Battles with bicycle maintenance (and a ghost)

When it comes to bicycle maintenance, I am, by my calculations, precisely halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite.

I am competant enough to be technically able to replace worn brake blocks (those rubber things that stop the bike) (not the soles of your shoes), and yet incompetant enough to be incapable of fitting them so that they both:

a) stop the bike when I squeeze the brake levers

AND

b) don’t rub against the wheel when I’m not squeezing the brake levers.

This second feature of my brake adjustments turns every bike ride into some kind of resistance training. Great for fitness, not so great for getting anywhere faster than a mobility scooter.

The fact that I was able to cycle over 4,000 miles around the coast of Britain (not to mention another 1,500 around Tunisia) is testament more to the robust design of the modern bicycle than to my own skills as roadside mechanic.

Wheeling Adventure

Why do I mention this? Well, in the British Library the other day, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet called Wheeling Adventure, written over sixty years ago by a chap called Frank Urry (the ghost in this tale).

Frank was, at the time of publication in 1951, in his 70s and could justly claim to lived through the very beginnings of what we now know as cycle touring. When he first sat on a bike it scarcely had pedals, let alone brake blocks.

To read his words from beyond the grave, gleaned from over sixty years of cycling, is to recall what a wonder the bicycle is and what joys we spurn when we “motor” instead.

“Why should I want to go swiftly from place to place with but a glimpse at the going? The day is no longer, nor do you crowd more into its hours, except miles, and what use are they if you have missed the sights along them, the music of the winds and birds, the gossip of the wayside people, and the satisfaction of the perfect achievement of your body?”

I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I smugly sat in the library, thighs still warm from the morning cycling up to King’s Cross, surrounded by academics who’d braved instead the morning rush hour.

But my smugness was not to last.

Chattering of neglect

For there followed a passage that really stung my attention, concerning bicycle maintenance:

“Oh! the thousands of bicycles that pass me – that I pass – squeaking, groaning and chattering of neglect, that were once the pride of their owners and are now wrecks of inattention, and all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

Yes, my poor bicycle, the same beast that had carried me gamefully around the coast for two months without so much as a squeak, is now an old nag, scuffling about the streets of London, a bolt or a bearing or a brake or a bracket always only moments from breaking.

Frank’s spirit gently chastises me from across the chasm of years that separates us: “even with disregard and neglect the bicycle still runs, which is surely a proof of its marvellous design and simplicity of construction.

Ouch.

The handicap of this neglect ” he adds, with hint of disdain in his tone, “is the rider’s.

And how right he is! Every time I take to the roads, I am frighteningly aware of a slight antagonism between my chain and my gears. Perhaps one in every hundred turns of the pedal grinds with a nasty gnashing of teeth as the chain skips a link or two, my foot slips forward, the momentum shifts in my hands and I lose momentarily my line on the road. Surely it is only a matter of time before a passing bus or a rubbish lorry decides to take a terminal interest in this careless instability.

Frank talks frankly: “It is so simple and so much neglected, that I often wonder why such a priceless property – or rather a property giving such priceless pleasure – should be so abused.”

I feel quite ashamed that, for my bicycle to whom I owe so much, I do so little. I vow to address its quiet complaints. Tonight.

Bicycle Workshop, Interior, Night

As things stand, I am aware that my bicycle has the following running problems:

  1. The rear wheel wobbles laterally. This, I have been informed by someone less hapless, is a problem with “the cones”. I thought “the cones” were what they put on the side of the road when they’re doing roadworks. I have no idea why or where they might be on a bicycle.
  2. The rear brakes are rubbing against the rear wheel. (When they shouldn’t be.) I am optimistic that this problem might be resolved when I’ve dealt with the cones.
  3. The chain skips too often for my liking (or safety).

Not having a diagnosis for #3 and being optimistic about #2, I decide to tackle #1.

With the help of a bike maintenance manual, some spanners and no little brute force, I successfully dismantle the rear cassette (gears) and get right down to the cones. These are little nuts that keep the all the bits of the axle together and spinning freely, but not too freely. They just need a little tightening, I’m assured, to eliminate that wheel wobble.

So I tighten the non-drive side cone. I can’t get to the other one because something else is in the way. I put the wheel back together and back on the bike. I give it a test spin. Nothing happens. No wobble: good. No spin: bad. I’ve over-tightened the cone.

I pull the whole thing apart again, slightly loosen the cone and put it all back together again. This time the wheel spins: good. And wobbles: bad.

This pattern repeats several times over until eventually the Goblins of Bicycle Maintenance get bored of tormenting me and I have both a spinning and non-wobbling wheel.

I am pleased with myself.

For exactly 30 seconds.

That’s how long it takes for me to realise:

  1. My brakes are still rubbing when they shouldn’t.
  2. My wheel is misaligned to the right hand side.
  3. Some of the spokes are loose.
  4. The tyre is wearing so thin that you can see strands of fabric poking through the rubber from the inside.

It is at this moment that I recall Frank Urry’s words: “…all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

I have been working on my bike now for well over an hour and, not only is it still a wreck of inattention, it is far more of a wreck of inattention for all the attention that I’ve given it.

Thanks to my lavish attention, I am now fully cognizant of the fact that my bike is a death trap. That tyre is so thin that it would puncture on a cotton bud.

Life after Frank

You must, by now, be wondering at my deluded sense of self-awareness: Halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite! With a tyre no thicker than a housemaid’s pinnafore? Pah.

But, dear reader, may I draw your attention to my bed. For lodged neath said furniture, until now only gathering dust, is my answer to the ghost of Frank Urry, tutting and head shaking:

One spare rear wheel – cassette, cones and all.

Which brings me to the lesson of the day: half the battle of competance is carrying spares. Or, as Blue Peter would have it: “Here’s one I made earlier.”

What do you think?