Bike Wrenching: Craftwork for a Post Fix-It Nation?

wrench & boltThe New York Times recently published an essay titled, A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox. The toolbox here is metaphorical: it’s not that we don’t have tools, we’ve simply lost our ability to use them. Home Depot caters to the needy homeowner with DIY classes, the piece notes, but we’ve culturally lost the will to wrench. Perhaps the shift from manufacturing to services has undermined American familiarity and facility with tools, and with the loss goes the mechanical ingenuity that long charted a course for our industrial and industrious nation.

The irony here is that we have more tools than ever at our disposal. Warehouse-style retailers like Home Depot offer aisles stacked with them, and even provide fix-it classes. Indeed today there exist more avenues for learning about tools than ever. Need to fix that garbage disposal? There’s a video for that. But wouldn’t most of us rather call a handyman?

Home Depot & flag logoAs times change, we change with them, of course, and ours is no longer a manufacturing economy. Factory work no longer runs in most families if only because there’s not so many factories anymore. And a penchant for outsourcing everything beyond screwing-in a light bulb seems to have dulled our fix-it faculties. We may occasionally roll that DIY video, but our real and metaphorical toolkit is only a shadow of what it was. The skills we once learned on the factory floor or at parent’s elbow are in short supply today. What does that suggest for our future national character?

Many cyclists know that we can recapture the joy of working with our hands simply by wrenching our own bike. The mechanics of cycling haven’t changed appreciably in the century since the introduction of the safety bicycle. Indeed of all the tangibles we use in daily life, the bicycle remains one of the very few that is both satisfyingly complex and plainly accessible to the tinkerer.

Fix-It bike signWrenching the ride also makes cycling more emotionally engaging. Not only is putting the wrench to it immediately rewarded (like fixing that flat or dabbing lube on a squeaky chain), but keeping the ride in good working order with a smooth-running  drivetrain makes riding more satisfying. It requires only curiosity, some very basic tools, and the will to get a little greasy. Getting dirty: is that why Americans recoil from the wrench?

Most committed cyclists I know already wrench their ride. There has arisen a whole culture of ride-wrenching and customizing centered around co-op shops and fixed-gear bikes. Maintenance classes are a given these days at mainstream bike shops, but co-ops take it to the next level by putting tools right in your hand. And fixies? Pimped and primped, these eye-catching rides have captured the attention of young folks who in another generation might have looked beyond the bike to a Fast and Furious machine.

I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but we can interest adults and children in bicycles if we demystify the machinery. Keeping the ride in good working order is of course key to safe cycling. At the very least the pre-ride check is a must. Tire inflation (make sure they’re firm to the squeeze), brakes (ensure scant slack and healthy cables), and lighting & reflectors (better than the law requires) are must-checks. Of course, take care to cinch-up the loose clothing and tie down unstable baggage.

There are guides out there. The Boulder Cycling Club says that the pre-ride check comes down to your ABCs: air, brakes, and cranks/chain. To that add carry your license, emergency card or other ID; and if you’ve got common sense it makes sense to protect, don a lid. (Required in California for under-age cyclists only.) Cyclist Ken Hart digs into the details with brakes and derailleur adjustments for those so-inclined, while Washington’s South Sound Triatheletes takes an overview in their PDF guide to make it easy. London Cyclist makes maintenance “ridiculously” easy. And New South Wales government boils it down to a one-pager.

Today there is so much in our lives that is not accessible to tinkering, or that viscerally rewards the tinker, but the bicycle is an exception. In the old days, the car, typewriter, desk phone and hi-fi were all open to tinkering, and in my time I’ve wrenched them all. I regularly changed my oil, replaced my brakes, and swapped out my distributor cap & wires. The turntable got new belts. I can’t recall how many appliances I’ve opened. My first impulse is still to take a Philips-head screwdriver to something.

Today, however, our devices tend to be  less accessible or even protected from tinkering. The computer, phone, and iPod are all-electronic and complex. Much of what happens under the car hood is secreted in a mystery black box awaiting a ‘diagnostic.’ Indeed troubleshooting in the digital world makes even our tools complicated. (In a kind of meta commentary on where we find ourselves, today I’m likely to need an app to diagnose my device problem rather than that old voltage meter, which doesn’t get much of a workout these days.)

But I enjoy wrenching my mid-1980s Scapin (chrome forks and stays, anodized Reynolds triangle, routed cables, Campy dropouts and Nuovo Record gruppo). I like knowing how the 7-cog (!) freewheel works and find the tick, tick satisfying while on a ride. I understand how a parallelogram rear deraileur works and enjoy changing gears from my friction-action downtube shifters. Relief from chain chatter is simply a screwdriver away.

Old box wrenchAs the New York Times piece said, our toolbox has changed. Yes, we’ve certainly lost an acquaintance with the old shop floor. We may have lost our interest in getting dirty. But we  haven’t lost the curiosity and crave the fix-it knowledge. We’re still a nation of tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers. We still like to lay on the hands! Advocates know that getting adults and young folks in the saddle is crucial if we’re to politically turn the tide, and bike maintenance, whether taught in the class or at the local farmers market stand, is a way for these folks to get into cycling for recreation, sport or utility.

Cycling is the last mode of wheeled travel that is totally open to user tinkering, hacking, and even engineering. With bike maintenance easily mastered, it is then only a short leap to more imaginative endeavors. Bike wrenching can tap into the American penchant for tinkering, sure, but it might also be a gateway to careers in product design, production engineering, metallurgy, and all manner of industrial arts that have lost their luster today.

Consider that behind garage doors all across California are small manufacturers who continue America’s unparalleled history of invention and innovation. From bottle cage to frames in steel, carbon, and titanium, they meet cycling needs that we didn’t even know we had.

Columbia flush joint frame connections in nickel steelThose folks meld their love of cycling with their need to create. It is the same drive that prompted Pope Mfg. to roll its first bicycle off the production line 134 years ago in Westfield, Mass, home to the storied Columbia Bicycles brand. Their factory once cranked out solid, well-engineered frames but ultimately saw bike production cease in 1997.

We may never again revisit the days of industrial prowess and scale that made the United States a global manufacturing behemoth. Our Northeast valleys once provided plenty of hydro to power riverside mills. Multistory factories in Westfield and beyond across the ‘iron belt’ turned out bikes and every other kind of widget. Manufacturing has of late relocated to single-story plants in right-to-work states, however, and our economy is more organized around moving goods. ‘Logistics’ is the new ‘plastics.’ Forget the river valleys of old: today it is all about sun-baked warehouses at key interstate junctions.

The larger story in the Times is that with the shift from production to consumption has come a shift in the culture too. Handheld phones today capture our collective imagination and they’re not made here. And they’re not made to tinker! So let’s not forget that the joy of cycling only begins with the bike purchase. A lifetime of enjoyment awaits the tinker with only a bike stand and a few Park tools. Why not gain a (re)introduction to the old toolbox by pulling out the old ride and leafing through a fix-it bible like Sloane’s Complete Book of Bicycling. Put the elbow grease into turning the tide on that cultural shift. We’re a fix-it nation!