columbiamfgcover.jpgI got this book from the library and it’s pretty fun.  Its full of photographs from the Columbia Manufacturing plant in Westfield MA, which opened in 1897 . Since the book’s publication of course Columbia has gone bankrupt (1987) and bike are no longer made there. I guess this is  technically a kids’ book, 35 pages, but whatever.

Here are a couple of page scans I like.  Steel tube being brazed and welded by hand:

Steel tubes were also bent into handlebars by a hand-operated machine (not show here). Steel being cut and stamped (by some crazy-ass industrial machine) into rims:

I also found a video. I hope the good people that got laid off from Columbia have done well since then.  I also wonder whether the Westfield factory would be a killer abandoned building to break into explore, and if any of the machines and parts are still there, collecting dust.

As for the next chapter of American bicycling history (I joke),  I’ve dropped off my resume to every shop in the area that I could imagine working at.  Just waiting for callbacks now.  The economy sucks so who knows.  Bike mechanics school is going really well, I’m learning a ton of things that aren’t in any of repair books I’ve read … two thumbs up.  Here’s a g-chat excerpt I just had with my cousin, who lives on the west coast:

me:  i may move to sf soon
him: that’s a big step, you think this city wants you out here?
they already have enough punk ass bike riders
me: if i dont get a job by april. i can’t sit around here at home forever
him: where would you stay if you came up?
me: with you for like a week. then i would sublet for a couple months and play it by ear
him: haha, who is ‘you’?
is that your asian friend?
me: whatever.

Well that’s about as much moral support as I get from my parents these days too, so I’ll take it.

will wrench for beer

March 2nd, 2009

That’s the official policy of Aaron’s Bike Repair of Seattle.   Additionally they  regard themselves to be beer snobs, but can you really call yourself a beer snob when you prefer domestic IPAs??? I’ve seen a  lot of interesting things on ABR’s website, but this particular page had eluded me until tonight.   While the late, great, Sheldon Brown lays claim to the best and most informative bike site ever, ABR’s  site and blog is the most comprehensive I’ve seen when it comes to having an insider’s view from a bike shop.   This proprietor’s public call for beer reminds me of another shop I popped into while in Seattle a while back called Wright Brothers, in the Fremont neighborhood.  Its a cozy shop with jazz playing on the sound system, and eventually what caught my eye was a half-empty bottle of red wine on the counter.  Alongside it were mini plastic cups, presumably for customer enjoyment.  Regrettably it was pretty early in the morning when I visited so I did no sampling.  As I wondered through the shop I began noticing empty red bottles littering the shelves, tables,  and all corners of the place.  Well I guess some cities can chillax, while others stick to their puritanical roots.

February 22nd, 2009

Well, its definitely beginning for me: Bike Collecting Mania.  For the past two weeks I’ve been visiting craigslist and ebay at what seems like hourly (or less) intervals to look for bikes, frames, parts, shoes, or whatever.  I go between those sites, and googling/Sheldon Brown-ing the bikes/components in question to determine what’s a good bargain or not. I’ve checked thrift stores too but came up empty handed there. Its not healthy, man.  I know I have to cool it, but on the other hand I still need a bike to replace my aluminum beater, and I need to mess around with bike mechanics to get more practice in.  When I catch myself over-doing the bike hunting, I think it’s the materialism of it that irks me the most — the brand names, style, thinking how satisfying a purchase would make me feel, then the worry over possible buyer’s remorse — and I think, Whoa, this is not the kind of person I want to be; this is not the reason I want to get into mechanics.

