Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Bring me my screw hammer

Jerome K Jerome once advised that there are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can overhaul it or you can ride it. "The mistake some people make" he goes on to say, "is in thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine.  This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain."

I am not one of nature's gifted mechanics and I am deeply envious of those who with a deft turn of an allen key can banish any given squeak, clunk or grind. Knowing this, I tend to put up with minor niggles until they become a major impediment to forward motion or actually life threatening. Currently my bicycle wails like a particularly forlorn banshee at even the most temperate application of the brakes. You need to toe-in the brakes I hear you say. Toe-in the brakes be damned say-I; it makes no difference. Rather than waste futile grimy hours, knuckle skin and my entire repertoire of swear words correcting mechanical faults I have learnt instead to apply a lubricating gobbet of positive thinking to the problem. Since the onset of the screech pedestrians have become more aware of my presence; the squealing brakes have therefore morphed into a useful safety feature.

Because of this, any maintenance beyond a light oiling of the chain is ignored until the bike requires carrying to the nearest competent mechanic. Unfortunately I am not able to apply the same principle to my partner's bike; she will not let me. On a sunny weekend we might decide to spend the day on a leisurely ride in the countryside. You would expect that bicycles put away in a dry shed in full working order would emerge in that same happy state. Sadly they do not. Lonely, cold and neglected they self-harm, stretching their cables, loosening vital bolts and jamming their bearings until they emerge blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight creaking, stiff and arthritic.

My first approach on being faced with the poor forsaken thing is denial. I will rattle and grind my way through a quick test ride before declaring the moribund beast to be absolutely fine. This approach used to be quite effective. I once persuaded G to cycle five miles on a bike with a broken axle before she finally stopped on a steep hill with the rear wheel jammed sideways in the frame. The walk home was long and mostly silent.

Nowadays, on the discovery of a fault I am generally forced to attempt an immediate fix:
"The front gears are grinding".
"There is a slight rattle it's true. I'm sure that it'll go as soon as the chain warms up though".
"No it won't; fix it now or we're not going out".

Anyone with the capacity for learning from their mistakes would suggest going for a walk at this point. However male pride and a predilection for sunny optimism tend to prevail and and so I will set to work. After five minutes the chain will no longer budge from the largest chain ring. Ten minutes after that it will be irrevocably jammed in the front derailleur. After a further fifteen minutes of increasingly inventive cursing it will be freed and sort of shifting but the grinding noise will have returned.

It is at this point that I will notice that the rear brake is rubbing. After twenty minutes of tweaking the adjusting screws and cable tension I will conclude that it is because the wheel is out of true and I will reach for the spoke key. I should really throw the thing away; no good has ever come of the spoke key; I have caused more harm to more bicycles with a spoke key than with any other tool in my armoury. In operation it is very simple. You loosen and tighten the appropriate spokes by a quarter of a turn. Nothing happens. You repeat the process with another quarter turn. Again no change. You make one further quarter turn adjustment and suddenly your almost-true wheel is the shape of a Pringle. Later that week the local bike shop (they will assume that the wheel was vandalised by a drunken thug and you will do nothing to disabuse them of this theory) will declare the damage terminal and sell you a new one.

With half the day lost, emotionally drained and with stinging knuckles and filthy fingernails I will set off with G for a trudge across the Downs.

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