Hobgoblins, productivity, and unforced errors

Mark Hallinger
Hobgoblins, productivity, and unforced errors

I like consistency. Structure and consistency make life easier. Like having your tools in the same place all the time rather than randomly distributed across the shop’s three workstands.

I could do a whole article on the theme of consistency. That intro paragraph is lifted almost directly from the June issue article. That was an article where a brain-freeze led me to refer to tyre bead seat diameter (BSD, often B.S.D. for some reason) as BCD, which everybody knows is bolt circle diameter, a chainring measurement. Ooops. I blame the concussions, and rushing the job so I could go ride.

Good mechanics should not rush. There is a big difference between working fast and rushing. But enough on merged, or made-up, acronyms. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” is a quote from American transcendentalist philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. The actual quote – taken from Self-Reliance – is of course much longer than that and more complex in meaning. While it is often used to belittle people or good work habits or practices, in reality the quote is more about avoiding conformity and false or foolish consistency. It does not support the concept or habit of inconsistency, and the quote should not excuse random, bad work habits. Emerson died in 1882 at age 78. While he probably saw and was likely intrigued by the Penny Farthing bicycles rolling around in his final years, he may not have realised how important it was to build and maintain those bikes in a consistent manner. And he spoke the language of the philosopher, not a mechanic. He didn’t know what a PW-4 is, or a PE-65000 for that matter.

There is a big difference between working fast and rushing.

I really do like consistency. On a rolling scale with consistency on one end and artistic creativity on the other, I favour the former. I’m an editor by trade so it bothers me when email/e-mail is used both with and without a hyphen in an article or magazine. Consistency is my MO in general.

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I never have an 800-mile riding month anymore, nor an 8,000-mile year. But I have several 500 and 600-mile months, and I rarely ride fewer than 300 in a month. It is consistent – I ride between five and seven days each week, most weeks. I remember providing a quote about myself for a college publication I was featured in, and the quote attributed any academic or athletic success I had to ‘consistently working hard,’ or something like that. In general I succeed through working hard, not natural ability. If I lose consistency, I will likely lose it all. It works for me on many levels, far better than any innate ‘talents,’ I may have. George Lucas is/are a sales guy at the shop where I work. They are actually two 22ish friends at university who are getting into riding and bikes pretty heavily, and they are somewhat attached at the hip. One is actually named George, and the other is named Lucas, and I just refer to them as George Lucas as it amuses me, they both respond to ‘George Lucas,’ so it works, and it’s one less thing for me to remember. I was texting the George of George Lucas fame in January trying to get him to come out over his winter break on a long hilly ride. This was due to self-interest partly – it is good for me to train with people who are half my age who weigh only slightly more than my left thigh. He replied that he hadn’t ridden in two months but he’d start training soon. I need to teach him the value of training consistently when he starts up working and riding with the shop ride again. So consistency matters to me, obviously. The unkind would say it is OCD or anal retentiveness.

I would not want to have anyone who thinks this way build a bike that I would ride fast down a hill. So to it then, and I’ll make a break from past articles and won’t discuss something obscure, something Big Picture, something practical, something esoteric and something amusing that pertains to a good mechanic shop. That’s inconsistent, but the subject of consistency stands on its own really, as a ‘Big Picture’ item.

I would not want to have anyone who lacks consistency build a bike that I would ride fast down a hill. 

Big Picture: Build and Repair Standards

It is always better to err on the side of quality and consistency in bike builds and repairs. That being said, shop standards will and probably should vary a bit. I have worked at a shop where every tyre had to be installed with tyre talc when mounted, the wheel quick releases had to be at exactly the same angle, and woe be it to any mechanic who left three inches of cable after the brake cinch bolt rather than the mandated two inches.

I’ve also worked at a shop where nobody seemed to care that one of the builders was putting the lever of the front quick release on the right side of the bike, seats on new builds would be tilted up or down but rarely level, and for puncture repairs if the tyre logo lined up with the valve (as it should!) it was mere coincidence.

Your shop will likely be somewhere between these two extremes, and management personnel should determine standards and convey how important these are to mechanics and bike builders. Have a meeting and discuss!

Management personnel should determine standards and convey how important these are to mechanics and bike builders.

What matters to my personal level of consistency? I can think of half a dozen practices I see again and again that bother me. Like failing to line up the logo on the tyre with the valve as seen when viewing the bike from the drive/right side of the bike. I’ve heard even long-term mechanics dismiss this, surprisingly. It is the standard. Aside from just looking good, it also has the very real benefit of helping a mechanic determine where a puncture is located on a flat tyre. If the hole is about six inches from the valve, look for a flint or an errant rim strip about six inches from the tyre logo. I assumed every mechanic knew this little bit of consistency, but newbies need to learn this, and wild-raised, self-taught mechanics may have never learned this simple practice. Do it to look professional if nothing else, good bike people will judge. I will. What else? I’ve occasionally put up a list of shop practices that seem second nature to me, but are often just not maintained by people who should know better.

