Originally published in Issue #192
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” — Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”
Repairing bikes isn’t a great way to make a living. On average, bike mechanics are paid less than the average high school dropout. Pretty sad state of affairs for an industry that seems able to sell multi-thousand dollar bikes on a regular basis.
How did this happen? First and foremost, bike shops are terrible at making money. The profit margin on new bike sales usually hovers right around the break-even point. Parts and accessories are moving more and more to online sales. Considering you can often buy things from brands like Shimano for less than dealer’s wholesale cost, this comes as no surprise.
Bicycle mechanics are also unregulated, meaning any dolt off the corner can selfidentify as a bike tech. No certification, no licensing, no industry-wide educational programs. While there are a few good schools out there offering bicycle repair classes, these aren’t true certifications.
Additionally, the seasonal nature of the bike business in many parts of the country leads to annual layoffs. After a few years of regular wintertime unemployment, many talented people move on to careers that offer better job security. So each year a new round of raw mechanics start at entry-level wages, which drives down the average wage as well.
Add to this the perception by some of the public that fixing bikes can be done by just about anyone. Work in a shop for any amount of time and you’ll hear complaints about the cost to repair something “simple” like a flat tire.
There have been attempts to start a professional organization or union for mechanics over the years, and it seems like one is finally going to stick around. The Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association is brand new, but managed to add 5,000 members to its Facebook group in just a few months.
While that Facebook group is a mixed bag of everything that is good and bad about bike mechanics, PBMA is off to a good start with a board of directors and organizational structure that seems truly professional.
From the PBMA blog: “A major goal of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association (PBMA) is to help define what certificated training means to an employer and eventually issue professional certification levels as a member benefit. In the U.K. there are cycle mechanic trade schools and those conduits are a major part of entry into the industry. They have a governmentimplemented system in place that is recognized by the cycling industry, the bicycle dealers, but also, and most importantly, by the general public. We are hoping to create programs and systems that could eventually lead to a similar system for the cycling community here.”
As a former mechanic and shop owner I’m entirely behind this idea. With the massive amount of standards and ever more complicated component designs, it is time for the industry to embrace the idea of certification for mechanics. I’d also like to see a push for better pay for those willing to dedicate time and money to becoming educated and experienced. No one that works on bikes for a living is doing it to get rich, but that doesn’t mean they have to work for barely above poverty wages either.
Workers organizing to improve their lot have a long history of positive outcomes for everyone involved. Keeping some of our best and brightest around the shop with better pay and benefits will have a positive effect that will extend far past the wallets of the dedicated grimy guys and gals in the back of the local bike shop. Check out PBMA’s website for more information.
Words: Rebecca Rusch
Illustration: Kyle Stecker
Originally published in Issue #191
Since you are reading this column, I know that the simple act of moving around on two wheels has changed your life. Riding a bike might elevate your physical and mental health. It might fuel the competitive juices. It might be your social outlet, your escape or even salvation.
The simple invention of the bike in the early 1800s changed how the world moved, but along with transportation came so much more. No matter what the bike means to you, I know it is essential to your well-being. I know you couldn’t live without two wheels.
Have you thought lately about why your bike matters? When I first learned to ride as a kid, my bike meant freedom. It expanded my world beyond the boundaries of Middaugh Avenue and into the rest of the neighborhood. Suddenly I could go farther than my eyes could see or my mind could imagine. I didn’t know what was waiting out there in the great unknown, but I got on my purple Huffy with the banana seat and found out.
Thirty years later I rediscovered the bike, accompanied by that same intoxicating sense of freedom. This time two wheels took me far beyond my suburban neighborhood and expanded my horizons to the entire globe. Recently this was Kenya. I went there to visit World Bicycle Relief facilities to witness what “The Power of Bicycles” (the organization’s tagline) really means. A nonprofit wing of SRAM, World Bicycle Relief distributes and sells its own brand of bicycles, called Buffalo bikes, which are designed specifically to withstand the rigors of transporting heavy cargo over rugged terrain in rural Africa.
I expected to see a well-run assembly facility, a streamlined distribution plan and Buffalo bikes in action in rural villages. What I didn’t expect was to be changed and inspired by the individuals I met. In Mizungu, 600 students welcomed us by singing and dancing. We were swooped into a festive mob, and the whole group danced around the bikes parked at the school.
