Back in the olden days, when I was somewhere in that strange hinterland between ten and teen, when glue was still something you used to stick Airfix Spitfires together and Gameboys had not yet been invented (and televisions were black and white – can you imagine?), Dave and I used to pass many a happy hour taking our bikes apart and putting them back together again.
It was not an entirely pointless occupation. Maintenance helps keep bikes working properly. Fortunately, bikes make sense, for the most part. There are about a thousand individual bits in a bike, but it’s pretty clear what each of them does. Isaac Newton would probably have been impressed by a bike, but not baffled. Cars are different. Cars are combinations of combinations of bits whose workings are utterly opaque to all but the initiated. Who, I ask you, has the faintest idea what goes on inside a carburettor?
But as for bikes…how does the brake work? Well, you pull this lever here, and it pulls on this wire. The wire goes through the tube, here, and comes out the other end, here, where it is attached to this bit of metal, here. So when you pull the lever, the pull on the wire pulls the bit of metal, which is connected to another similar bit of metal by a bolt, here, in such a way that pulling one pulls the other. And as they move together, each pulls a lump of rubber so that it drags on the rim of the wheel. Which slows the wheel down, which slows the bike down. Da-dah! A bit of looking and a bit of tweaking, and almost all of a bike’s mysteries are revealed – essentially because it has none. What you see is what you get. One result being, if something goes wrong, it’s usually pretty quickly clear why. And, more to the point, what needs to be done to put it right.
Not that Dave and I stopped there. We had time to burn and curiosity, to add to the need to keep things working. Which is how we ended up one day trying to reassemble a wheel hub.
Taking it apart had been easy. Taking things apart always was. Keep screwing things off till they’re all off, then stop. So, first, the nuts that held the wheel on the bike. Ooh – more nuts! Take those off. Then the next bits, revealing the bearings. And just as well, since the bearings proved to be coated in a horrible black sludge, laced with grit. Well, we knew how to get filth off – paraffin. So, out with the paraffin, clean everything off, then reverse the procedure: screw a cone back on the axle, then put the bearings in place inside the hub (keeping the wheel dead level to stop them rolling off). Then lower the axle in…. careful…. careful…. damn! The bearings, dislodged, fell down through the wheel with a series of little plinking noises. Out with the axle, rearrange the bearings on their little ledge, then lower the axle in again, careful… careful….bugger! Plink plink plink. And again. And again. And again. What larks, Pip, what larks! Till Dave’s Dad came in. And put us wise. ‘Coat the ledge with grease, then stick the bearings in the grease.’ Ah. Done in two minutes. Easy when you know how.
Which goes for most things to do with maintaining a bike. Easy when you know how. And thanks to the internet, the ‘know how’ has never been more easily accessible. With a little help from sheldonbrown.com and parktools.com, pretty much anyone can maintain a bike. Because bikes make sense. Of course if you’re lazy, or rich, or both, you can have someone else do it. My mate Andrew gives his bike a ‘Gold Service’ at the local bike shop once a year. Two hundred quid to you. That’s more than I’ve ever paid for a bike. And all to have someone tighten your brake cables and re-grease your hubs. Crazy. DIY. Enjoy.