Generational learning in the workshop
: Part I

Mark Hallinger
Generational learning in the workshop
: Part I

I remember when an old track racer and bike shop owner who was a bit of a mentor passed on a simple bit of advice that may be helping me type this using all ten fingers.

It was in his small shop, and a mechanic had an ugly brown Gitane track bike – don’t call it a “fixie!” – in the rack. The mechanic had started pedalling by hand to get the rear wheel whipping around like crazy. We young mechanics would do that to see if we could get a rear wheel mount computer to register at outrageous speeds in the frictionless rack environment. But this was not a road bike – being a fixed-gear, the cranks kept flying around like the wheel when the mechanic let go of the pedal.

“Don’t ever do that with a fixed-gear,” warned the old racer. “If you get your hand or finger caught in that chainring, you’ll end up a bloody mess.”

This bit of advice dates back at least to the 1930s when he learned it, presumably on the infield of Madison Square Garden when a mechanic lost the tip of his pinky finger to such an incident. That story is apocryphal, BTW. I used “BTW” to prove how modern I am. I will also forgive you if you have to look up the word apocryphal, which is one of my favourite words along with “tertiary” and “gubernatorial”.

But I digress.

Article continues below


The whole losing a finger thing came back to mind recently when trying to get a disc brake calliper’s brake pads centred and silent. I was spinning the wheel and applying the brake and loosening and tightening the bolts that held the calliper on the frame. And I was of course whining about not being able to see the damned brake pads in that dark little crevice, as is
my custom when working on
disc brakes.

A split second of inattention led to the tip of my thumb brushing up against the disc, and a nice flap of skin came off the tip. Ouch. I’m relatively new to disc brakes. I had never really thought of them as dangerous. Then again, I’ve heard that potential downhill pileups involving bikes with hot, sharp discs were one thing keeping the use of disc brakes out of the pro peloton. So maybe I should have known.

Soul of a teacher?

I don’t blame the younger, more modern mechanics for not beating the potential danger of disc brakes in to my head with the flat side of a PW-4. I do wish they hadn’t waited two years to tell me that putting a big piece of white paper on the floor under a disc brake is a good way for old eyes to better see the innards of the calliper and whether the brake pads are centred. That was a practical bit of advice delivered to me two or three years after I had started complaining about not being able to see the working bits of the brake very well. Why had they waited so damned long to tell me that tip? Why hadn’t I thought of that myself! Why didn’t I spend an hour on the Internet watching videos of “disc brake basics,” as I had done when I discovered in 2001 that my vast knowledge of tricks to get cantilever brakes set up was now of little value. A quick Google search on V-Brakes, coupled with a ten-minute session with a lifer mechanic even older than me made me a relative V-brakes expert.

Finding an older mechanic to bring me up to speed on the decade or more I had not been working in a bike shop was a Godsend. He knew I “had a clue” by the way I wheeled a bike around a crowded shop and by the way I took pedals on and off – mechanics do it smoothly and efficiently and don’t look like a grandfather putting pedals on his grandkids’ bikes. So he taught me a bit of the new stuff, and I learned.

I’m a mechanic who built hundreds of bikes starting from around the year when indexed shifters and early mass market mountain bikes and hybrids appeared. Roughly 1986 to 1992. So I left before V-Brakes, more or less before the merger of the shift lever and the brake lever had started, before I really had a chance to learn anything about suspension forks, and way before tubeless (but I’ll glue your tubulars if you’d like). I also dealt with a ton of 1970s Raleighs and Peugeots and other

bikes that were just then starting to need some serious work, so I touched that cottered crank/flat sided rims/wing-nut era. But I don’t know 1950s or 1940s technology very well.

“I know what I don’t know,” is something I say a lot. In truth when I re-entered serious racing in 1999 after seven years adrift, I picked up a lot in a hurry. When I started working in a shop as a part/half timer in 2009 I learned a lot more. I can always learn more – and I soak in tips and tricks.

