Five weeks into our ten-week tour of the South Island my bike started making strange noises. It wasn’t disastrous—not the heartbreaking crunch of a derailleur catching in the spokes or the repetitive bang of a skipping chain. But it was noticeable, this distinct rubbing of metal on metal. It was enough to get me worried.
At the same time my boyfriend’s bike started to squeak and his wasn’t going down quietly. Vigorous, surprising and persistent, the squeaks lent an undignified tone to the trip—or at least to his part of it. They often caused Jack to curse his otherwise trusty steed and pull over to apply another liberal coating of chain oil.
Our diagnostic skills and inclination to fiddle with bikes after a long day’s riding were low, so our bikes continued to carry us noisily up the West Coast. We rode them through native bush, along the almost completed West Coast Wilderness trail, up the ragged coastline past pancake rocks, alongside the Buller River to Murchison, and on to St Arnaud and Nelson.
The wind was sometimes so strong the challenge was simply to stay upright, to not give in to the siren call of its roar—its brute strength. It left me with little chance to observe or ponder my noisy bike. Jack was not so lucky. His bike triumphed over the wind, its high pitch squeak audible even in the strongest gales.
At other times we biked into the open arms of stillness and the noise from my bike returned to my awareness. The truth was, I would rather not have heard my bike’s persistent expression of its worries—its “fix me! fix me!” cry. Sure, I could deal with a flat tyre and oil my chain, but that was as far as my bike maintenance skills went and even those had been hard won.
I grew up in a bike family. My Dad had a garage full and taught us to ride when we were small: a red bike for my brother and a blue one for me. We graduated to terrifying mountain bike rides, with me frequently frozen at the top of a steep drop off, having to be coaxed down. Only my mother’s comments, intended to be reassuring, that “us girls were terrible at mountain biking”, spurred me to keep trying. In high school I rode competitively in the road cycling team. I learned to adapt to clip-in shoes, bunch riding, and head-down-elbows-in speed. I appeared to know what I was doing.
But could I tell you how my bike worked? No. It was a vehicle for my chosen sport, a way to get places fast, and I knew just enough to make it go. My Dad helped me out with maintenance and the one time I got a flat tyre out on a solo training ride, I wheeled my bike to a friend’s place five kilometres down the road, jumped the fence and climbed through the window into the locked house so I could use her phone to call my parents. I had a puncture kit, but I didn’t know how to use it.
At University in a new city my bike gave me unexpected freedom and became my main form of transportation. I could often be found biking out to Red Rocks, up the Polhill Reserve in Aro Valley, or commuting to various jobs in the city and suburbs. One day my chain snapped, probably old and worn. I couldn’t figure out why my bike had stopped working. Later, a flat tyre would cause my bike to remain unfixed in the hallway for weeks.
I didn’t feel good about this: this lack of control, this powerlessness. But I didn’t like to ask for help. I felt ridiculous. I had been riding bikes for so long. I got ‘A’s on my university essays. How could I not understand simple mechanics? How had I been so lazy as to take it all for granted? I hated to reinforce the feminine stereotype: the ditzy and clueless girl who can’t tell her spokes from her sprockets, open a jar, or fend for herself. My defence of, “I’m just not good with mechanics” was starting to sound old.
And yet here I was, on a long-term cycle trip relying heavily on my bike to function day after day, often in isolated areas on demanding terrain hundreds of kilometres from the next bike shop. Could I continue to play dumb and refuse to confront my mechanical ignorance? My resistance was worn so thin it was almost gone, and there was only Jack to look stupid in front of. It was time to start figuring it all out.
I got ‘A’s on my university essays. How could I not understand simple mechanics?
Listening and watching carefully I realised that the rubbing noise only occurred when I was in second gear on the front, and that if I pushed the shifter in slightly—as if shifting up to third gear— the noise would stop. The chain was rubbing against the front derailleur cage, enough to make the noise. It was so simple.
Ah ha! My scattered understanding of bikes started to come together, aided by patient explanations from Jack. The derailleur system was no longer a vague concept that somehow made my bike move when I turned the pedals. It was a mechanical system which I could see working: the cage pushing the chain over until it dropped down or jumped up to the next ring or sprocket; the cable tightening and loosening with the movement of the shifters.
