We headed out into the humid, hot weather on bikes this past Saturday. At 6:45 a.m. the surface of our sunglasses fogged over with moisture. The day was clear but the road ahead looked hazy.
We gathered momentum in any case, and were trekking along at 20 mph when my rear wheel made a strange “THUNK” noise and I rolled to a stop. Broken spoke. Second this summer. Sue spun around after I called out to her, but she still had 96 miles to ride that day. So she rode north and I sat down in the grass to wait for her daughter to come pick me up.
Thank God for cell phones. I tagged my location and she drove right to the spot. “You guys came a long way,” she observed. “It took me twenty minutes to get here.” That’s because we were exactly twenty miles from home.
I was disappointed because my plan was to support Sue on a 112 mile ride by joining her for 80 miles. So I sat there in the shade with my bike leaned up against the town sign for Troxel, an unincorporated farm village that forms the juncture of two country roads on the Illinois landscape.
A work crew in that grove of trees was toppling a big old willow while I sat there waiting for the ride home. The saws tore into the trunk with a loud whine and the tree finally cracked and fell.
That is just one of many trees I’ve heard hit the ground over the years. One was a massive oak in a savanna habitat near my home. I was birdwatching on a footpath in a burr oak woodland when a familiar old oak tree that I knew suddenly split at the base. The entire enterprise of bark and wood and limbs lurched over and fell to the ground. The loud rush of wind through the leaves made a weird roar. Then the tree bounced once, and it was over. A field of debris had whooshed out from beneath the canopy, and then the woods were silent again. I stood there considering that tree’s history. At 150-180 years old, it likely sprouted somewhere back before the area was settled. Before farming eliminated the prairie. Before white colonization had even started. It grew through fires when natives burned the grasslands and when lightning cleared them also. It built thick bark from the get-go, and grew tall and wide over more than a 100 years of sunshine, rain, snow and drought.
Now its functional life was over, yet it’s next stage in the journey was still to come. It would slow rot, and holes would show. Ground creatures large and tiny would take over. And after another 50-100 years, that tree would be soil again. A perfect end. And somehow worth emulating.
But for now, I wanted to keep moving.
Back at the bike shop that morning, I discussed the problem of my breaking spokes. The mechanics at the first shop did not have a replacement. But my best friend and mechanic that I contacted by phone that morning had a different warning. “The wheels may be worn out,” he said.
Two seasons? That happens? So I asked for a second opinion with the bike shop where I stopped to check on their spoke supply.
“How much do you ride?” the bike shop wanted to know. “I suppose six thousand miles in two seasons,” I said. They shook their heads resolutely. “It can happen with these higher end bikes,” they agreed. But my wife was having none of that when I texted with her during a break in her ride. “They just want to sell you wheels,” she warned.
Back ordered in black
So I called a different shop and the sales guy there said, “We probably have that spoke here somewhere.” I asked if he could check because I was 15 miles away and did not want to drive over for no reason.
280MM j-spoke in black. Not bladed. He checked as I waited on the phone for three minutes. He came back on and said, “Nope, we don’t have it.”
I was running out of Specialized dealers that carry Fulcrum wheels. There was still one local shop left to check. So I drove three miles upriver to the bike shop named Sammy’s, but it was not yet open. That meant spending a bit of time at the Arcedium coffee shop while the 20 minutes until opening whiled away. Then I called over. The mechanic there quickly checked his stock and said, “Yup. Got it.”
I hauled the whole bike into the store and the mechanic snagged my Specialized Venge without a word. He took a look at the spoke and nodded. His mechanic buddy kept working on the new Colnago he was putting together. Neither said much the entire time. Doesn’t take much talking to wrench bikes. The conversation takes place between the mind and the parts going together.
I tried making some polite conversation that first minute, but the mechanic was completely focused on fixing my wheel. He popped out the old spoke and stuck in the new one. Threw it on the apparatus to true the wheel and worked his way around tightening the spokes. Then he slid the wheel back on the bike and spun it into motion. Perfect.
While I was waiting on the work, another rider with a tri-bike clacked into the shop under a sheen of sweat and an air of eagerness about him. My mechanic walked over to look at his bike, patiently listened to his story about rubbing brakes, and told the guy to set his bike against the wall. This rider was obviously a regular customer who competes for the store team by the looks of his kit. The mechanic nodded and said, “Let me finish this and I’ll get to yours.”
The life of a bike mechanic is full of such interactions.
I was somewhat surprised by the entire scene. Honestly I anticipated leaving my bike to come back the next day if necessary. I do not expect immediate or same-day service under any conditions. Yet it happens with some regularity. It is nothing to take for granted.
I do business with a number of local bikes shops. I try to spread my dollars around. The Bike Rack in St. Charles did a fitting for me recently. Their guy Lance did an excellent job, and my riding this summer has improved as a result. My friend Jack also works at that store. His cycling knowledge is encyclopedic after 40 years of competition and training. But recently he’s been moved by collaborating with the Creative Mobility side of the business, working with the Wounded Warrior Project and Project Mobility, for whom The Bike Rack recently conducted a fund-raising ride.
My point here is simple: bike mechanics aren’t just automatons who wrench your bike and go to sleep sucking on grease-soaked thumbs to dream about the perfect thread of a brake or drive train cable through a frame. They are, just like physician’s assistants or nurses in the medical world, some of the most knowledgeable and concerned people you will ever meet. They are the doctors for your bike. Don’t take them for granted.
Spoken with a tip
So I pulled out $15 from my wallet as the mechanic walked the bike back up to the counter to enter the charges. I slipped him the money and said, “Here, this is for you.”
The actual charge was $27. Yet even with the tip on top of it, that was a bargain for his services, especially on such short notice. But honestly, this has happened on many occasions in my nearly two decades of riding. As a frequently mechanically challenged rider, I am appreciative of those who work hard and can diagnose problems or fix them on the spot.
Kudos to our local bi,e shops at Prairie Path Cycles, Pedal and Spoke and All Spoked Up. Mill Race Cyclery , Spokes, and Performance to name just a few. All of these stores as well as bike shops across the country do so much to make riding a better experience. Sure you can buy stuff cheaper online but I still believe in the value of supporting local bike shops any way that I can. So I paid for a couple pairs of bike shorts, other kit gear and arm sleeves. I buy fuel and food and drink mix at these shops. And of course, I bought my bike through a local dealer who got me a very good value on a top-level ride.
But now that I think about it, I owe a few other mechanics a few bucks for service. One even restored my Waterford to riding condition. That was no easy task. Another solved my wife’s drivetrain issues. So I’m going to slip by with some unexpected dough for their services. Maybe just slide it to them with a smile, and no real spoken words if you catch my drift. Just a “thanks for your help this summer” and a President on a $20 bill.
It’s worth it because the conversation and relationship you have with your bike is a product of respect shown and received.
Yet there are some spoken words to be said when riding. There’s the “goddamnit!” when something a spoke breaks far from home. But there’s also the “Thank you God” when you’re back out on the road as I was yesterday, riding 30 miles after a five-mile morning run and averaged 18mph despite some difficult winds. All thanks to a bike mechanic who takes his job seriously and did one helluva favor fixing the spoke on short notice.
Unspoken. And spoken. It’s all we really have to say thanks.