Monday, May 7, 2012

Things Your Bike Mechanic Wishes You Knew

This is a follow up to my last post "Talking to Your Bicycle Shop," which tried to address a few of the frequent miscommunications between shop employees and customers. Today I wanted to specifically share some thoughts from that mysterious back room where all the bike-fixing magic occurs.
While many shop employees do both repairs and sales, it's very common for the bike shop to be divided into two worlds: the customer service section in front, where the marginally socialized shop rats help customers select a bike or accessories, and the domain of the shop troll, who is far, far better with a derailleur adjustment than a conversation.
If these mechanics had the chance to speak to you frankly, here's a few things they might say:

- Don't lie about what happened.
There's actually a commonly used acronym in bike shops: JRA, which stands for "Just Riding Along," as in "I was just riding along and..." which is how far too many inquiries about repairs begin.
 First off, things don't get broken -and I don't mean "out of adjustment," I mean "broken-broken" - while one is just riding along. Something had to happen to bend, break or dislocate the parts that are malfunctioning. Maybe you dropped the bike, maybe it was on your car rack and you backed into the garage door, whatever, but when the mechanic looks at your noisy rear derailleur and sees it covered in gouges and scratches, he'll know it had to have banged into something.
Secondly, it makes the job harder. The more information the mechanic has about what happened, the more likely they are to quickly figure out the problem.
Believe it or not,  your mechanic is not there to judge you, and no matter how embarrassed you might be about what happened, they've probably seen something that tops it (I once had a bike that had the tires shot out by a .22. The customer actually asked me if it was a warranty issue), just tell the shop what happened, and they will try to fix it.

- "Some Guy on the Internet" is not an official repair manual.
There's a lot of good and useful information online... and there's five times as much useless nonsense. Sometimes it's hard to sift through it, especially on message boards. There's a certain type of person who gets an ego boost out of being considered an "expert" on something, who will offer their opinions and guesswork as legitimate advice. This sometimes only serves to muddy the waters, especially when the mechanic is confronted with a problem that he's familiar with, only to have a customer insist that a web site says it's a totally different problem.
This is not to say that one should not use the vast stores of knowledge available online, even experienced mechanics turn to the Web for answers (especially the information compiled by the late Sheldon Brown), but one should always take things with a grain of salt. It's hard to diagnose a problem without being able to put your hands on it, and even a great mechanic can only offer an educated guess via email.

-Sometimes, we really, really don't want you looking over our shoulder while we work
And sometimes, you really, really don't want to see what we're doing. For example, the shop I work at used to sell SIDI cycling shoes, which are handmade in Italy and easily cost well upwards of $300 a pair. We also sold Speedplay pedals. A popular combination among discerning cyclists was the Speedplay Frog pedal with the SIDI Dominator mountain bike shoes. However, through a design quirk, the opening in the pedals sole was always a bit too narrow to mount the cleat that went with the Frog. The simple solution was to take a Dremel tool and remove a bit of material from the sole of the shoe. This doesn't sound like a big deal until you think about it from the perspective of someone who just dropped several hundred dollars on a handmade Italian shoe, which is now about to be attacked with a grinding wheel. We usually said "we'll get these ready for you, why don't you come back for them in a bit."
Bicycle repair, sometimes involves bending, drilling, cutting or hammering on things, and when those "things" are particularly beloved, or even simply expensive, watching them receive a bit of tough love can be a bit anxiety-inducing.

-It's not rocket science, but it does take a bit of skill
One of my favorite things about bicycles is their simplicity, You can look at a bike, and see exactly how it goes together and how everything works. One author referred to the bicycle as the last technological advancement that could be understood by laymen.
However, it does take a bit of time and energy to learn how to work on them, especially some of the more esoteric problems that arise. There's nothing wrong with doing some of your own repair work and turning to a pro for other jobs. If I cut my finger, I can put a bandage on it, but if I break my leg, I'll probably want a doctor to look at it. By the same token, you should probably know how to change a flat tire, but you don't need to know how to lace a wheel or overhaul a hub.

-We've got other bikes to fix
Sometimes we get a customer who will come in on Saturday afternoon and say something like "it's really nice out and a want to ride, can you fix my bike today?" Sometimes all their bike needs is a bit of air in the tires and we can just pump them up and send them on their way, but other times it will take a bit of time. Most repairs on a bicycle take less than an hour to complete, but we can't have your bicycle back to you an hour after you drop it off.
Why not? Well, in order to make enough to(barely) live on the mechanic needs to have 6-8 hours of work each day. That means several bikes in the queue. All of those customers are waiting for those bikes, and the mechanic can only fix one at a time. In order to do same-day repairs, the shop needs to have all the previous day's repairs done, and a mechanic just standing around doing nothing. Most small shops can't afford to pay a mechanic to stand around when they're not bringing in repairs, so the guy or gal's workload is usually scheduled a day or two in advance. Bigger shops can sometimes afford to pull somebody off of a project to do a "priority" job, but it means somebody else is going to have to scramble to catch up.

-It's OK to tip you bike mechanic
I'm not going to say that being extra nice to the guy who fixes your ride will get you better service, or maybe encourage him to go a bit above and beyond on your next service, but I'm not going to say it won't either. Fixing bikes is a trade that takes years to learn to do well, but is pretty low-paying as far as trades go, a few bucks for lunch won't hurt any wrench-slingers pride.
And beer is always welcome.

No comments: