I took a bike-repair course once. It was kind of fun and gave me a sense of accomplishment; I was, it seemed, capable of doing mild bicycle maintenance without physically hurting myself. I had gained knowledge that was actually useful.
Then the course ended, at which point I learned a hard truth: no matter how many things you learn in the repair shop, you will eventually not have access to said repair shop any more. Deprived of the tools, the expertise of your teachers, and even those thingies you stick bikes on to lift them off the ground and make their bits easier to get at, you will be almost back to where you started: incapable of anything more complex than tire inflation. I had the added problem of entirely lacking in upper-body strength. Even after I acquired a multi-tool, I was frequently incapable of using it. No amount of knowledge will allow you to loosen a bolt when you have the muscle tone of an undernourished eight-year-old.*
But I do like the idea of being able to look after my own bike. I always feel a creeping sense of shame when I have to take my bike to the shop to get a tire changed because I’m not strong enough to take off the wheel. And yes, I have done this more than once.
I recently ended up in one of those incredibly stupid situations that affect only people who are fantastic procrastinators. My brake pads were worn down to the point that they were hardly working any more. When I say “hardly working,” I mean that I was having to drag my left foot along the ground every time I wanted to stop. Stopping on a hill involved me jamming on the brakes as hard as I could half a block before the intersection, then dragging my foot for at least thirty feet. Calling this situation “insanely dangerous” would be putting it lightly. It was not smart of me to continue riding a bike that was incapable of, you know, stopping.
I made all the usual excuses. I was too busy to fix the brakes. I didn’t remember how. I was going to screw something up, and I would get the bike into such a bad condition that I would be forced to take it to the shop, and then the people at the shop would laugh at me. It wasn’t that bad. If I pumped up my tires, the brakes would almost work again.** It was nearly December; I wouldn’t need the bike for much longer anyway.
None of these excuses obscured the fact that I was putting my life in danger every time I got on the bike. Finally, I stopped procrastinating and fixed the damn brakes.
It turned out that I did remember how to do it. I didn’t have all the tools that would have made it a painless operation, but I had enough to get by, and as far as I know, I didn’t destroy anything. My brakes soon worked again. Once more, I felt that sense of accomplishment. Small victories can be very satisfying.
The day after I fixed my brakes, I was cycling along Bloor when an absolute idiot in a huge white van made an illegal left turn in front of me, nearly killing another cyclist and forcing me to jam on the brakes. It wasn’t the kind of illegal left turn you could excuse with, “He must not have seen the sign”; this was someone swerving across three lanes of traffic onto an off-ramp usually only accessible to people driving in the opposite direction. You don’t explicitly watch out for that sort of thing because ninety percent of drivers just aren’t that freaking insane. All I can say is that I’m really glad I stopped procrastinating and fixed my brakes. I’m not sure the foot-dragging manoeuvre would have helped much in that situation.
The next time my brakes stop working, of course, I am probably going to do exactly the same thing. But for now, it’s nice to know that I can fix my brakes if I need to.
*I don’t enjoy being this wimpy. A lot of my problems do seem to be bike-related, too. The university at which I work has recently got rid of several banks of bike racks and replaced them with these horrible plastic things that are meant to hold bikes placed almost vertically. In principle, they save a lot of space. In practice, all they mean is that people with no muscles in their arms are forced to take their bikes elsewhere. I cannot for the life of me get my bike into one of those racks. At one point, I was flailing around in a futile attempt to make the damn thing stay, and a couple of students were standing nearby, laughing at me. I don’t even try any more.
**This was actually true. Full tires are fatter than soft ones, and the brakes are thus marginally tighter. In this case, “marginally tighter” means: “For the first day after I pumped up my tires, I had to drag my foot for only the last ten feet, not the last thirty.”