At the Bench: Aqua Net

Mountain biking has progressed well beyond those early days of 26-inch wheels, triple chainrings and 130mm stems. Thank heaven. I sometimes joke that I’m not sure why I liked mountain biking in 1988, but the truth is, mountain biking was fun then, even if it was a good deal slower.

The first shop I worked in sold mountain bikes almost as quickly as we could get them. Specializeds, Raleighs, CyclePros and then in 1989, GTs. Given that we were in Memphis, we weren’t in contact with many other shops and so we didn’t have many opportunities to pick up new practices and techniques.

Back before mountain biking progressed to lock-on grips (What took so flippin’ long?), mechanics assembling bikes at the shop I worked for worried the cheap rubber grips on my any method possible. One of my coworkers would line up the grip at the end of the bar, push it on about a half inch and then take the pointy rubber nozzle attachment for our compressor and press it against the end of the grip. With the other end of the bar pressed into his belly he would let fly with the compressor and hope that most of the air would escape around the grip itself and allow him to slide it all the way on. He was generally pretty good this way.

I tried it and really only succeeded in making a lot of noise.

There was the time a new mechanic we hired reasoned that the grips needed to be lubed, so he coated the bar in grease after sliding the brake and shift levers on. The first time someone grabbed the bike off the floor for a test ride, a grip all but flew off.

My preferred method was to use a rubber mallet on grips that were 5-inches long, or shorter. I’d line the grip up and tap it just hard enough to make it swell and slide a little farther onto the bar. Every now and then I’d get the grip almost all the way on, but it would stall with roughly a centimeter to go. Sometimes we just let the bike go that way.

With the longer grips we had to resort to something a little more dicey to get them on. We used Pledge furniture polish. And yes, the grips slipped off with alarming regularity.

In the fall of 1989 I went to work for a bike shop in Northampton, Mass. My first week on the job included revelation after revelation, but none were more remarkable than the answer I received when I asked why there was hairspray on the bench I worked at.

The hairspray in question was Aqua Net, famed for its incredible hold and noxious odor—which I’m told some women loved. It smelled like potpourri and diesel and filled the air like I thought only curry can. Our chief mechanic explained to me with the patience of someone admitting a new initiate into a secret club that hair spray is just an aerosolized glue. He played hand drums in a world music band and wore his hair in dreadlocks, so I’m confident that I’ve fancied up the words he used at the time. He probably said something more like: “It’s spray glue.”

Aqua Net came in three different formulations and three different, corresponding colors: All-Purpose (red can), Unscented (blue can) and Super-Hold (purple can). I’ve only ever used the purple can; hell, the purple can is so emblazoned in my memory that I forgot there were other colors. If someone says “Aqua Net,” I see purple.

Aqua Net was perfect for our needs. Spray enough of it on the bar and the grip will slip on instantly. Spraying enough meant hitting the bar from at least two, but preferably three directions, which left enough of it floating in the shop that it would suppress the smell of chain lube. After that, no fussing required. Within just a few minutes, the hairspray dried and I can attest the grip wouldn’t budge. Getting them back off if they were old or we needed to replace a shifter meant slicing them off with a box cutter. More often than not I’d get the stuff on my fingers because I was spraying so much, and to rid myself of the gunk, I’d rub my digits together until I’d practically worn my prints off.

I may have dated one of these girls.

I once asked a girlfriend if there was a hairspray with more “hold” (hairspray users’ term for gluey glueness) than Aqua Net. She laughed and said her mom would know but that she refused to spray anything in her hair that made it more flammable than it already was.

I couldn’t blame her.

Her mom, an actual hairdresser, said, “Nuh-uh. That stuff usually needs three washes to get it all out.”

I’m pleased to say I haven’t had to spray that stuff on a bike since 1995. Not too many years ago I was at a barber to get what a friend promised would be the best haircut I’d ever received. Another stylist nearby was tending to a woman and coated her noggin in that stuff.

That smell.

Minutes later I noticed I was rubbing my fingertips together.


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  1. hmlh33 says

    Still have a can of it on my bench, which I haven’t used in some time.

  2. bikeworld says

    WD-40 works wonders for getting grips off or on. Slippery until it dries, then the grips stay on.

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