HOWEVER, with all that said, I have a TON of satisfaction from from my recent bike buy, courtesy of ebay.

best 25 bucks i’ve spent in a long time.  It’s an early 80’s Swedish-made Crescent Världsmästarcykeln.  A white city cruiser sporting full chrome fenders, dymano lighting, chain guard, drop bars. Finnish Nokian tires and Dunlop-valved tubes (uh, anybody seen a pump for that?)  a killer bell too, oh and a kickstand of course.  I’m really into the Dutch/European style bikes at the moment, I have been ever since I traveled to some European countries this past summer.   Half of my travel photos were of bikes. I know fixies are the hip thing right now but this here is a really sensible bike.  (However it can be less sensible for use in a US city where you want to maintain speed and maneuver well through traffic.  I don’t really feel like getting into the whole ‘ i wish out cities were a lot more like Amsterdam and Copenhagen’ thing, but suffice to say those 60 year old, 60 pound Dutch bikes are perfect for some places and uses, and not so much for others.)   To my luck and surprise, though, this bike wasnt nearly as heavy as I thought it would be, and it was in awesome cosmetic condition.

It was being sold ‘as is’ and I was planning a thorough overhaul before riding it around, but as it happened, I was running late and needed to catch the train back to South Station, so without so much as pinching the tires to gauge pressure, I threw one leg over  and hauled ass into the night across Providence  (from where I picked up the bike locally and avoided s/h charges).  The bike performed beautifully! shifted, braked, didnt get me killed, what more could i ask for?

That right there is an integrated frame lock for the rear triangle.  Handy.  In all I’m really looking forward to cleaning and overhauling this bike.  Naturally it’s too small for me, but I guess I’m used to that by now.  for example here was  my summer ride, while I was in Germany (and also another example of my idea of a cool bike.)

made by Kalkhoff, in ‘West Germany’.  hands down the best 35 Euro I spent while over there. I could not get the grin off my face when I rode it. and yeah it separated into two.

Back here in the States I’m in the middle of doing resume drops at area bike shops.   After scoping out just about every shop in the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville I see that some places would suit me a lot better than others.  I guess i should go into the details since I dont know where I’ll end up, but it’s mostly about shop ambiance and the kind of bikes and merch they sell.  My number one priority is to get a bike mechanic job, but on the other hand I am sort of hesitant to drop off a resume at certain places that I’m not that excited about.  I think I’ll end up doing resume/application drops in rounds, starting with my first choices and hoping they’ll call me back before I get around to applying at the remaining shops.  I’m well aware I might end up being wrong about where’s best for me. Because, what do I know?

Recently I’ve been reading pretty much every book on bike mechanics I can get a hold of.  One thing I really like to do, especially if I’m traveling, is to walk into the central public  library and make my way towards call number 629.227.   Most bike books get shelved there, and sometimes under R(eference)629.227.  I’ve found some really interesting reads this way, and I want to start remarking briefly on the one’s I’ve like the most.   I’m going to start with Shelley Lynn Jackson &  Ethan Clark’s The Chainbreaker bike book because it stands out from everything else I’ve read.

I liked this book for its style and perspective.  It’s written by two mechanics/volunteers from New Orleans and resembles a DYI zine more than a dry, professional repair book.   Actually, Shelly had started a bike zine called Chainbreaker, but the project was canceled after ‘Cane Katrina.  All four issues of the zine are reproduced in the second half of this book.

I appreciated Shelly’s perspective as a female mechanic.  She goes on for a little while describing all the BS she has to deal with at the shop and I think that after taking it all in it will help me stay aware and sensitive of how women are treated in shops and the bike scene.  I also appreciated Ethan’s account of going from working at an unpretentious LBS to a high-end chain store.  He basically said it sucked working on nice bikes for rich people all day, because he didn’t feel like he was doing as much good for people as he had when he fixed bikes for people  who depended on them on a daily basis.   That resonated with me because I’m more interested in commuter riding than racing or doing anything competitive on a bike.  At one point in the boo, it might have been the zine reprint section, there were some words regarding fixies, and it went something like (paraphrasing) …. “whoa, can everyone just chill out and stop being so obsessed with components and competing for the nicest ride? let’s just encourage people to ride bikes and stop being so pretentious and intimidating.”The city of New Orleans definitely looms large over the writing of this book.  Both authors were volunteers at Plan B, a community bike organization, and I just got a really good impression of both N.O and Plan B, enough to spark an interest in visiting N.O. soon.

