At the Bench: the H, the V and the A/C

Dexterity. It seems so simple until your body stops working.

I spent a couple of winters working in a bike shop in New England where the actual shop was in the basement. The building had a crazy glassed front facing south that ran not from floor to ceiling but even included a good bit of the roof. The dimwitted architect responsible for the modern-looking building built it around a single HVAC system with no zone control. As a result, in order to keep the sales floor from turning into a sauna during the summer months, the A/C ran like a 747 engine on takeoff.

Complicating matters was the fact that some mechanic prior to my arrival spilled the better part of a bottle of Tri-Flow into a floor duct and so the downstairs smelled of chain lube any time the heat or A/C ran, which is, roughly speaking, always.

The owner and the controller, whose offices were upstairs, froze in the summer. And in the winter? Keeping the sales floor warm required little more than making sure the glass was clean. As Christmas Carols played downstairs, the upstairs staff checked the sweat stains in their short-sleeve shirts. If the temperature dropped below 20 degrees outside, we’d turn on the heat and at that point the upstairs staff got out chaise lounges and swimsuits.

As the head mechanic, my position required me to work downstairs most of each day. The subterranean lair was a bit more cramped than was absolutely necessary due to the ventilation ducting that ran through my workspace. I kept a thermometer near my bench and I could have cut it above the mark for 65 degrees and that little measuring device would have lost none of its mercury during my entire tenure. In the mornings my workspace could be in the low 50s, while highs in the summer never rose enough to prevent my nose from running. Only in the spring and fall did the mercury occasionally rise enough to cease my the leaky of my beaky.

And the ducting for that overactive HVAC system that ran through my shop? I took a bike box and cut four large pieces of cardboard and taped them over the four vents in the basement because basements and A/C go together like ice cream headaches and migraines. We had a space heater down there that glowed like a demon’s eyes, but the electrical cord was easily the warmest object within reach, and because burning down my place of employment seemed a bad plan, it didn’t get used much.

As a Boy Scout I’d received training in what hypothermia was—the signs to look for, the things to expect, how to treat it. So while I’d been told that if you fall through ice into a body of water, be it swimming pool or lake, hypothermia will slow your movements. What I’d never appreciated was just how that felt.

Then came the January day that I was overhauling a Schwinn Paramount painted the colors of the Minnesota Vikings and when I dumped a handful of grade .25 ball bearings from a small box into my waiting hand the ball bearings shot all over the floor because my fingers had failed to squeeze together enough to prevent them from falling through the proverbial cracks. Because we didn’t have enough ball bearings for me to finish the overhaul without finding those, I spent an hour with my chin on the concrete and shining a flashlight across the floor as I located each errant sphere.

Any experience that forces you to crawl across a floor on your belly comes with a lesson or two. For me, I learned to divide my work between everything that required my whole hand as opposed to just my fingertips.

Y-Allen wrench? Hand. Screwdriver? Hand. Pedal wrench? Also hand. I concluded that if I needed to use a spoke wrench, turn barrel adjusters or twist the little screwdriver for set screws, I was going upstairs to the small work station we had for diagnosing repairs, doing quick fixes and final checks.

My reward for all this? To this day, if my fingertips chill to the point of tenderness, I smell Tri-Flow.

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