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Not Getting Derailleur-ed This Time

Trying to learn the nuts and bolts of bike repair


I love my bicycle. It's a bright orange Cannondale cross bike with 18 speeds, Tiagra shifters and an aluminum frame. I ride it everywhere. In fact, I ride so much that even after a year at Boise Weekly, my co-workers are still surprised to learn I own a car.

But I don't fix my own bike. Never have. I can change a tire in a pinch, but when it comes to lubing a chain or tuning a derailleur, I take it to the shop with a rotating cast of excuses: I don't own tools, I'm short on time, it's better for the economy to pay someone else to do it.

Plus, based on some of my foolish youthful attempts to fix things, I'm pretty sure I have the ability to make a nut and bolt explode.

However, being a bike person, I feel like I should at least know how to fix my bike, even if only to eliminate the secret guilt or to better participate in conversations about gear ratios at parties. That's why every year I say I'll learn. And like so many New Year's resolutions, I promptly don't.

But this spring, staring down the barrel of both a horrible knocking noise from my bike's crank and the unexpected financial strain of a speeding ticket, I decided to finally make this the year and headed to Boise Bicycle Project.

The first thing BBP Shop Coordinator Marc Orton showed me was the A-B-C-quick check: air, brakes, chain, quick-release. We checked the tire pressure and realigned the brakes relatively easily. We also replaced worn brake pads.

But when we got to the chain, I started to regret my decision. Not only because the chain lube was soiling my fingers, but because we had reached the phase of learning things I don't want to know.

"Your chain is pretty much shot," Orton told me. Which, he went on to say, meant my sprockets were also shot. Total cost for new parts: $80. I feared that my hawg may be on its last legs.

But then Orton quickly told me not to worry too much.

"The beauty of a bike is you can ride it even when it's broken," he said, and we moved on to the complicated task of truing the rims.

"Wheels are the clitoris of the bicycle," Orton said.

It's a delicate process of adjustment, turning screws back and forth to bend my rim into its proper shape. Orton said it took him more than a dozen tries to get it right, but I was taking to it right away. If that's true, it was purely by accident.

After that, he showed me how to adjust my derailleur and tighten my headset and we were done. As we cleaned up, Orton explained that we had just done a superficial tune-up. A real tune-up, he said, can often cost more than a new bike, and it won't always get the bike back to 100 percent.

Due to the cost, I didn't replace my chain or sprockets. Still, my bike is back to riding like a dream and doing the repairs was much easier than I expected. Altogether, the tune-up only took about an hour and a half, far less than the three days I once spent trying to replace a motorcycle part.

If I paid myself $10 hour, I'd still be far ahead of the $40-$70 cost of a tune-up at a shop, even with the purchase of new brake pads. But without Orton, it's unlikely my bike would be riding much better at all. He's been doing this all day, every day for four years. Tuning up my bike up myself every six months, it could take me until 10 minutes after never to get up to speed.

Before I left, I asked Orton why people should learn to fix their own bikes.

"It's mostly for people who are interested in repairing things," he said. "But that's the beauty of a bike shop. If you're not interested, drop it off and they'll do it for you."

When that annual clanking noise starts up again around October, I guess I'll find out how interested I am.