Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance

This article was published in 2017, in Newsletter 133.

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The benefits of cycling will hopefully be familiar to Camcycle readers – quick and easy zero-emission transport, physical and mental health benefits and a planet-friendly way to commute and see the world.

I’d like to promote similar benefits from the dark and oily side of cycling – that there’s great pleasure (and yes a few frustrations) from learning how to maintain and repair your bike. Learning how these lovely machines work and being able to maintain them complements the pleasure of actually riding.

Modern cars are actively hostile to DIY maintenance and repair – without off-street parking, a laptop and an extensive toolbox you’ll get nowhere. Bikes, however, are still simple enough that a few cheap tools will let you maintain your bike for comfort and safety and give you the pleasure of knowing how something works. A kitchen table, back yard or strip of pavement are all you need.

The author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the late, great Robert M. Pirsig, wrote: ‘The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.’

Pirsig was writing about motorbikes – but the message is the same – the precision and elegance of a bicycle’s mechanisms are quite beautiful in their own way, and worthy of your attention. My professional life is ‘brain work’ and my inexpert fumbling with bits of rusty bikes provide a great antidote to the stresses of the office – it’s easy to find the fabled ‘flow’ in which time stops and you are mindfully engaged in the moment.

As with most adventures in life there are frustrations on the way. You will strip the thread of a rusty bolt, graze your knuckles on a slipped spanner and swear profusely at a seized joint. But at a gentle pace you can gain confidence in the tasks you are comfortable to do.

As a methodology (sounds fancy) I recommend just learning how to disassemble and reassemble a ‘thing’ in the first instance. If you can successfully remove and replace a wheel (or whatever) you are well on the way to being able to fix it.

In practical terms, you can start with the simplest of tasks – oiling a chain, replacing worn brake-blocks or a bald tyre. YouTube has a wealth of ‘how to’ videos on every aspect of bike maintenance.

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You can start with the basic ‘spanners and oil’ and add more specialised tools only as and when you need them. DIY and hardware stores can furnish you with basic tools for less than £20. My two top tips are ball-ended allen keys (4, 5 and 6mm will fit most things on a modern bike). And when you remove rusty nuts and bolts then excellent stores such as Mackays of East Road will, for pennies, sell you stainless-steel replacements that will last for years (other hardware stores are available).

Pirsig again: ‘The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.’

So this summer, take a good cup of coffee of a morning (or a cold beer of an evening), flip that trusty bike over and have a look and a listen for what it needs to safely and enjoyably transport you for the rest of the year.

I’m not a Buddhist or religious in any way, but I contend that learning to look after your two-wheeled friend can be a pleasurable and even meditative experience – my final quote from Pirsig – ‘The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.’

Ed Wood

Ed is a commuting cyclist and very amateur bike technician. He was delighted recently to rebuild a complete bike and find that nothing fell off or jammed after a short ride. There were several important-looking bits left over though. Feedback welcome via Twitter @edwooduk