As for mechanical advise in this book –by the time I got around to Chainbreaker, I’d already read a lot of cut and dry repair books, so I wasn’t really scrutinizing this part of the book too much.  Really it’s likely not the best first/only book on repair to read, since the illustrations are sketched in black and white.  It did however give a good explanation of why freehubs and better than freewheels.

In all I liked this book and you should check it out, unfortunately no library in New England has it on their shelves.  Ask you local branch to order it?  They are required to spend like 20% of their budget on new books, you know….  Or order it from the publisher for 12 bucks here.

If you browse the bike section of Boston Craigslist often enough you’ve probably heard of bikes and accessories for sale at the Cambridge Antique Market, near Lechmere. To me the bikes listed/pictured had always came across as yard sale junkers that would be good for beating around campus and no much else. Never really piqued my interest.

Well I finally had a chance to go out to east Cambridge this past weekend and see what the deal was over there. I was totally pleasantly surprised! In the basement of this building are 40 or so road bikes, mostly 80s and 90s bikes, but some stuff goes back to the 60s or earlier.


The prices, compared to what goes on Craigslist, are really reasonable, especiallyconsidering that these bikes have been tuned and sometimes built up from recycled parts. Most tags I saw were $120-160.

Here’s a shot of Vin and Ed at work. They respectively operate Menotomy and Shawsheen, and last March teamed up to run the shop together. Right now they may be my only good lead for an affordable quality frame to build up on my own.

Another really awesome thing worth checking out is the price query tool Vin wrote up. Type in a search term and get back list of archived craigs-listings nationwide. It’s not necessarily current (use Crazedlist for that) but the point is to get a gauge for market price of a bike model. tip: keep your search terms short and simple, the engine isn’t as sophisticated as google — “San Jose Bianchi” will get you no results, “Bianchi San Jose” returns many. I’ve actually been using it since I discovered it about a month ago alongside with browsing for stuff on CL and ebay.

It can also be a lot fun to see just how much someone will inflate and then lower their price if no one bites. check this out:

, and….

All I can say is, O RLY?? results are in reverse chronological order, obviously.

Hey, let this be a warning to buying bikes on Craigslist. There is wicked speculation out there. I really wouldn’t recommend buying off craigslist unless a) you’re spending less than $75, b) you know a lot about bikes and/or how to work on them, or c) you have confidence that the seller knows about bikes and is giving you a fair deal. Most people are better off getting a used (tuned) or refurbished (overhauled) bike in a shop that will offer some kind of warranty.

experience required (?)

January 29th, 2009

When I first began to consider becoming a bicycle mechanic, I was afraid of being already too old to get my foot in the door. I assumed most mechanics got their start when they were 13 at their local shop, and to do so post-college was too late in the game.  While it’s true that a good number of people in the field started out messing around with bikes as kids or teens, it turn its still possible for others to gain experience and get hired.  Here are some good resources I can think of:

bike shops – It might just be as easy as walking into an LBS and asking if they’re hiring.  Some shops might not require any previous experience at all, just an “enthusiasm for the job”, but that’s rare.  Maybe you can ask to start out as a sales associate and have them train you on mechanics on the side.   I’ve also heard of some people convincing the owner/manager to let them apprentice at a shop medium-to-long-term, but this might involve being compensated with a store discount in lieu of a paycheck.  If you’re really lucky maybe you’ll find a shop that does something as formal  as Aaron’s Bike Shop’s two-year apprenticeship.

