22 September 2010

To Play Or Pay Mechanic: Which One Becomes A Lady?

My old Peugeot PX-10E came with this toolkit.  It was actually quite nice for its time, but the lack of Allen wrenches limits its usefulness on modern bikes and components.

The owner of a shop in which I worked once said, "You know what would make me rich?  Selling more bike tools!"

He wasn't referring to the money he would make from the tools themselves.  The real profit, he explained, would come when customers would try to use them.  Let's just say that the results sometimes weren't pretty.  When he was in a particularly grumpy mood, he'd tell a customer who mutilated his bike, "Play mechanic, pay mechanic."

Reading Velouria's post today in Lovely Bicycle! got me to thinking, many years after the fact, about what that owner said.  (Going to that post is worthwhile for the photos of her bike alone, not to mention what she says and how she says it!) Velouria raised the question of just how beneficial it actually is to do one's own bike repairs or modifications.  She astutely points out that it's not a matter of saving money:  In fact, beginning do-it-yourselfers routinely spend far more money on the wrong parts or tools, or by ruining said parts or tools through misuse or mis-installation, than they would have paid for a shop to do their work.  And, if you have no inclination or desire to do, or learn, bike mechanics, you probably won't do a very good job.  

On the other hand, she points out some very good reasons for some people to do their own work.  They include some of the reasons I do my own:  I have several bikes, I often change components and accessories, and I have taken, and plan to take, trips into places that don't have good bike shops, or any bike shops at all. Plus, I've ridden enough that I know what I want on my bikes.

And, interestingly (and disturbingly) enough, I am glad to have acquired my skills before undergoing my gender transitions. While the guys at Habitat have been helpful and honest, as some other mechanics and shops are, there are still others who try to take advantage of, or simply denigrate, female cyclists.  And, I have to admit, when I find shops and mechanics who employ double standards, I feel a kind of smug pride (as shameful and dangerous as that can be) when I ask a question and they either try to mislead me or simply hide the fact that they don't know the answer.

I must say, though, that some shops are trying to change.  I saw the owner of one when I was on my way home from work one night, and he asked why I hadn't stopped by.  I told him that the last time I was there, the sales person tried to sell me something that not only wouldn't have fit my bike, but would have been dangerous.  He apologized and I have since returned to that shop.  It's nearer than Habitat to where I live but doesn't have the same selection.   However, they are handy when I need a tire or chain or some other part for a next-day ride.

Anyway....Back when I was teaching myself basic repairs from the first edition of Tom Cuthbertson's Anybody's Bike Book, how could I have guessed that I would get paid to play a mechanic, and that those skills I was learning as a teenaged boy would help me to become an independent, confident...middle-aged woman?  How could I have predicted that the middle-aged woman would be riding bikes he put together?


  1. There is, for me, a deep and personal satisfaction from completing a difficult bike job that transcends the cost. It might, however, explain why my LBS mechanic sold me that multitool so cheaply.

    BTW, Park has an "all allen" multitool that'd complement that vintage set very well and probably even fit into the little bag...

  2. I learned all kinds of mechanical, electrical and engineering things from my father when I was young. I understand the basic principles of how things work and how they fit together and I know how to use all sorts of tools - which has come in handy in a wide range of fields, in particular home repair (I remodeled my own house when I owned one, then sold it for profit). I am by no means a damsel in distress type when something malfunctions. But you know what? I plain don't enjoy working on bicycles myself - at least not when it's a choice between that and painting, or between that and writing, or between that and actually riding a bike. And I think it's my right not to enjoy it and to have someone else do it for me, if that's what I want - regardless of my gender.

    What bothers me, is the assumption some make that I do not do my own bicycle repair *because* I am female and therefore am peevish about such things, and if only I took the time to learn, I would be liberated from my unfashionable helplessness. It upsets me when people make these kinds of assumptions and I always wish I could think of a good comeback without coming across as overly defensive or hysterical!

  3. I do a lot of my own repairs/upgrades on my bikes. I'm the designated repair person in my household, because I'm suited by upbringing and inclination to do that kind of things. I love to fix stuff and to solve problems.

    But not on everything. There are plumbing issues that I just won't tackle, and I don't work on cars anymore. The frustration factor exceeds any sense of satisfaction I'd get from the fixing.

    I generally haven't had too many bad encounters in bike shops. But I worked in computer repair back in the early 80s when it wasn't common for women to do that sort of thing, so I'm used to deflecting gender bias stuff.

    I agree that the only reason to do your own work on a bike is if you enjoy it. :)

  4. RE: The bike shops. I am fortunate enough to have a LBS with 2 of the lovliest and most helpful lads possible. There is no air of "Here comes that middle-aged, great aunt again". They are interested in what I want and ever so helpful. (They also have a shop dog - so, they've got to be gorgeous). I firmly believe in voting with my money and when I have come across a sexist attitude I just go elsewhere - and let them know why. But, I have to say this has only happened a couple of times in many years.

    As to repairs - I wasn't allowed to drive the family car until I could prove I could change a flat tyre. I guess that has rubbed off a bit. So I know a very few basics to get me out of trouble. Once you get out of the city in Western Australia the next town can be a bit of a distance and even our mobile coverage is rather dodgy! Anything more advanced is a blur and has me yawning - its time to go see the lovely lads.

  5. BB: Shh! Don't tell anyone the "lovely lads" are the real reason we go to the cycle shop! ;-)

    Janice and Velouria: I was very interested to read about your experiences. My father made no attempt to teach me anything that had to do with mechanics, repairs or construction. Then again, he didn't try to teach my brothers, either. Two of my brothers are very competent with tools, but they learned on their own. (Actually, one of them studied auto mechanics when he was in high school.) So, I don't think what we did or didn't learn was a matter of gender identity.

    On the other hand, other male relatives helped my brothers when they were tinkering with machines and such. I think they didn't do the same with me because they saw me as being more bookish. They were blue-collar men, and I sometimes think they (and my father) didn't want me to do that sort of work.

    Steve: I get the kind of satisfaction you describe, too. That's probably the reason why I continued teaching myself after I learned how to fix a flat: Whenever I completed a difficult mechanical task, I felt more self-sufficient. Then again, I feel that way any time I complete or accomplish anything that demanded I learn some new idea or skill. That said, I'd still rather read or write--or ride--than fix or install things.

  6. Interestingly, my father did not really *try* to teach me anything either; if he did I would have probably not been motivated to learn, as he tended to be stern as an instructor. Instead, he sort of let me hang out and watch as he went about doing things, and I got involved because it seemed like the natural thing to do. The inadvertent learning started when he began to ask me to hand him things. That is how I learned the names of all the tools. Then when I got older, he would ask me to hold things in place for him as he hammered/drilled, and that is how I learned how the actual procedures worked. But he never said anything like "Okay kid, today I'm gonna teach you how to..." ; it just happened as part of "hanging out". I learned cooking the same way from my mother, and both cooking and home repair seemed like such normal things to me - until I realised later in life that these were supposed to be gender-specific!

  7. A really miserly father brought home a real wreck of a bike which had two child seats attached and told me I had to restore it if I wanted a bike. He did spray it after I took it down to bare metal and he did show me how to fit a cotter pin. How that must age me! I just figured things out and am having to do the same with new style stems and indexed shifters...

  8. Coline--Your father had an interesting way of teaching you. Maybe I should try it in one of my classes.