But what to do about the rubbing chain? We tried changing the higher and lower limits of the front derailleur with no success. We were stumped and it didn’t seem serious, so we decided to press on and ask for advice later. We pedalled onwards, slightly less noisily; Jack had lubed a dry jockey wheel to fix his squeak, but some other part of his bike was still squealing happily away.
It wasn’t until we reached Waiau, a small town on the central east coast of the South Island, that I noticed my frayed front gear cable was only holding onto life thanks to a bit of thread tied around it. I had bought the bike cheaply, second-hand from a Swiss cycle tourist, so I wasn’t surprised to see the cunning temporary solution they must have used to ‘repair’ the cable. More gears were clicking into place. With such a badly frayed cable, the front derailleur wasn’t shifting into place properly—causing the rubbing. Problem diagnosed. But laziness, reducing daylight hours, and the difficulty of doing something we hadn’t done before (and the fear of stuffing it up), meant that we put off changing the cable for as long as possible—until it broke four weeks later as were crossing the Rimutakas.
I thought not having to fix my bike meant freedom, not being held down by practical mechanics, by the chore of it. But when I had no choice but to put in a new cable, it turned out to not be so bad. In fact it was satisfying, maybe even fun. Helped by Jack’s slightly more extensive bike knowledge we extracted the broken cable and replaced it with a new one, complete with cable housing. At least we were well prepared, even if we lacked the skills. I had gained a new understanding of how and why this part of my bike worked and fitted together.
Headbone’s connected to the neckbone, neckbone’s connected to the backbone… The structure of the bike was beginning to make sense. Even if I didn’t know all the exact parts, their names and functions, I had enough understanding to see how it could work as a whole. This long taut cable stretched out along the frame, leading from shifter to derailleur, the chain rings and their teeth, and the chain going round and round—a cosmology for a universe I’d always suspected must have sense and order, but had never been able to comprehend.
These may not be life changing or even particularly difficult bike skills. But I have been a slow and reluctant learner when it comes to bikes. It had taken many long distance cycle trips over many years of riding to get to here, so I was quietly triumphant and filled with a warm feeling of basic capability.
It’s likely that my lack of bike knowledge reflects cultural and social trends that have influenced my life. I am female and, in the community I grew up in, there was a tendency to steer girls away from the ‘masculine’ world of mechanics, machines, and fixing things and into more feminine specialities. My mother made sure I knew how to cook and clean, but cars, bikes, woodwork and whatever else went on in the garage was a mystery that didn’t concern me. I didn’t want to be there anyway—I was trying to be a real girl, one who would be right at home in the pages of Dolly, Girlfriend, and Teen Vogue.
There was also the prevailing philosophy that it made more sense for other people to fix my things for me, or for me to just throw them out and buy new ones. This consumption, I was assured by advertising, would free me to pursue my lifestyle unencumbered by the mundane hassle that accompanied the ownership of material things.
But the drive to be a real girl and a pure consumer led me to a false sense of freedom and femininity. What good was it when I was on an isolated road with a broken down bike? What specialist could I depend on then? How would knowing how to fix a bike make me less womanly? It seemed that I had lost control. I had lost (or never had) the ability to rely on myself, to fix my problems, to sustain my life.
By the end of our South Island trip, I was taking my bike apart to give it a good wash down, adjusting cable tensions to get my gears working perfectly and reading DIY cycle blogs to glean as much new information as possible.
Was this the most economical use of my time? Undoubtedly not. I could walk into a bike shop, have them identify a problem in a few minutes and fix it (for a fee) in a few more. But by doing it myself I’ve built up a basic understanding of how bikes work coupled with, perhaps more importantly, the desire to obtain that understanding and ability to exercise some autonomy when it comes to working with my bike.
I want to keep learning. I’ve become hungry for it—for both the work itself and the feeling of standing a little stronger in life. I’m happy to spend time on the garage floor in less than glamorous positions working on my bike. I’m learning to love the allen key, the screwdriver, the spanner and the chain breaker. I like to think that these things make me a slightly better human being—or maybe just a slightly more useful one.