I was stunned at how dedicated, motivated and full of life these 14- to 18-year olds were. In high school I complained because I had to walk about 15 minutes to school. On rainy or cold days, I’d dawdle and shuffle reluctantly, barely making it to class on time. When I met Andega, a 17-year-old student at the Lwanda Secondary School, her confidence, dedication to her education and desire to become an aerospace engineer blew me away. She used to walk more than two hours each way to school. Now she rides a Buffalo bike and it takes her 30 minutes.
We rode the 3.5 miles to her house past cornfields, along a dusty, bumpy dirt road before turning onto a beaten-down footpath past numerous mud and thatch homes before reaching hers. Her mother, father, sisters, brothers, aunt and family friends were all gathered in their best dress. They welcomed us warmly and showed us around their simple, tidy property. She parked her bike and it fit right in among the chickens, cows and crops. Her parents beamed with pride as Andega sat tall and fielded interview questions in perfect English.
The next girl I rode with was Deeanar. She used to walk three hours to school. There is a slightly shorter route that would only take two hours, but she didn’t like to go that way because in the dark, she and her mother feared for her safety. She had been attacked before. Deeanar seemed like a typical teenager. She gravitated toward me and wanted to take selfies and see pictures of where I live. She was sensitive and inquisitive. She told me the bike gave her confidence and kept her safer going to school. She doesn’t miss class now because she can get to school faster.
As fast as she rides, it’s not always fast enough. Recently, Deeanar was run off the road by a young man on a scooter. She showed me the wounds on her elbow and hand that were thankfully the only reminders of the assault. Now the girls and boys group together when riding to school and look out for each other.
I was moved by how different our lives and challenges were. But I also realized that to all of us, a bike means freedom. In Africa, this simple two-wheeled tool is freedom from the time suck of having to walk hours each way to school. It’s freedom from the threat of attack or rape that the female students face each day. It’s the gift of an extra hour or two of sleep each morning, allowing them to show up to class rested and focused.
The bike is a tool that provides hope for their future. It allows them to finish school and get an education. It allows them to dream of becoming an aerospace engineer or a doctor. The bike is developing strong minds, bodies and community bonding. These things matter for the greater good of our world. And while the reason your bike matters to you might not feel as impactful as the reasons for these students in Kenya, it’s no less important.
Two wheels matter in all parts of the world. The next time you roll out your door, relish in the fact that bikes are changing the world, one pedal stroke at a time.
Words and photo: Chris Milucky aka Bama
From On the Road With Bama, a column in the print magazine
Originally published in Issue #190
It’s somewhere over here—just carry your bike towards that tree. Don’t walk in a straight line, either; we don’t want anyone to find our tracks.”
We holstered our hardtails and hustled on over to a tall ponderosa about 50 yards off the main trail. There it was, lying silently in some shadows: the Poop Extractor, a beautiful brown singletrack flowing smoothly like a fresh turd, leading into a confidence-crushing garden of granite boulders likely to break both bike and brawn.
There was once an elaborate basketry project of trails woven into the foothills of Boulder, Colorado. Some were built by local kids, some by pro racers and some by California insurgents: Gold Hill, Express-O, Santa Cruz, Angry Ranger and Red Shack. If you’re really cool, you might’ve heard about these trails, and if you’re a badass, you’ve actually ridden them. Nowadays, they’re closed, but no “pro trail builder” has ever come close to crafting that level of cool. And none ever will.
“Ohh! This is going to be sick! OK, it wasn’t as sick as I thought; let’s dig it out.”
Those trails were built out of heart and soul, with one unwavering purpose in mind: shredding. Nobody was getting paid to build, so there weren’t any deadlines, design restrictions or anyone to say if something was too steep or too rowdy. If it was fun, it lived; if it was lame, it died. The Rule of Rad governed erosion standards, berms, jumps, rocks and drops. Besides my own contribution (which was insignificant in a trail network the size of Connecticut), I have no idea who built what; land ownership was hearsay at best, and at worst, building trails was highly illegal.
On two separate occasions I was sternly asked to leave by individuals holding what you might call “friendly firearms,” i.e., they weren’t pointed directly at me yet. No one took credit for building or snapped any photos, and nothing out there ended up in a builder’s online portfolio.
Now see here: I, myself, own land and I respect private property. I’m not advocating illegal building, nor altering your current public trail system; I’m simply here to remind you of the Rule of Rad. If you’ve ever ridden something that made you giggle or grin, or if you’ve thrown a post-shred high-five, then you know what good singletrack looks like.
