My family was lower middle class and it was the mid eighties. The economy was in the tank, and both my parents earned a modest living while supporting my brother and me. Practical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter rank over toys. Luxurious items such as new bicycles are out of reach. Most of my bikes were hand-me-downs from my older brother, or found at the dump by my dad and usually they had mechanical issues.
In 1985 my parents recognized that my brother and I wanted new bikes. We ate ketchup sandwiches on white bread to splurge on a couple of Free Spirit All Terrain Bicycles from Sears. My best friend also got a new mountain bike from the hardware store. There was pressure to keep up with the Jones', while keeping bored kids out of trouble.
What a time it was. Mountain biking was a new thing and I had a new bike. At that time, to have a dedicated off road bicycle was earth shattering. It advertised its off road intentions, “All Terrain Bicycle” right on the frame. This proved that it was no road bike. Although to us, mountain biking always existed, with or without the categorization.
We grew up at the end of a dirt road, with a few trails out of our backyard scratched in with our dirt bikes. We modified ten speed road bikes by turning up the handlebars so we could ride our trails. We borrowed dad’s shovel to go pile dirt so we could jump our bmx bikes. But now, we have purpose-built off road bicycles with low gearing. A world of possibility and exploration opened up before we even threw our legs over our new bikes. Even to this day, my love of exploration came from owning that first mountain bike.
Mountain bike maintenance didn’t come from mechanical fascination in those early years. The shit gear we were using made it essential. These bikes were piles of shit. My brother’s bike fared better than mine, as he spent more time cleaning it and I rode mine. The first part to fail was a cracked crank arm, followed by bent chain rings, and blown out hub bearings. There was only one bike shop where I grew up, and they helped me keep that bike running for what seemed like an eternity.
I was young, confused, and so naive. I thought my $600 was the epitome of technological advancement. As a kid who wore my brother’s old socks, I considered any toy that cost that much money to be the height of technology. I was so wrong; so disheartened from my pride & joy falling apart before my eyes.
Growing up in the sticks, I had to learn how to keep my bike working. I gathered whatever information my little brain could take in. Manuals describing how to pack a hub, I never knew existed. Nor anyone telling me that non drive side pedals are the opposite thread. Crank arms installation with a hammer and block of wood. If cables aren’t fraying, I lube and reuse them. The bike’s steel single-walled rims bend and once again straighten. The process of mechanical experimentation taught me what worked and what didn’t.
My father was a car mechanic and he never once paid for labour on anything. He built our house by himself. He rebuilt engines and swapped automatic transmissions for manuals. I learned that ethos from the fact that he could fix pretty much anything, so that was my norm growing up. Even at twelve years of age, I thought that bringing my bike to get fixed at a bike shop made no sense. I adopted the idea that if it went together, I could take it apart. I got it wrong more than I got it right, but I was learning. I was repairing broken parts while adopting personal responsibility for wrecking shit.
Years later I started working in the bike industry. I also started racing. The love of bicycle maintenance I learned as a kid continued to blossom. Stripping my bike down, bolt by bolt, to make it perform better was a carryover from those early days. I was the type of guy to dive into rebuilding brand new forks because they shipped too dry. I would dismantle pivot bearings, clean and re-lube them to squeeze an extra few months out of them. I raced motorcycles and learned that if my valves needed to shimmed, then I was going to have to figure it out. I refused to let someone re-valve my suspension, so I did it myself. Paying for labour when I have two hands and a brain? Not a chance.
I’m not saying I’m special. I’m a mediocre bike mechanic at best. I’ve learned a lot from people with far more skill than I will ever have. My desire for self sufficiency was born from growing up poor. It taught me to love the process of trial and error.
At the risk of sounding like an old codger, kids these days will never know the pain of those early bikes. The expectation of failures occurred when you least expected them. Bikes now are perfect and rarely break under normal use. Entry level bikes are much higher quality now than they were a few years ago, let alone from the eighties. And yet the art of maintaining your bike is as vital as ever. Tell me a better feeling than unbolting your bike piece by piece? Cleaning every part, and rebuilding it with new oil and grease. Name a better ritual than setting up your brake levers, because there is none.
The process of maintenance used to be one that involved fixing what is broke. With modern bikes, we are weeding out personal preferences and not much more. We’re fortunate that we have such reliable bikes now, but my feeling is that riders have become less self-sufficient. I have no way of quantifying that statement, but is that a fair assessment? It goes without saying that bicycles are far more complicated now than they were back in 1985. Although, standardization usually means better fitment. Long gone are the days of pop can shims and packing bottom bracket bearings. Bikes now are for lack of a better description, plug & play. So in a way, the process of maintenance has gotten easier as bikes have gotten more complicated.
I’m less obsessive about maintenance, but I still enjoy the ritual. Cleaning my drive train, installing a new bar, and figuring out how to customize a perfect bike. Now it’s more about changing the look with new parts rather than a question of functionality. But, I’ll always reminisce about those early days of repairing my bike. No bike stand, no proper tools, no real know-how other than the ability to try.
I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.