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The Most Maddening Maintenance

May 17, 2012

As an aircraft maintenance officer, I eventually learned to talk the talk. I could confidently tell my boss that “the right manifold fail caused the engine fault and now my guys are shooting air through the system to troubleshoot for the leak.” Conceptually, I know how a jet engine works and how hydraulics are involved in lowering landing gear. Fly-by-wire? No problem. Basic fundamentals are one thing. Putting them into practical application where wrenches are actually turned is another. As a result, you may occasionally have heard this: “he’s responsible for a 100 million dollar machine but I wouldn’t trust him tinkering with my lawnmower.” A maintainer develops thick skin and must accept this sort of comment light-heartily and in jest (after all, it means they like you). Of course, that doesn’t make it any less true.

These are easy to fix.

At present, I’ve traded in giant cargo planes for a fleet of bicycles. Just like before: concepts I know, application is fuzzy. For example applying what I know about gearing into practice usually results in a lot of trial and error. The advantage here is that a maintainer’s error will not cause you to drop out of the sky. Chain not shifting right? Just pull over, hop off, adjust, and continue riding. Remember: error is the discipline through which we advance. Your bike affords you the opportunity to figure out how the machine works, let’s you get permanent grease under your fingernails and bloody your knuckles in the process. It’s fun, satisfying, and interesting. However, this optimistic philosophy becomes null and void when we’re talking brake installation.

Rivaled only by fender adjustment, brake installation is the most maddening type of bike maintenance I attempt.* When I mini-overhauled my Bridgestone I kept the brake calipers and rims. I budgeted my time and money elsewhere and decided a good WD-40 rinse was adequate. For about three months and a few hundred miles it was. Then a week ago, a noticed a persistent thumping coming from the rear. Upon closer inspection, I realized the spring on the caliper was rubbing against the rear wheel. The spring had loosened with age. Additionally, the new Schwalbe tires sit slightly higher further reducing the already minimal clearance with the brake bridge. A perfect storm. It was either time for new brakes or convert my old 27″ wheels to 700c. I chose new brakes.

Spring’s been rubbing

Using Sheldon Brown’s guide, I carefully measured how long the brake arms needed to reach. When the long-reach calipers arrived, I was confident this installation would go smoothly – 2 hours max (and that’s only because I’m so meticulous). Afterwards, I planned to set out for a leisurely afternoon ride. 7 hours later I was calling it. Sure I had the required grease under my fingernails and bloody knuckles, but I was having no fun, was not satisfied, and interested only in whether this bike could be thrown out the window. The rear brake was installed adequately. However, the front sat flush with the tire. Only by squeezing the brake arms together would the top of the brake rise to give the necessary clearance. And “by together” I mean the pads would have to be centered underneath the rim. Not good.


OK, now what? A-HA! If I lowered the wheel about halfway down the fork’s vertical dropout and then clamped it really, really tight that would give me the necessary clearance. What could go wrong? The next day I took my brilliant idea for a test ride. The cricks, cracks, creeks, thuds sounded immediately and accompanied a shaky, rough ride. A logical person would immediately acknowledge the approach was flawed and devise an alternate plan. The irrational person will decide those noises will work themselves out and proceed on for a 40-mile ride.

One terrible ride later, the old brake went back on, I was chastised by Paul for not taking better care of my bike, and new wheels were put on order (finally). For anyone still keeping track at home – the piggy bank has been busted. But, when you’re dealing with something you’re so fond of, it’s hard to say “no.” Oh you vile, lovely, wicked, beautiful money pit – I just can’t quit you.

**Despite my DIY bike fix heroics, there are certain jobs that require the skills and tools of an experienced, paid bike mechanic (i.e. front chain set).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012 10:55 pm

    Bikes are still cheaper than cars and car insurance. Couldn’t you have borrowed a few of those wheels from the C17?

  2. May 23, 2012 7:13 am

    Man, I feel your pain! I did a bit of servicing on my Dahon yesterday and it took about a dozen attempts to get the bottom bracket adjusted right. Having the correct tools would have helped but still…

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