Why Do Bikes Require Professional Maintenance

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There are some people who insist that bike maintenance is so easy, anyone with enough skill to assemble IKEA cabinets should have no trouble at all. Interestingly, the self-same person states elsewhere: “If I were smart I'd have given the wheel to a bike shop for servicing that very day so the bike would be ready to ride well in advance of the riding season.  However, I'm an idiot who insists on performing his own maintenance.”

This is in no way meant to imply that anyone attempting to perform maintenance on their own bike is an idiot. Far from it. I’m only using this argument to point out that bicycle maintenance is not the piece of cake it may appear to be at first glance. Bicycles are fundamentally different from any other commonly purchased retail product. Unlike jeans, books, pet supplies —or, indeed, IKEA cabinets— bicycles are vehicles capable of being propelled at significant speed, and often used on road shared with others, including pedestrians and motorized traffic. In order to function properly and safely, they require thorough assembly and maintenance by someone with know-how and experience, in the same way you entrust the service of your car to someone who knows what they are doing, and has everything they need to complete the job.

  1. Tools. Some small on-the-fly adjustments can be done with a folding multi-tool. However, a thorough repair of just a single component —a brake, wheel, or crank arm, for example— requires an array of specialty tools which allow for precise adjustment, and won’t strip out the components. In order to assemble even a rudimentary workshop, with (1) a stand that allows the bike to be lifted off the ground so cranks can be rotated and wheels spun at convenient working level, (2) a truing stand to properly tension the spokes, (3) pedal, headset and crank wrenches, cone wrenches for the hubs, and (4) brake adjusting tools that allow you to work without the use of additional limbs, you’d have to invest upwards of $700. A single professional mechanic’s station equipment can easily run into thousands of dollars, not counting more highly specialized tools and gauges used by the whole shop.

  2. Technical Proficiency. It’s obviously not enough to have the tools. Proficiency in the field of bicycle repair —as with any specialized craft or skill— comes only through extensive hands-on experience, continuing education and constant honing of skills. Anyone who has ever tried to dial in a brake adjustment on a bike either by studying a video, or under a tutelage of a shop mechanic, will quickly appreciate that it might take much trial and error, and many repetitions to get the brakes to feel nearly as good as a skilled mechanic can make them. Bike mechanics —like skilled chefs, for example— make their job look easy, because over their years of practice they’ve developed good form: the motor skills, the most efficient body position and movements, and finesse.

  3. Time. Of course bicycle maintenance is not rocket science, and given enough time, those who are mechanically inclined could master the art. The only problem is, well, having enough time. Given enough time, I could grow an organic garden productive enough to feed my family. However, because I happen to be otherwise employed, I leave that job to farmers. Chances are you already have a job that keeps you occupied during the prime hours of your day, so mastering bicycle repair skills, and finding time to perform needed repairs, may not fit in your schedule. And rushing trough repairs will not give optimal results. Which brings me to the next point.

  4. Patience. Having been in the bicycle retail business for well over twenty years, I can attest to the fact that some apparently common bicycle adjustments can cause even an experienced mechanic to lose their composure, and want to throw tools across the room. Because of the way different parts of a bicycle harmonize into a unified system, sometimes problems that appear simple on the surface require many more steps, and more time, than originally anticipated. An inexperienced mechanic might be tempted to take a shortcut, while a professional commits to working it out until the root cause of the problem is addressed. Good enough is not good enough.

  5. Breadth of experience. This is different than technical proficiency alone. This is the rich layering of experience that lets a professional extrapolate from past, and not obviously related instances, the predictable course and outcome of a repair in front of him or her, and quickly determine which solutions will probably not work, and which will. When they’re chasing an elusive solution to a puzzling repair, they know where else to look after they’ve seemingly exhausted all the possibilities. When you bring your bike in for upgrades, their breadth of experience is what allows them to conceptualize a desired outcome from specialty parts that may not even be in front of them at the moment, and recommend the course of action that will get your bike humming