At the Bench: Assembling a Bike

I recently re-read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which is a memoir about his time as a chef in New York. He talks about his early hubris and naivete, his education at the Culinary Institute and bouncing from kitchen to kitchen while managing what sounds like an expensive heroin addition.

Some of my favorite passages in the book are when he talks about the kind of ballet by which a well-tuned kitchen runs. From the gut-level knowledge of how to time the cooking of an entree and two sides, to how to make sure your moves don’t send hot oil onto the dishwasher, I admire the way he illustrates that craft—the consistency necessary to earn a reputation and the speed demanded to feed several hundred people in an evening.

I’ll never know what that’s like, but I can tell you that my time as a bike mechanic assembling bikes in the spring after a semi drops 60 cartons on your doorstep requires the same sort of speed and consistency.

Each assembly began with a trip to either the attic or basement, depending on the shop. I’d grab whatever model and size was least represented on the floor, slide the box along the stairs and then back into the shop. I always preferred the cartons that were only glued shut; staples held the possibility of a blood-drawing cut as I pulled the bike or parts box from the carton.

The vast majority of bikes sold come fairly well assembled. The major parts are hung and the job of a mechanic is to mount the bar, stem, seatpost, saddle and front wheel, then adjust everything. It wasn’t common in the shops I worked in to have to assemble a bike from a bare frame, but I loved those occasions.

I’d pull the bike from the box and then set it down on the shop floor; depending on the orientation of the fork, it might stand upright, but sometimes I had to lean the bike against the bench. My next move was to swirl an acid brush slathered with grease inside the seat tube, then to open the parts box, grab the seatpost, slide it into the seat tube and cinch the seat binder bolt. Once done, I’d pick the bike up and clamp the seatpost in the Park work stand so as not to damage the paint, crimp a tube, or muss decals that some company had been too cheap to clearcoat over.

With the bike in my face I could grab my cable cutters and begin cutting all the zip ties that held the front wheel and handlebar to the bike. It was my habit to take all cardboard, zip ties and foam and toss them in the carton so that I wasn’t stepping on that stuff. With all the packing materials cut away I’d walk the box out to the dumpster and dump the trash in before braking down the box which would be picked up by a recycler. I liked having a clean work area and having all that stuff out of the way was key to my concentration.

In kitchens, chefs exhort their cooks to work clean. It’s the same idea, keeping the mess from affecting the work.

I tended to wear a shop apron with some pockets, and in them I’d keep a Park Y-wrench with 4, 5 and 6mm Allens as well as 8, 9 and 10mm box wrenches; there were still a fair number of bikes with nuts even into the mid-1990s. My opening move was to screw the quick release together in the front wheel and mount it in the fork, careful not to tighten the skewer too much lest I have to unscrew it some in order to get it past the lawyer lips on the fork. Economy of movement is key to assembling a bike quickly.

I’d hit the inside of the fork with grease as well as the pedal threads if the bike came with them. I’d insert the stem and bar, snug them, then mount the saddle, spin on the pedals and if it was a mountain bike I’d spray some Aqua Net on the handlebar and into the grip in order to slide it on; lock-on grips weren’t even a dream yet.

With the bike fully “assembled” I’d turn my attention to the brakes. It was important to do the brakes before the derailleurs because it wasn’t uncommon for the brakes to be rubbing the rims, and in the case of cantilever brakes on mountain bikes, the yoke and straddle cable needed to be fixed and those cables trimmed before the wheels could spin. If the wheels don’t spin, derailleurs can’t be adjusted.

If I was lucky, the brake cables had been cut to length, but sometimes a small bike had the same run of cable and housing necessary for a size 8cm larger, which meant that all the cables and housing had to be cut down, lest the bike look like kite string tangled in a tree. What I loved were those road bikes where I’d center the caliper, then use the barrel adjusters to make sure the throw of the levers was symmetrical. I also took pains to make sure the brake pads weren’t a millimeter from the rim; few riders want a brake that can’t be feathered.

With cantilever brakes, it was necessary to make sure the brake pads were aligned with the rim before tightening cables because that hardware was frequently mounted with no eye toward alignment. If I tightened the cables first and then adjusted the pads, it wasn’t uncommon to need to go back and tighten the cable a second time—another time suck. Worst were the cheap mountain bikes that came with hardware for the pads that wasn’t knurled, so as I tried to tighten the pad’s bolt, the pad would twist. I had to snug the pad in place before holding the pad with my hand as I tightened.

I’d tighten the yoke three fingers above the tires and run the straddle cable into a fourth-hand tool which would pull the cable until the brake pads just kissed the rim. One good pull on the brake lever would seat the housing into the ferrels and braze-ons and that would usually see the pads sit a few millimeters out from the rim.

When I moved on to the derailleurs I adjusted the front derailleur first as its adjustment could affect the rear derailleur’s shifting if it was way off and the chain rubbed on the cage. I hated the bikes with clamp-on front derailleurs because their yaw was often off. A braze-on for the front derailleur was a mark of quality. Luck circled back to shine on me, or not, depending on whether the set screws were dialed correctly. Low gear first, then high gear, then the barrel adjuster for the shifting, if it was sophisticated enough to included “indexed” shifting.

With the rear derailleur I’d eye the bike from the back to make sure the derailleur hanger hadn’t taken a hit in shipping; if that looked good, I’d look to see if the high set screw was correctly positioned; there’s no point in trying to adjust the cable tension if the high gear set screw is dialed in too much or too little as changing it would mean adjusting the cable tension again.

The pro move on rear derailleur shifting was to be able to nail it with only the shift from the smallest cog to the next smallest cog. If I got that right, with no hesitation in shifting and no chain rub on the next larger cog, then all the shifts would be butter. After taking the chain to the largest cog I’d push the shift lever a bit further to see if the rear derailleur wanted to shift farther in than that last cog. Setting the low-gear screw was sometimes all that stood between a desperate downshift and broken spokes.

With every adjustment finally made, I’d air up the tires with our compressor, pull the bike from the stand, and only then mount the saddle because I needed the bike on flat ground toad just saddle tilt.

And the reflectors? They went in the trash.

Over the years I developed a taste in assembly factories. While I didn’t know any of the factories by name, I can say that the factory that produced Schwinn’s Taiwanese Paramounts was buttoned up. I could assemble a Paramount in 45 minutes and that included time for me to finish my Coke and go pee.

On the other hand, the Schwinns that came from their factory in Greenville, Mississippi were the most disastrous assemblies I ever saw. Meth addicts could have done better. I once pulled a mountain bike from the box only to discover the rear derailleur mounted backward. That is—and I know this is nearly impossible to picture—the rear derailleur had been mounted to the inside of the derailleur hanger. Somehow the worker had managed to mount the rear wheel and run the chain. I spent an entire afternoon on that bike and when my boss came down on me for my low productivity that day it was all I could do to convince him that the bike had been pre-assembled by M.C. Escher.

There were times on Mondays that we would literally race each other building bikes to make up for everything sold over the weekend. There was a special kind of satisfaction that came with seeing no slots to fill in the racks at the end of the day.

It wasn’t plating a medium-rare steak and lobster tail with a baked potato and steamed asparagus, but I knew every bike was a life improvement plan for someone I’d soon meet. Most amazing was the wonder I felt in seeing another bike go out the door when it seemed like we must have already sold a bike to every person in the city.

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