Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tricks of the Trade

There are a lot of bike mechanics in the world.  It’s often a field that is shrouded in a bit of mystery and a whole mess of grumpy dudes.  There seems to be two ways to break into this industry—although I’m not sure “break in” is the right way to say it.  You can either buck up and pay the money to go to a reputable mechanics school, or you can start at the very bottom—sweeping floors—and learn little by little.  I was lucky, in a sense, to happily fall into an invaluable 6+ years of working in shops starting at the ripe old age of 14.  I worked in shops throughout my high school and college years learning bit by bit on all types of two wheeled contraptions.  Twelve years later, I’ve learned the secret signs of an attentive bike mechanic. 

The old-school rules of the bicycle mechanic.  Photo Credit: Philip Gale

Whether you see them or not, I take great care in getting even the smallest of details right—every time.  Now I’m not trying to say that I’m perfect—I know it’s hard to believe, but even I occasionally make a mistake.  These details are often small or even insignificant, but they create a type of secret language between wrenches.  I look at your bike and can tell a great deal about the last mechanic (whether professional or just you in your garage) who last tweaked your ride. 

I’m not trying to indict your local bike shop’s mechanic.  I’m just about to let you in on the secret—show you what pro mechanics look for in other pro mechanics’ work.  Because at a certain point, just getting the gears to shift correctly isn’t enough.  There has to be some extra art to it, an extra challenge to keep you engaged after you have adjusted your 1,000th front derailleur (although I have to admit that there are still plenty of mechanics out there who have yet to figure out that pesky front derailleur). 

So here is a short list of secret (or not so secret) industry secrets that many pro mechanics religiously adhere to for no good performance reason:

Cables and Housing:

Cables and housing are ripe for detail work—and not difficult to make look good, but so many people just leave them long and sloppy.  It often rather time consuming to shorten cables to their correct and proper length, and outside of aesthetics there is no major functional reason to cut them down—except for the fact that it is not pro. 

Cables should be short and neat.  
Cable ends should be short, but not too short (two finger widths is a good guide) and should be neatly crimped with the correct size cable end.

An unfiled brake housing
Filed brake housing

All brake housing should be filed to a flush end.  This makes braking feel more crisp—or at least that’s what I tell myself when I question why I do it.  It is a detail that is literally buried inside your shifter or a cable ferrule, so pretty much nobody knows or cares whether or not I do it (except me, of course), so I do it every time.  

For really special builds, matching the labels on the cable housing is a nice aesthetic touch.  I don’t do this for everyone though, so if you notice that I did it on your build: consider yourself special. 


Matching labels with the valve: it's pro.

Wheels are another detail that often gets overlooked.  One of the most common pointless mechanical rules is lining up the label of your tire with the valve of the tube.  This is literally the first thing you learn when you start working in a shop—and I have no idea why.  I have heard several far-fetched ideas why, but I don’t buy any of them.  You should do it for the same reason you shave your legs: just because.

Make sure you can read your hub label through your valve hole.
The pointless mechanical rule of wheelbuilding:  You should lace a wheel such that you can read the label on the hub through the valve hole of the rim.  Again, no practical value, but this is how pretty much every professional builds wheels.  It was one of the first tips I received when building my first wheelset. 


Of all the things a mechanic can do to a bike, wrapping bars is my favorite.  It’s not complicated, but it actually takes a fair bit of practice and focus to do exactly right.  Each successive wrap should be even and parallel.  Throw those extra little strips of tape that come in the box away.  If you wrap a tight figure eight pattern around the hoods, they are totally unnecessary and only get in the way.  Finish with neatly done black electrical tape.  A well taped bar should stay tightly wrapped for as long as you need it to. 

A well wrapped bar.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  Being a good wrench is more than simply lining up labels.  And I also want to be clear that I’m not trying to say these are sure fire signifiers of quality.  I’m sure there are some pretty great mechanics out there that don’t file their brake housing, and some pretty terrible ones that do, but isn’t it just so much easier to make overly simplified generalizations?  Yeah, I think I’ll stick with that.  So beware.  Next time you see a pro mechanic break one of these sometimes non-sensical rules, grab your bike and run.  They are assuredly about to break it. 

To be fair, these are details that most mechanics are aware of, but occasionally neglect for whatever reason.  Whether these small details are the actual signifiers of a quality mechanic is besides the point.  They are a sign of someone who takes pride in their work.  Taking the extra time to make sure the details are right maybe doesn't gain you any time in a time trial, but it should give you a real sense of pride in the machine you are riding, and surely that is an advantage that is hard to quantify.