Most shops will require some previous experience however, in which case you may want to inquire about whether your LBS offers basic bike maintenance classes.  These may last 3 to 5 sessions over a number of weeks and usually cover how to fix a flat and do a simple tune-up.  Bike-based nonprofits usually do this sort of thing as well, often for a smaller fee or even free.  Which bring me to…

bicycle cooperatives, a/k/a bike kitchens, community bike organizations, etc… are an excellent resource to learn more about bikes, gain mechanical skills,  save money, and do some good for somebody else.  A partial but not total listing is available here. These noncommercial enterprises vary in mission and organizational level.  Some are small, volunteer-run bike kitchens run out of somebody’s garage or donated space where you can get help on your own bike for free or a donation, or can work on your own bike (Actaully some LBSs also have rentable self-service workbenches as well). Sometimes there is a focus on empowering local youth by allowing them to earn a bicycle through volunteer work. A few orgs have international programs that focus on improving the standard of living within developing nations by delivering bikes and related equipment there.  All of these organizations share a common goal of getting more people on bikes and becoming familiar with them.

Check to see if the one near you offers maintenance classes or the opportunity to do bike-related volunteering.  Chances are they do.

Professional schools – There are two institutes in the country which offer a certification program in bike mechanics.  UBI in Oregon, and Barnett’s in Colorado. I think they go for 80 hours over 2 weeks, and cost two or three grand.  I’ve heard and read only good things about these schools.  They have websites.

if anyone has any other ideas or experiences … pray tell.

update: question mark added to end of title, as I had intended

I want to have a lot of bikes.  I want one for commuting, one for longer weekend rides,  one for the rain, and a single speed or/and fixie to mess around with.  The way I’m going to justify being so greedy is that I’ll build up each one of these bikes  myself from salvaged parts, so that way I can tell myself that I’m getting much-need practice and not just being a hoarder.

Well a good place to start would appear to be figuring out what size frame and components would work for me.  My current ride is too small for me despite it being labeled an ‘XL’  by Specialized (the seat tube is 58cm).  I’m about 6’4″ but the height is more in the torso than my legs.  So I was looking forward to researching bike fit this afternoon, but came away not wholly satisfied. I found these two sites to be most helpful, but a good fit calculator (for non-racing bikes) eludes me. On the other hand it’s not as if I’m in the market for a custom-made frame, so precise calculations are maybe overkill, but I’m still not totally clear on what frame specs would be good for a tall guy who wears a 32″ inseam.

On to more interesting things, my dad’s bike is also too small for him and today I finally took a good look at what he rides.

Whoa! Turns out its a pretty impressive bike.  I’d been away from home since May, and before then I didn’t know much about what to look for on a bike.  But now I can more fully appreciate this Schwinn Super Sport.  I did some research, and using the information on the seat and head tubes I learned that this was made in Japan by Panasonic in March ’81, retailed for about $600 at the time, and was the second-best model put out by Schwinn that year, behind the Superior (the Paramount was not being produced at this time).  It feels featherlight. Has butted cro-moly tubes and the lugs are so sweet I get woozy if i look at them too long.

I have no idea how to shoot closeups with my digicam, obviously.  A neighbor pulled this bike out of his attic and gave it my dad for free a few years ago.   It needed some work to get back on the road, and my dad rode it happily for a maybe 4 summers.  There is some surface rust but the main issue for my dad is that the 19 21″ frame is way too short, even with that seat post as high as it is.  I’ll probably take it to Bikes not Bombs sometime to talk about trading it in with them.

a bit of who, what, and why

January 21st, 2009

I think it would useful to fill in the backstory of how I’ve arrived at this point of wanting to be a mechanic.  I’ll try to keep it short but consider that this will catch you up on about the past 6 years of my life…

I went through my high school and most of my college years assuming I’d go into a white-collar job, something in business or maybe law.  I’d been totally socialized to believe that those were the important and respectable career avenues and really the only options (thank you, upper-middle class upbringing and countless TV law drama series).  No surprise then that I was hit with a wave of anxiety when during college I went to work for a mid-sized company, and later a giant corporation, and found that working in a profit-minded office was completely unfulfilling, and boring, and soulless.  Sure I was doing entry level work, but I couldn’t imagine myself being happy in the shoes of my bosses or any of the big shots I came across, either.  In short I gave it a shot but realized that white-collar life was ill-suited for me.  This came a year before I was going to graduate college and I got pretty worried about what I was going to do with myself .