Sure there are folks with years of building experience on you, and some are better at digging than others, but I’ve met plenty of angry “pro trail builders” with sticks up their seat tubes and nary one chain link of building ability. It’s pretty cool that governments want to spend my tax money on making mountain bike trails, and that people are getting paid to do what we used to whore out for free. But don’t think for one pop-a-wheelie that you don’t know the difference between fun and geriatric.
So don’t sit stoker and watch commercial building companies pave a mindless flat track through your ’hood. Grab a shovel and go get some grit under your gnarly nails.
This reads even better in print—and you’ll get it sooner and can leave it in your bathroom—so subscribe to the print mag today.
From Issue #190
Throughout the evolution of the mountain bike, we’ve seen new technologies and ideas introduced at a very rapid rate. Just 30 years ago most of what we take for granted while riding now wasn’t even on anyone’s radar.
Some of the technology has been discarded along the way, usually with good reason. Dual-control shifters, suspension stems, 1.5-inch knobby tires, toe clips and horizontal top tubes have all been relegated to the waste bin by most riders.
Some technology was a little before its time and returned to wide acceptance. Dropper posts started out with the Hite-Rite, which was tossed out as cross-country racing took hold of the industry. The Gravity Dropper brought the idea back, and now the dropper post is the must-have accessory for any serious trail rider.
Even the current wheel sizes aren’t new ideas. Back in the ‘90s, 700c wheels made appearances on mountain bikes from Diamondback and Bianchi, and rumor has it 650b wheels might have been the dominant wheel size if the Russian government hadn’t purchased all the available stock of knobby tires in that size. But it seemed we needed a few more years to warm up to things, and now 27.5 and 29 inch have replaced 26 inch wheels on probably 95 percent of new mountain bikes.
But, some things stick around, even if they seem to serve no purpose. The biggest offender here? Internal cable routing. Why? Why are we doing this to ourselves? At best, it cleans up the aesthetics of the frame, but does zero to clean up the spaghetti-mess of cables that sprout from our bars. I have a bike I’m testing right now with SEVEN cables coming off the bars, with a few of them going inside the frame, and a few outside. Why? Who knows.
At worst, this stuff can actually be dangerous. Some of the early designs could cause the housing to rub on steerer tubes, and cable housing can cut through an aluminum steerer tube with enough use. I’ve also seen bad routing cause housing to fray and/or rattle inside the frame. And those little rubber grommets that keep the housing in place where it enters the frame? They seem to like to take early retirement in hidden trailside locations.
While this is improving, for many of these bikes you’ve got a serious headache when it comes time to replace your cables. There are all kinds of attempts to make this easier. I’m sure the Park cable routing tool is pretty awesome. But really, on a mountain bike, why?
Even better, on some bikes, you’ve got your cable running through housing (which is a tube), running inside a guide tube inside the frame tube. Tube in tube in tube construction seems to be straight out of the Department of Redundancy Department.
I will admit that internal routing for dropper posts makes a lot of sense. While I still use quite a few external droppers, unless that loop is routed just right, it is forever running into legs, swingarms and/or tires. But I see no need to make this good idea worse by trying to get the cable to make the internal turn in the junction between the seat tube and down tube while having almost no access to it.
The better option is out there, and in use by some companies like Turner and Guerrilla Gravity. Just put three or four threaded bosses on the top of the down tube. You can even cheat and use the two bottle mounts that should already be there. Bolt cable guides into those bosses to create customizable routing. Hell put some on the bottom of the top tube, too. More options are better.
One derailleur, two derailleurs, droppers, remote lockouts, moto-style brakes—all this is easily taken care off. Sure, the Di2 whiners will whine that their precious electronic cables are exposed, but there is no stopping that.
Enough with the roadie influence here; there is no need to be ashamed of our cables.
Words and photos: Chris Milucky, aka Bama
From On the Road With Bama, a column in the print magazine
Originally published in Issue #189
Dear Bike Industry: Roll down your window. Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.
When I was a child, I used to ride my bike over to your house. We’d cut paths between the neighbors’ houses and ride to gas stations for candy. Our bikes sucked, those 4130 steel rust-bucket hand-me-down junkers that were always banjaxed, and being so in love with gravity, we had to push them up steep hills only to ride sans-brakes the whole way back down, finally sliding toward traffic, barely cheating the old fogies rollin’ Caddies before they had a chance to smoke us in their pleated-leather death sleds. Yep, laughter led our peloton.