Air in the tyres on all repairs. I don’t care if the bike came in for a brake adjustment, fill the damned tyres and let the customer know you did it. Ask them if they have a pump at home and stress how important tyre pressure is – this is a selling opportunity that could make the shop some money and will make the customer’s cycling experience better.

Valves straight on tube installs, valve caps on valves. Valves should be straight and it is as simple as that. While valve caps are not critical, customers notice when one is missing. Don’t make them ask for one. That being said, I never use caps on my own presta valves, unless it’s for fashion’s sake on one of my silly theme bikes. I kind of like the fact that the valve caps are white and the cable ends are red on my bleu, blanc et rouge Peugeot. 

Speaking of cable ends, don’t forget them – I don’t care if you crimp them properly with the crimp option on most good cable cutters or just with a pair of pliers, but use them. And on new bike builds and test ride checks, don’t let the cables stick out where they might hit the rider’s leg if it’s a rear V-brake, or hit the crank or tyre for a front derailleur cable. Tuck them in a bit. An errant cable that hits the customer’s thigh is enough of a reason to not buy the bike for some.

With the exception of thru-axles, the lever part of the quick release should always be on the non-drive side of the hub/bike. “But it doesn’t matter,” one builder told me, and he liked putting the front wheel lever on the right (wrong!) side because it was an expression of his creativity or something. I explained to him that having the lever in the same place all the time helps speed wheel changes in race situations. That’s the impetus behind that standard, or so I’ve been told. More importantly, you’re making our shop look bad if you put the lever on the wrong side! And yes, I know that .00001 percent of our customers will ever get a wheel change from the wheel van in a race, but just be consistent.

Here’s one of my personal favourites that people just ignore, ignore, ignore. All bikes leaving the shop should be in the middle chainring and a middle gear on the rear cluster. Why send a customer out on a test ride in top gear, as I so often see, or in the silly 24 x 11 combo we tell them not to use? Think.

Seats must be level and more or less centred in the rails – you will lose sales if the customer does not like the seat pointed up 15 degrees on a test ride bike he or she would otherwise love. Because I work at a recreational/beginner/intermediate kind of shop, stems should be high and bars tilted back a bit on road bikes so customers new to the road position can adapt. When I tilt road bars up and back just a bit from the extreme downward position a bad builder has left them in, the customer almost always says it feels like a different, better bike. I’ve seen plenty of lost sales because the salesperson was not aware enough or too rushed or wasn’t really a cyclist. If a seat is in a bad position or the handlebars are set down and out of reach, the person running the test ride needs to fix that. Ideally, the bike builder should have done it right from the start.

Come up with your own list.

I could write a book, or at least fill a whole issue of BikeBiz. Beyond this I have all sorts of rules about everything that makes a shop run more efficiently. I have rules and practices about taking out the garbage and how to properly break down a bike box. So many that I annoy people. I annoy people who will take an old, dry-rotted tyre and just squeeze it in to a garbage can, making life harder for the person who actually has to tie and dispose of that bag at day’s end, which is often me as I am an evening shift kind of guy. Take a second and fold the tyre over on itself, and zip tie it so it just falls to the bottom of the can. There’s a proper way to break down bike boxes – pay attention to somebody who does it well and mimic them, consistently. Yes, there is a proper way to manage cardboard and garbage. In a high volume shop, it can make the difference between a shop that is chaotic in appearance and function versus one that is rightly busy organised chaos. If you open it, close it. If you take a component out of the case or off the display but don’t use, put it back. Don’t leave your garbage behind for somebody else to clean up. These are rules of life, really! And I’ve not actually even mentioned the importance of a neat workstand and bench.

There’s a proper way to break down bike boxes – pay attention to somebody who does it well and mimic them, consistently.

That can wait. I’ve recently started to have issues where I work with an area that is becoming very inconsistent in maintaining the proper arsenal of tools at each workstation. On some days, all the 15 mm open-end wrenches and chain tools are missing or lying together on a bike box in the corner. This adds steps to most repairs
– wildly inefficient. I’ve developed my own workaround, an appropriately-labelled (see picture) tool bag that I just take everywhere. Every tool, including the all-important spokes sharpened at the grinder, is at hand all the time. But maintaining a proper repair stand is worthy of its own article.

As of this writing, Mark Hallinger was less than a week away from strongly contesting for the best-dressed award at the US Brompton World Championships, wearing his Great Uncle George Carl Schmidt’s WWI (US) uniform exactly 100 years after WWI. He is also serving as directeur sportif for the Philadelphia Fliers Brompton racing team at the event, set for Harlem, New York City, on June 18. See here for more information.

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