The Home Mechanic

I love fixing and building bikes in the garage, almost as much as I do riding them. In fact I could say that I get the little tingle of excitement as a new build finishes, as much as I do when I’m heading for an amazing bit of trail.

I’ve thought about this a fair bit, and it seems to fit into four main areas for me:

  1.  independence from the bike shop and being a bit tight for cash
  2.  a creative outlet
  3.  developing a useful skillset while out and about.
  4.  stimulating problem solving


I’ll come clean; I do know my local mechanic by name, and I have been back to the dealer on a couple of occasions, but by and large I’ve been able to sort my own problems and upgrades out. It’s very satisfying when you finish a job after an hour on the internet reading forums and watching ‘how to’ videos, to have put it all together, and sorted out your issue yourself. The biggest danger from this realisation that the bike doesn’t have to go back to the ‘shop’ each time is that you can then turn into a bike fettler.

My name is Steve, and I’m a bike fettler. There, said it. This can start innocently with changing a cassette and chain, maybe purchasing a chain wear measure, but can slowly develop in the background over time. In itself this is a good thing as we begin to be able to look after ourselves and our bikes, and to begin to bespoke our ride to make the bike fit our exact and individual needs, but if you find yourself browsing the internet for wheel balancing jigs, you need to take yourself off for a quiet word in the corner; you may have gone a bit far. I did once have a Cannondale, whose bikes come with a little stars and stripes badge on the frame announcing “hand made in the USA”, by the time I sold it there should have had a little saltire on it proudly announcing “hand fettled in Scotland”, there were hardly any original parts on it.

My beautiful Cannondale Prophet: hardly an original part on it


Once I’d virtually re-built a bike, it was only a short step to building one from scratch. A few months scanning e-bay and a steady trickle of parcels started to arrive in the post, to settle in the corner of the dining room. This project came about due to my brave/foolish entry into the megavalanche. A few you-tube videos later and I was convinced that I was seriously under- biked, and didn’t really want to put my pride and joy through that. In the end I created a bespoke freeride beast that was the most forgiving downhill oriented bike I’ve ever ridden. Sadly it was completely impractical so had to be sold on return home, but I had the best bike I could have had for that week of racing, and it was an important part of a fantastic experience. I really got a great deal out of the creativity of the project too, and what I discovered on that project strongly influenced my choice of next (and current) bike.

So what’s a good balance? – Of course this is personal, and dependent on your funds, skills and comfort levels, and where you sit on the other three areas. My approach has been to buy the correct tool at the same time as the stuff needed to be fitted/replaced/repaired. My local bike shop has largely been happy to show me how to do the job if I buy the tools from them, and of course this breeds (well placed in my opinion) loyalty. Well placed? – my local mechanic taught me how to bleed brakes, which is at least a £20 a pop job – so I always go to him first for spares and fluid, which seems like a good relationship to me.

One thing I have yet to take on are forks though. No matter how many ‘how to’ videos I watch, I can’t bring myself to service my forks, so these do go to a specialised mechanic to service for peace of mind, and I did recently have to take a frame to the dealer to have the suspension bearings replaced as the manufacturer had specifically designed the frame to make it difficult to get the bearings out. I did learn a little trick from the mechanic though. When putting bearings back in again, put the new bearings in the freezer overnight before you fit them. They will shrink minutely, but enough to make them slightly easier to push fit back into the frame.

The Beast - didn't really do uphill - but down, oh the down...


Once the initial cost of the tools is overcome, then with a bit pf practice, you now have the ability to do the job again for much less cash, and at a time that suits you. Increasingly I also find that maintenance, like taking the cranks off to have a good look at the bottom bracket, happens more often as I gain confidence in doing it. This also leads from what you might term ‘must do’ jobs to ‘should do’ jobs.

With a little bit of instruction from said mechanic I found that now I can bleed brakes, the door is open to change the hoses on my brakes; that now I know how to adjust spoke tension, not only do I have nice round wheels, but the one time I ‘pretzelled’ a wheel (30mph into a tree works every time) I was able to swap the rim for another by using the same techniques; that once I was over the nervousness of touching air cans, I was able to fit a volume adjusting kit to my rear shock, and stop wincing on drop offs.

In addition to being able to do some of my own work I have also been able to source my own parts. One impulse buy of an £12 set of calipers in Lidl, has now left me able to source my own bearings, and so my headsets have never been in such good condition, and my chain tensioner roller works a treat too.

                                    Dead, or just resting?


The final advantage of starting to have a bit of a tinker, is out on the trail. Mechanicals that I have seen reduce people to tears, and leave them carrying their trusty steeds are now less likely to floor me, and I am certainly much more likely to try to bodge a fix from bits from my spares bag than I would have been before I got started in the garage. I’ve bodged a fair few derailleurs in my time now.

To put this in perspective; I was out on a ride last year when I came across two guys staring at an upturned bike scratching their heads. When we asked what was up they replied that their day was over before it had really got started. Being fairly sure they were referring to a bike problem I asked what was the issue and was promptly told that the chain had been totalled and they would now have to push back to the car. It took me no more than 5 minutes to tidy the chain up, fit a ‘magic link’ and reattach it; and the other riders were back on with their day. They were so amazed that one of them even rummaged in his pocket and handed me a fiver for saving the ride! I didn’t want the fiver - to me it was a simple thing, but to these two guys it was a day ender.

For the adventurous rider, the above story should leave you with a wry smile on your face thinking about the two ‘innocents’ in the story. Why? – well there are plenty of big rides to be had, and a good example is the Glen Tilt round – a 50km epic day out. The point being that if you suffer a mechanical half way round, then 25km is an easy(ish) ride in an afternoon, but have you ever contemplated walking 25km pushing a bike in an afternoon? – better make sure you can fix your bike.

      Now is not the time to learn

Slightly more shocking perhaps was a day out at Laggan on the red trail where a member of the group with no mechanical leanings at all found himself on a high speed section of trail with the quick release undone on his front wheel, because he hadn’t checked it. This is fine if you can wheelie red trails but otherwise for mere mortals like us it means returning home from a days ride looking like an extra from a zombie movie (or worse).

I’ve also been at the tail end of a group ride at Glen tress when the front of the group witnessed the head-tube of a bike disintegrate coming off the wooden tabletop in the skills park, because presumably the rider never checked the welds. I didn’t see the event itself, but there were enough white faces in the group to tell me that they all went and checked their head tubes straight after.

I started this section with “useful skill set”, and there is much here about taking control, and saving money, but don’t forget that some avoidable bike failures can pitch you over the bars as speed, or see you disappearing through the trees out of control, or worse: all scenarios that are hazardous to health as well as pocket, but avoidable with a bit of mechanical know-how.

Just an everyday occurrence.....


So what have I been driving at? Well really no more than encouraging you to try a bit of mechanic’ing. Sit on you-tube for a bit, read a book, and then go out and try something. I think you may find that you can save yourself some money, put your personal ‘stamp’ on your bike, and you may even find that you develop a sense of pride in a new skill you’ve developed and a problem you’ve solved. Ultimately it may be these skills that save a day on the bikes for you or one of your mates.

Is being able to fix a mechanical as important as being able to manual that ditch, drop that step, make that turn? Is it as much fun? Is it as exciting? Is it as fulfilling? These are all things you can decide for yourself, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with that ‘old’ tired adage: look after your bike, and your bike will look after you. You know it’s true.