I’ve always liked machines, the more Rube Goldberg, the better. Part of my initial love of cycling was simply my love of the derailleur; that I could both go someplace and have a cool device at work at the same time, a machine that multiplied my effort allowed me to eat my cake and not lose it. I mention this because a kid like that going to work in a bike shop is as inevitable as cats and catnip.
The appeal of working as a mechanic in a bike shop was the satisfaction of fixing my bike over and over and over. Sending a bike out with an excited-to-ride owner was satisfaction that making sandwiches for pizza joint could never match. That I made 50 cents more per hour was gravy.
I’d been working at our shop the better part of a year when one Friday night half a dozen members of the cycling team we sponsored descended on us after hours with pizzas and a number of bikes to be built up. I was tasked with simple tasks like hanging derailleurs, slipping stems into steerer tubes, fixing saddles to seatposts. I was the new kid, and because I was a longhair playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band there was no way I could be trusted with anything so sophisticated as the barrel adjuster on a Dura-Ace rear derailleur.
That night, one of the bikes clamped in a stand was an Italian frame with the unthinkably cool feature of an internally routed rear brake cable. Four bodies crowded around the frame as my boss fed the rear brake cable and housing into the braze-on in the top tube near the head tube. Gray housing passed into the top tube in a way that men in their early 20s can’t not make phallic jokes about.
Gray housing entered and entered and entered. But it never emerged from the other braze-on. I didn’t have to look at their faces to see the incredulous expressions fixed on them. My boss, I’ll call him Jim, pulled the housing back and pushed again. Again, nothing. Back and forth, in and out, more crude jokes.
The frustration spread from Jim to his audience and one by one they each tried to feed the cable through, each of them confident that they possessed the deft wrist movement to coax the silver cable to emerge from the frame.
Like a bunch of high schoolers trying to outsprint Mark Cavendish, they each came up short. Their failures added up in a kind of inevitability such that when I suggested they let me have a try, they didn’t so much say no as just laugh. I mean, if they couldn’t get it, there was no-way a kid fresh out of undergraduate school with hair to his shoulders could pull off something these licensed Category IV racers hadn’t conquered. This wasn’t just above my pay grade, it was higher than my IQ.
One by one, frustration mounted to the point that the cooling supreme from Pizza Hut eclipsed their interest. I continued to grease seat tubes and twirl quick-release levers until only one guy stared, hands in pockets, at the brain and hand teaser. I calculated that with no one’s ego approaching success, this was my chance to ask for another shot.
The casual wave of a hand, as if to say, “Knock yourself out, loser,” indicated this was my shot. Viewed from the rear of the bike, the braze-ons were positioned at 7 o’clock. I reasoned that a somewhat floppy cable and housing had less incentive to curl back in the direction from which it came than a cat does to come when called. The answer, it seemed to me, was to make the cable change direction with what is sometimes referred to as plastic deformation or cold-setting.
I bent the cable.
I put a 45-degree kink in the cable about one inch from the end of the housing, and about two inches from the end of the cable itself. I figured if the top tube was only one inch in diameter and the cable bend was long enough to keep it scraping along the inside of the top tube no matter where what direction it pointed, I’d catch that hole sooner or later.
Catch it I did.
No one was looking when the soldered end of the cable peeked out of the braze-on. But when I pinched the cable between my thumb and index finger and pulled until the gray housing began to pour forth, like water from a faucet, take notice they did.
Their incredulity at my success didn’t bother me. And the satisfaction I felt at surprising them with my ingenuity didn’t compare with my own pleasure at having solved the problem. That was the first time I realized that working on bicycles might both call on and reward creativity. In that instant, bikes became a good deal more wondrous.