With that thought in mind, many millennial mechanics I’ve met who know electric shifting and tubeless and bleeding disc brakes have some serious gaps on anything that happened before they were born. Not knowing a lot about bikes built before you were born is okay, but be receptive to learning new stuff about old stuff. When you see a customer with this old tech once a week or once a month or once a year it’s easy to say “I don’t need to know that,” but don’t you want to look smart the next time a customer brings in a Helicomatic hub wheel, and the entire staff is perplexed except you?

Here’s a starter list of five tips. This list is not complete because a) I just don’t have the space, and b) I go on and on before introducing the meat, as you know if you’ve gotten this far.

The Maillard mistake

Here’s one I’ve already mentioned that you may never see, but old French bikes from the early to mid 1980s and inexplicably even some Treks of that era used this mistake from Maillard. It was an early version of a non-freewheel splined cogset, and I don’t want to tell you how many cones I burned through in the year or so I used a rear wheel with this hub.

The upside was that the cogs could be removed with a small tool at the side of the road if you broke a driveside spoke. Also, the cool little tool included two spoke wrenches and, importantly, a bottle opener. The downside beyond the soft cones and itty bitty bearings was a flange design that led to badly dished wheels, and far more broken spokes than typical. At least they would be easier to fix on the side of the road!


I think I have to credit that last line to Sheldon Brown. That’s where you can go to find out specifics on the Helicomatic hub, which is really quite obscure at this point. An Internet search would take you there. You guys know the Internet really well. I know what’s worthwhile on the Internet.

If an older mechanic hasn’t already told you to visit Sheldon Brown’s website, sheldonbrown. com, go check it out. Although Sheldon left us about a decade ago, his extensive website covers both bike history and mechanics, and is being updated by bike people. I visit it more or less weekly to brush up or find out about obscure and only semi-obscure things. Read the entry on Helicomatic hubs – quickly found through an easy-to-navigate A-Z glossary.
Every mechanic in the US knows Sheldon by first name. Is there a UK Sheldon Brown?

Another apocryphal

If you work in a bike shop you’ve seen the bundle of 20 or more tyres all strapped together with twine or plastic strips. They come off the back of the truck and typically the 15-year newbie would unwrap or cut off the twine and put the tyres wherever they belonged. But stop! There’s yet another apocryphal tale I may have long ago read in Maynard Hershon’s Tales from the Bike Shop, or maybe in a magazine, about a joyful 15-year-old tasked with unleashing the tyres. He did so using a box cutter to free them from that plastic wrap. And this ended the useful life of more than one Clement Criterium Seta sew-up tyre. These weren’t the cheapy 27 x 1 1⁄4 IRC standard replacement tyres. They were expensive. Seta means silk I think. Not nylon or cheapish cotton.

When you unwrap the tyre order, carefully use a scissors or undo the plastic shrink-wrap by hand. About a year ago I had to explain this to a 50-year-old new hire part-timer who was moving fast and loose with that knife near a tyre bundle. He fought me on it, because he was “careful.” Like I was careful with my thumb when working on that disc rotor. Do they actually allow 15-year- olds to work anymore?

Have you ever used toe clips and straps?
If you’re going to install toe clips and straps on a customer’s bike, or maybe even your own “fixie,” do it right. They go in from the outside with the buckle facing up, so pulling the end of the strap “up” tightens the strap. You don’t pull the silly strap toward the ground to tighten up!
I understand that you’ve likely never really used toe clips and straps. But think about this. And don’t call them “clip-ins,” please. Or cages. Cages hold water bottles. This is just offensive to my old ears. And the reason you “twist” the part of the strap between the pedal body ends is so the strap stays in place when you pull on it and doesn’t slide a bit.

One from a busy Sunday

I’ve got no more space but way more rant left. So here’s a quick one from this past Sunday. Mr. Head Mechanic, Snapchat is not an option for us when we need to contact you about a customer’s bike on your day off! Expect more, way more. And I should think of some things I’ve learned from millennials, but honestly the flow of info coming from the twentysomethings has not been great.

Mark Hallinger will have moved on a bit once he stops putting “fixie”, in quotes. They are fixed gears, or track bikes, please. And the cat’s name is Jake, not Fellini!

Tags: ibds

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