Rob Penn's Inner Mechanic



My bike is making a noise. You may know the noise. It sounds like shot gun pellets falling through a narrow tube onto a Formica table. It’s an annoying noise: a high-pitched metallic tingling sound emanating from the cassette/rear hub area.  At least, I think that’s where it’s coming from. Sometimes I think it might be the bottom bracket. Sometimes I wonder if it’s merely my imagination and the noise is a spectral chorus, a sort of symphony to all the sounds all the bikes I’ve ever owned have made. Of course, when I take the bike into my local bike shop, there is no noise.

By Rob Penn

Friday 6th July 2018

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My wife thinks I can fix bicycles. Whenever I come back from a ride cursing that noise, she says, ‘Why don’t you sort it out then?’ The awful truth is, I don’t know where to begin. Yes, I can change a tube, replace cables, mend chains and true wheels. I can re-align a derailleur, adjust a headset and take a pair of pliers to straighten a chainring. But when it comes to working on the marrow of a bicycle – the nuts, bolts, races, cups, cones, ratchets, axles and bearings that make the machine the most efficient form of self-powered transport mankind has yet devised, I’m often stumped.

The bicycle is a simple machine. From time to time, I blow the dust off my work stand and commit to a serious mechanical job: replacing the internal bottom bracket on my winter road bike, say. I get the pedals off. I wrestle for half an hour with the crank bolt. Then I get the crank extractor out and things head steeply downhill. The crank arm is cemented on. I get confused about the threads. The kids hear the kerfuffle and come over to help. I get my copy of Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance out. The dog nicks my rag. I bend a tool. I throw all the tools, including the bent one, out of the pram. I go for a ride on another bike.

Steve ‘Gravy’ Gravenites, the famed mountain bike ‘wrench’ and wheel builder who built the hoops for my dream bike is something of a mechanical wizard. It was always a delight to watch Gravy work. He went about his business slowly and precisely, yet things happened quickly. The parts sat comfortably in his baseball mitt-sized hands. There was a harmony in the way the tools moved. They never clattered into the rim or the hub or any of the spokes as he was building wheels. In fact, the tools weaved through the air as if they were appendages to his hand.

Recalling these gifted mechanics, I wonder if I’m missing something. Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough. Perhaps it’s a Zen thing and I’m trying too hard. Certainly, the inner mechanic in me is not strong. I’ll have to get used to that noise then.

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