Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Easy Does It

I had an experience this afternoon that I suspect is common to folks who work on bicycles, or any intricate mechanical devices. I started what I imagined would be a fairly simple task, only to find myself embroiled in what became a significant project.

Yesterday, while on my weekly grocery run, I sat back on the Columbia on a smooth stretch of bike lane (rare around here) and noticed an odd, rhythmic bump from the back wheel. These things can be hard to notice in San Diego due to the overall wretched condition of the streets, but I don't think this had been going on for very long.

Yesterday was a busy day, so when I got home, I put the bike away and didn't think much more about it. I figured the wheel just needed to be trued (see also: terrible condition of the streets), and I made time to do it this afternoon. When I went to the garage this afternoon, I flipped the bike over (no work stand) and started checking spokes, figuring on maybe a ten-minute task. But then I found the culprit. Not just a rim out of true, but a broken spoke, snapped off at the hub flange. Arg.

Well, it just so happens that one of my idiot neighbors in the building behind us had thrown away a perfectly good 26-inch wheel simply because the tube had gone flat. Right, the whole wheel for a flat tube, I know.

So anyway, I had some extra spokes. Of course, it's no small thing to change a spoke, especially in a rear wheel. First, the wheel comes off, which on a three-speed involves messing up your carefully-adjusted shifter cable, then the tire and tube, then you have to fish out the broken spoke, then take off the sprocket in order to get the new spoke laced in because it's in the way.

The better part of an hour later, I'm sweating, grumbling, aching, my hands are a peculiar shade of blue-black, and I've finally got the whole mess back together with the new spoke laced in. Whoo. So then, with the wheel back in the dropouts, I start tightening it down again. But now I'm having trouble getting the bearing cone adjusted properly and the hub is running stiffly and noisily. The wheel went on and came off about three times, and I kept noticing more little problems. They seemed to be snowballing as I worked. Things that hadn't been wrong before were now mysteriously going wrong.

By now, without realizing it, I was in full crazy person mode: walking around stooped over, smeared with grime, muttering and swearing out-loud. An innocent pedestrian walked by (our garage is right on the street), shot me an apprehensive look, and made a distinctly wide berth around me.

I suddenly became aware of just how badly I was working. Because I had experienced some setbacks and some things weren't going as smoothly as I thought they should, I had started working quickly and sloppily, I was irritated and not enjoying what I was doing. That, of course, is why things seemed to be going wrong; I was causing problems by being careless.

I checked myself, straightened up, wiped some of the grime off, took a drink of water, and adjusted my attitude. This is, after all, supposed to be something I enjoy, not something that turns me into the kind of person others avoid. I had lost sight of my goals, I was focusing only on the problems, and I was getting wrapped up in all the niggling details. As soon as I slowed myself down, the incomprehensible problems before me seemed to sort themselves into distinct categories, and the solutions became obvious.

That moment of pulling back, stepping away, collecting yourself, is all-important, because it’s then that you can literally put some distance between yourself and the problem you are confronting. It’s a moment we often neglect in other parts of our lives, but working on a physical, mechanical problem forces us to acknowledge the need to relax our tight focus somewhat, and to revisit the larger world in which we are functioning, hunched over, covered in grime, swearing under our breath.

I'll not claim to have discovered the secret to happiness while changing out a broken spoke, but this kind of work does lend itself to self-reflection, and I'd like to think I came away with more than just a fixed wheel.


  1. Oh boy do I know the feeling. Happily I am in a position where I can just lay down my tools and do something else but that leads to a feeling of incompleteness. I have a coaster brake I laid down 3 years ago.
    Other than a chinese folder I have nothing but old bikes so I get a lot of practice at backing off and regrouping.
    My main ride is a 1976 Schwinn.

  2. You make a good argument for replacing the whole wheel over a broken spoke.

  3. My usual method of changing a spoke is to pull the wheel, take it to the local bike shop and pick it up about 4 hours later. Its a bit expensive but it works for me.

  4. I felt that way while trying to figure out what was wrong with one of the integrated brake-shifter levers from a bike I picked up at garage sale. I tried to gut it, but it's like I needed to be skilled in Operation or horology to fix. I started to curse component manufacturers, wondering why someone would invest hundreds of dollars in these things, and what was wrong with the downtube levers that came stock with the bike.

    Sadly, I never came to peace with those fancy parts and just bought some regular brake levers and downtube shifters.

    But I'll definitely be able to practice your secret to happiness once I get the Takara project rolling again.

  5. @ Phil: Well, sometimes the technology is just poor or unworkable and we have to acknowledge that, too. Sometimes it really *is* someone else's fault! :)

  6. Acceptance of what is. The key to all aspects of life. The spoke is broken, the bearing cone is wrong, the rent is late, the check is in the mail.... nothing can be resolved until it is accepted.

  7. Very true, Adrienne. I relearn this on a nearly daily basis.

  8. Stay far away from computer programming. Usually the "collecting yourself" step means making yourself go to bed, since the sun's about to come up anyway.

  9. Patience. Deliberation. Acceptance. Unfortunately, our fast-paced, throwaway culture leaves little precious opportunity to practice any of these. That's why this old fart takes so much enjoyment in reading about younger people picking up wrenches, scouring pads and paint cans and going at their bikes with such a healthy helping of all three! And the results are so impressive! (Now, someone remind me that I said all of this when there's 12" of snow on the ground this coming Winter and I'm tackling hubs, bottom brackets, spokes and rims... all the hard stuff I'm delaying in order to enjoy my bike throughout the Summer and Fall!) :)

  10. Sometimes in Computer Science the hard thing is finding whats wrong. I was working on a payroll program once, and had just replaced a hard-coded Constant with a variable, and the program began to put an extra line in the output!

    So I carefully counted the lines, and the count was correct (22 lines, W2 forms). And I was most CAREFUL, not to introduce a bug. I eventually discovered that adding another variable definition at the top of Working Storage caused it to work PROPERLY, the last programmer who worked on it just added a blank line to the output when it didn't work right. (I added the definition to the top of Working Storage, that's all it took. I moved it down a few lines and it went back to normal (IE, off by 1 line from what the programmer coded).

    Sometime logic is not all it's cracked up to be...

  11. Great post Thom. I am going to print this and review it before every bike repair session.

    I can really relate to the small fix turning into a big headache issue and I don't think that most of the commentors understand how difficult it is to work with internal 3-speed hubs (and how few bike shops can service them).

    When you re-spoked the wheel I am assuming you slipped the hub out of the shell when you said you "removed the spocket." If not, do tell what your method is.

    I find the rear wheel to be immensely frustrating because any change means I have to revisit where I place the axle on the dropouts, how tight the non-sprocket side cone will be adjusted and if I remembered the correct code to punch in on my Nintendo controller before re-assembling.

    I don't think S-A hubs ever get easier...it's just my patience for them gets much better.

  12. @ Will: Thanks! On the sprocket, I didn't even remove it all the way, just backed the bearing cone off far enough (about halfway down the axle on that side) that the sprocket/driver assembly could be pulled out and tilted enough that the new spoke could be fitted. If I had to removed the whole works from the shell, I think I would have taken Reuben's advice above and just bought a new wheel! ;)

  13. Well, just remember, our rides are not free. Any mechanical device we use needs maintenance, and power to those who dedicate themselves to solving their own mechanical problems!

    Yes, the bigger lesson is learning more about oneself. Another lesson is to identify when to employ someone else to to solve a problem one can't solve, which I've been doing recently and has made my life much more peaceful.