by Our Bicycle Lives

Ah, maintenance! The dreaded word! My definition: routine procedures whose aim is to maintain one’s bicycle in a roadworthy condition. What a goal to strive for! Does anyone get excited by something so mundane, so worthwhile? Repairs sound somewhat more urgent but in practice, I leave them to the experts and concentrate on the details, the odd jobs: oiling the chain and other components, pumping the tyres, adjusting the brakes and gears, tightening the saddle and handlebars (NB: punctures will get a whole post to themselves, they deserve it). I’ve often found great satisfaction in physical work – sorting through a pallet of books, for example. Making a visible difference gives a wonderful sense of achievement. Not so with maintenance, the work behind the scenes that makes little visible difference to the bike but an important actual difference to the ride: I am certain it explains why a cheap bike has served me exceedingly well for years but it is, I have to say, painstakingly slow. A bicycle may be a simple machine but done by amateur me, any task involves trial and error and more error, with no guaranteed outcome. That’s why I prefer cleaning, because I invariably end up with a visibly improved entity, a shiny bike!

Free pump, not free maintenance

Free pump, not free maintenance

In practice, many urban cyclists don’t have the time, outside space, know-how and tools, they only have the guilty conscience. We know we should do it but . . . Single-speeds and belt drives wouldn’t be so popular if they weren’t so low-maintenance. Some of us like to take a different approach to maintenance and turn the concept around, making it into such a rare occurrence that it becomes some kind of a one-off project. You just need to wait long enough. The snag is that, since a noise is a symptom that is hazardous to ignore, problems don’t usually wait around nicely, they worsen. And I admit I love mechanisms that work, well-oiled bearings, smooth clicking sounds and a machine in perfect condition. Well, who doesn’t? Not the serious young boy in Bicycle Thieves* who looks with distaste at a dent in his dad’s bicycle frame. The attraction of a shabby-chic bike would wane pretty quickly.

I do like to know what’s what, how parts work and how to keep them in top condition. Being an information professional, I’ve done my homework: I’ve read the best bike maintenance book there is, I’ve been on a course and I have the theoretical knowledge but it’s putting it into practice that I don’t enjoy. I have never been a Meccano kid. Instead I worry that I will make a mess of it and that it will go horribly wrong (what if?). I am sure fellow cyclists will understand the feeling. That maintenance work strengthens my bond with my bike is wishful thinking. I would appreciate it just as much if I didn’t get my hands dirty! Knowing nothing about and contributing nothing to how it works would not take away my gratefulness for this miracle of a machine. I know perfection when I see it. In the world of internet dating, that’s called a spark. It’s all about chemistry, not mechanics.

On the other hand, if maintenance means taking care of one’s property, it appeals to my sense of responsibility. Looking on the bright side, bike maintenance season heralds the arrival of spring, and some time spent tinkering with my bike means that it’s a sunny day! In fact, the one lovely warm day I can remember for sure in recent weeks (cue one of the coldest and most miserable springs on record) was bike maintenance day. When I am in no hurry, I can set aside an hour or two and use brakes and gears as an excuse for spending the afternoon in the garden, leisurely occupied. Ginger beer and outdoor conversation may ensue. ‘Looking after your bike so it will look after you’, as BikeReader puts it, is after all a different proposition. By undertaking regular maintenance work, I facilitate our dialogue and, smoothing out any hiccups in the chain of command, secure my bike’s responsiveness. I give, I take. A handful of hours of fine tuning every year so that we can both hear each other: I wouldn’t say I am short-changed. Would you?

* Vittorio De Sica, 1948