Then came along this idea to be a bike mechanic, which pretty much solved all my problems, for real.   On the theoretical level, I felt really good about wanting to be mechanic.   The act of fixing bikes just emanates positivity; you’re helping people in need and promoting bike use.  No one needs to be exploited or manipulated for a bike mechanic to do his/her job. Working on bikes is unquestionably a net gain to society, and there are a lot of (most?) jobs/firms/industries that I think don’t meet that criterion.  On the other hand I bet there are a lot of organizations like non-profits doing a whole lot of good, but that brings me back to not wanting to work in a cubical and on a PC, reading and writing email all day.  With wrenching, I really liked the idea of doing something physical but not hazardous or nasty.  You have to use your head, too; there’s a lot of problem solving and manual-reading going on.

SO, all this was well and good on the theoretical level, but then there’s the part about getting down and dirty with your hands, and honestly I’ve always been sort of klutz.  I had to see whether I was going to be physically capable of doing this kind of work.  I was still finishing up my undergrad degree at UMASS, but was spending my last semester (meaning, this past semester) at a West Coast university thanks to something called the national student exchange (link).  To my super good fortune, the school had a student-run bike shop, fully equipped and funded by the university (similar to Harvard’s Quad Bikes).   The shop crew agreed to take me in as a volunteer and they taught me so much about wrenching.  I was afraid I’d get discouraged because reality often doesn’t live up to the theory, but I got a taste of fixing bikes and working in a retail bike shop and I loved all of it!   That clinched it for me — I decided to go ahead, and disappoint my grandmother, and try to get into bike mechanics after graduation.

The one slight problem with that plan is that I ended up graduating not in May, which is both customary and near the start of bike season, but a semester early, in December, in the dead of winter and the dead of business for bike shops.  What can I say, I was trying to get out of school as fast as possible.  While this doesn’t bode well for me in the Income Generation Department, it did allow me the chance to apply and enroll in Bike’s Not Bombs vocational training program (link), which is going to be awesome since I’m still looking to solidify my foundational knowledge and skills and get trained more formally.  The student-run shop experience I had was great, but it was brief and on-the-fly, and my mechanical aptitude and confidence level are still low by my standards.  Plus I’m sure coming from BNB will help open up  some avenues for me once Boston starts to thaw out.

That’s more or less the background to put this blog in context. My goal was to do it in 250 words or less, but looks like it didn’t exactly pan it out that way.

what’s this blog for?

January 20th, 2009

The basic idea here is for me to keep tidy journal of my efforts to become a bike mechanic and start working in a local shop.  About a year ago I began considering becoming a bike mechanic, and by the summer I had pretty much made up my mind to go in that direction.  I was a senior in college and knew I had to finish up my degree, but I spent a lot my last (Fall) semester researching and imagining myself as a mechanic after graduation.

One thing that that I didn’t really come across, though, is a mechanic’s blog to give you a sense of a day(or month or year)-in-the-life of the profession.  I was sort of looking to read about the ambitions, frustrations, etc., of a mechanic, and since I haven’t found such a resource I’d thought I’d start my own with the idea that maybe somewhere down the line it’ll be useful to someone else who’ll be in the position I’m in today.

So I’m planning on keeping this blog pretty low-key and not go out of my way to really publicize it, and maintain my privacy, but as I say maybe it’ll come in handy for the next person who googles for ‘bike mechanic blog.’   Though at the moment maybe  I dont have much to say or offer — I’m not working anywhere as a mechanic, but I’m training and trying to get to that point (suggestions for a better sub-title to this blog appreciated…).

Anyway, I’ll try to keep things interesting, informative, and updated here.  stay tuned…

(possibly) coming soon…

January 10th, 2009

…the chronicles of a wanna-be mechaniker