticles go? I started to worry that I was going to developed RSI in my palms and wrists working over the long term…. The manager here says he has no problems after 30 years so I hope its just soreness that I will overcome with time.
-I slept like a baby after the first day of work, from being so physically exhausted. Mind you I hadn’t put in a day of work since graduated college three months ago. I worked 6 days in a row since Monday, and I knew wasn’t getting enough sleep, mostly because the commute sucks currently. A few days a ago I said to myself at this rate, the sleep deprivation is going to cause me to get sick, catch a cold of something. Well lo and behold I started to get sick last night, just after finishing my first full week of work. Feels like a fever, I’m not sure if I’m running a temperature or not, but I am sick and weak right now and its sucks to spend my only day off like this. I’m moving into Cambridge in a week (been with my folks in the suburbs since January) so things should in improve once my commute time gets cut in half or better.
That’s about all I can muster for now, I’m going to take some more Nyquil and try to rest up for work tomorrow.