Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Mechanical parts teach you that small things matter.
personal, philosophy
02 Feb 200902 Feb 2009 finished certainty: emotional importance: 6

When I was younger, I went to school in upstate New York. One year I brought with me a mountain bike for getting around on (said campus being quite a long haul from one end to another). The campus was also inland quite a few miles from the Hudson River but also fairly distant from the Great Lakes; all this is to say that while the winters were not so fierce and snowy as they notoriously are in Buffalo, they were not nearly as mild as on Long Island, where there would be a white Christmas only every few years and children got only a few days off for snow.

Between the constant riding to and from class, and the damp weather (to say nothing of the constant melting & freezing snow and ice), my poor bike began to show its age. It technically belonged to my elder sister, but she had not ridden it for perhaps 5 years or more by this point, and so the bike had happily mouldered in our dry garage. It certainly had not been used and abused in quite the vigorous way I did, thinking nothing of biking a few miles a day, happily going over curbs at whim and being left outside day and night—oh no, it was most certainly not used to that.

At first, its displeasure manifested in subtle ways. Sections of paint by the joints and moving parts began to flake and be replaced by rust. The 6 gears in the drive began to stick such that one would go to sixth from fifth but not immediately; only on some untoward jolt would it finally move, although one could try switching down a few gears and then back up (tricking it, as it would happily go from third to fifth, but you would slyly proceed in the main to sixth gear). And the rear brakes loosened and became progressively less useful; and perhaps it was merely one’s imagination but was it always so difficult to start peddling in the highest gear?

I shrugged off these symptoms. Que sera, sera. As long as it works right now. Intermittently I would pretend to the station of a dutiful owner and treat it to some WD-40 or take a wrench to it and tighten some parts.

These were but delaying tactics, alas; and so the first lesson of owning a bike became manifest: moisture is a great foe; rust is a warning sign; regular maintenance can pay off, or, “a stitch in time saves nine”.

One night, leaving supper at the dining hall and unlocking my bike while conversing with a counter part (likewise unlocking his bike), I must have erred at some point. For on mounting and peddling a short distance, I felt a most unpleasant sensation like biking through thick mud or as if a flock of rust had roosted in the drive train.

It is not a sensation I am familiar with, but I stopped. A quick visual inspection revealed the truth. The rear tire, which had for so many years took the topological form of a tea cup (a cylinder with 2 linked ends), had now assumed the topological form of a tea kettle (2 holes, not 1). The pressure of my weight had caused the split to race along the seams and had left the tire in tatters. I assure you, I did not weigh much more than usual.

This left me in dire straits, accustomed as I was to getting to class in under 10 minutes. Further, I had no idea what to do. I have never had to change a tire before. Indeed, I strongly suspect that that pair of tires was the original pair of tires which was mounted on the bike in that long ago factory. (As I said, my sister was not overly fond of riding; a true American, she prefers to be driven.)

I was familiar with tire-changing in theory, of course. You take a new tire, push and prod and poke it into place around the metal hoop, reinflate et voila! A change tired. But this was not the same thing as having a new tire of the correct size and knowing how to replace this specific shredded tire which exists here and now, on this particular bike with its unique history of accumulated misfortune. Oh no, these were not the same things at all.

I beseeched my friends for advice. They told me to unscrew the 2 nuts forcing the rear wheel to remain attached to the end of the bike, and pull off the old tire without regard for personal cleanliness or its remaining integrity.

This accomplished, I carefully jotted down the numbers faintly inscribed on the side of the tire. I did not know which of them was the most crucial indicator, although I had reasoned out that when buying tires the important specification was probably the diameter of the wheel—for tires are not like computer parts where the interface determines absolutely whether it will work or not (the slightest deviation spelling certain doom). Rather, they are like nails and screws: the correct one will certainly make things much easier, but enough force and effort can deform even a relatively unfit component into the requisite dimensions. So, the size it was.

Days later, we wended our way to the local sporting goods store (no bicycle stores were to be had in that part of Rochester, it seems) where we were favored by a rack of suspended tires. Here is where the recorded numbers came in handy.

A definite lesson was learned here: when parts include numbers and other metadata, they are quite valuable. The worth of information can be without price: a man dying in the desert does not give a fig for platinum or diamonds, but a few simple bits representing the direction to the rescuers or the nearest oasis? They would be worth the world:

“On the one hand, information wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is lower and lower all the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.”1

So too myself before the tire rack. Without that information, what could I do but shrug helplessly while returning home after a night of futility? One could not buy all the possible tires, and merely guessing would be of little avail: I am sure that if I asked you the diameter of your car or bike tires, you could tell me to within 6 inches. But what good is buying a bike tire 6 inches too large or small? If it was 6 inches too small, you would stretch it to destruction to force it around the wheel and air tube; if it was 6 inches too large, then the tire would always slip off or retain stones and very soon puncture itself.

Yes, this was perhaps the most important lesson: the right information can be truly essential, no less in real life than in realms like computer science that have exalted data.

The replacement part most manfully won from Dick’s, the primary task was begun. A wrench and lubricant sufficed to wrench off one nut. But the other was quite literally enshrouded in a cloak of rust. I would swear to you, reader, that that bolt had never been loosed before. It was well and truly pressure-welded to the bike-frame. I will not recount the many excruciations I suffered in the removal of the bolt, but should you find yourself ever dealing with such a painfully obstinate bit of metallic recalcitrance: try to avoid reflecting on the cosmic injustice of how such a tiny thing and tiny difference in placement or dimensions is causing you such grief and instead—whack it really hard and whack it many times.

The shock will gradually loosen it, and in my case I managed to ‘slide’ the bolt along the U-shape of the socket until I finally knocked it right off. This is another useful lesson: when the ‘proper’ & intended way does not work, brute force is often an acceptable method. (Then take a break.)

I removed the superfluous components, rang the wheel with first the air tube and then placed around it the tire. One subtlety I had to keep in mind is that the bladder should in no wise be between the ‘wall’ of the tire and the hub: one’s weight will squeeze down on it, and the abrasion caused by friction between the two will surely result in catastrophic air release. So once I made sure the tube was tucked in and inflated, it was very simple to insert the wheel back in its place, retighten the brakes, and screw the nuts back in.

Thus ended my labor of days and my walking. The chief lessons were painfully but well won from experience. Profit you thereby.

See Also

  1. Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak (1984; First Hacker’s Conference)↩︎