At the Bench: the Almost Champion

The first bike shop I worked for had a reputation for being a no-nonsense place that provided quick turnarounds on race bike repairs. We unofficially prioritized repairs for people who rode more. It was a reasonable practice because the repairs that came in from some family on a Saturday weren’t going to be picked up until the next Saturday. The racer who dropped a bike off on Monday was going to be jonesing for it by Wednesday.

So it was that when I finished assembling that week’s bikes and turned to the repairs, the most expensive bike usually went in the stand first. There was a predictably inverse relationship between bike cost and miles ridden.

My first summer working in that shop I grabbed a tiny road bike from one of the hooks, locked it in the stand, and then read the tag. Though it had 700C wheels, the rest of the bike looked like it had been hit with one of those sci-fi shrink ray guns. It belonged to a high school kid who was fast enough to keep up with the group rides. The tag indicated that the bike needed a thorough tuneup, including a full chain cleaning—we didn’t often replace a chain back then.

I trued the wheels, checked the adjustment for the headset, bottom bracket and hubs, replaced the worn brake shoes and then moved on to the drivetrain. The shifting worked well enough, save one obvious problem. The bike wouldn’t shift into the smallest cog.

Fixing that was no biggie. I pulled out my skinny flat-blade screwdriver then turned the high set-screw counterclockwise a couple of turns. Voila! All six gears ready for hammering. Not being a licensed racer yet, I had no idea about the rule regarding gear restriction for juniors; they were limited to a gear that would not “develop” more than 26 feet (a gear combination of roughly 52×14) in one complete turn of the pedals.

Boy, I thought, he’ll be so happy to have another gear. How did he get by with just five cogs?

The following weekend, his mom drove him to an itty bitty town four hours away and he killed the 20km time trial for the Junior District Championship. Broke a half hour, so his average speed was north of 25 mph. No aero bars. The boy was only 15 years old. There wasn’t another kid within minutes of his time.

Then the officials gave his bike the rollout test and with the set screw “properly” adjusted (yay me), his bike had a high gear of 52×13, not 52×14. He failed rollout.

When my manager told me about my screwup, he was calm as a Bond villain, which made me nervous about the box cutter in his hand. The teen, to his credit, took it in stride and was nice enough to me on rides. His mom never spoke to me again. I can’t blame her.

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  1. bart says

    Honestly, that sounds like something the customer should be sure to communicate VERY clearly when dropping off the bike for service. Or the shop owner should make very clear to the wrench doing the work. How would you possibly know that this was “on purpose”. I don’t blame you at all.

    1. Padraig says

      Miscommunication. It happens. I can’t really blame anyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mom assumed we would be on top of that; I worked for a bike shop with a solid reputation. How often does a non-cycling mother know technical details of her kid’s bike? My boss had so much to attend to, reminding me about the gear limit was a thing easy to slip his mind. It was a bummer of an outcome.

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