We rode in denim and stained T-shirts, remaining hydrated by the water of garden hoses found at random houses while grownups were at work. We’d never even seen a helmet. When we were teenagers, we snuck out at night to hack secret trails, blurring the demarcation of singletrack and abandoned industrial estate. As young adults, we rode after work, after happy hour, in the alleys and parks where bums sleep. We never knew if it was a Wednesday or Friday night. We rode in the warmth of summer and in freezing autumn rain—as if adulthood were right behind us, creeping up with the sunrise, and maybe if we rode hard enough, we might escape the aging process.
But you grew up and set sail to cubicle purgatory. You made things light and fast and strong. Thanks—but now, you’re the ones driving Bavarian Motor Crüzers. Dear Bike Industry: Roll down your window. Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.
Come on, now, I hear you’re feeling down. Maybe I can help ease your pain and get you on your bike again. From Santa Cruz to Moab and Minneapolis, you’ve lost touch with your roots. Must you dine in classy clothes, drinking craft beer? Or could we cruise to a thrift store for evening attire and fire up the grill in my backyard? We used to watch “Rad” on VHS and build dirt jumps in the woods, shredding till dinnertime. Now your rides end with Strava trophies.
Many of you are parents now, and your children are grown, yet forbidden from that exploratory wandering that colored our own formative, miscreant years with idyllic arrests, underage smoking and broken glass. You were never a hardcore roadie or a hardcore mountain biker; you were just hardcore. You were life-hardened, annealed and temperamental characters who lived for live music and late nights. Now you’re overweight.
At Cyclocross Nationals in Austin, Texas, you were too cool for the underground race. In Sedona, Arizona, this spring, a staged photo shoot consumed all your time. At Interbike, you were too busy to say hello. You’ve fired all my heroes and have a retirement plan, yet off-road pioneer Charlie Cunningham* can’t afford medical care.
Get a grip on reality, my bike-industry friends. The life we used to live was financed by dreams and bike piles, not advertising campaigns. Your quest for money and sales figures has gone too far. You won’t ride through parking-lot puddles. You’re on Facebook, but never the shop ride.
I miss you dearly.
*You can do something regarding Charlie Cunningham. Click here to learn and read more about his recovery from devastating injuries resulting from a bicycle crash.
Words: Rebecca Rusch
Illustration: Chris Escobar
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Zen master Shunryu Suzuki
Fat biking is not a fad. It’s here to stay and has opened the doors to a whole new segment of riding, especially in winter climates. I was not an early adopter. I welcome the snowfall and the opportunity to recreate in other ways. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the forced break from two wheels allowed me to avoid potential burnout and greet spring rides with giddy enthusiasm. But when I was gifted a fat bike a couple of winters ago, I halfheartedly swung a leg over it, expecting to be underwhelmed.
I approached fat biking in the same way that I approach most things: by pushing harder when things got difficult. This approach didn’t work. The harder I tried, the more I flailed. It took me many rides stuffing my nostrils full of snow and digging tire trenches before I began to see the light.
Gradually, I gave up on my old tactics and allowed the snow to show me the way. The challenge of riding on this changing, unpredictable medium has become a Zen ritual, a kind of two-wheeled religion. Not the sort of cult religion that makes people crazy, but instead the ancient, contemplative type that develops quiet strength and calmness.
Don’t think for a second that fat biking is easy. You’ll find yourself dripping with sweat and ripping off layers of clothing in freezing temperatures. You have to work for even the tiniest bit of forward progress. The path forward is there, but in order to find it, you must slow down. In order to attain success, you must first forget what you know about riding on dirt and approach fat biking with a beginner’s mind.
In the ancient Zen Buddhist religion, the tenets of the beginner’s mind read like a how-to manual for fat biking.
Fall down seven times, get up eight
It might be more accurate to say “Fall down a thousand times, get up a thousand and one.” You will fall more times in one winter than you have fallen your whole life on two wheels. This is a fact, and you must accept it. The falls rarely hurt more than your ego because the soft, pillowy snow is just waiting to embrace you. Dress accordingly.
Let go of being an expert
So you think you can ride? Forget it and get ready for an education every ride. Snow is an ever-changing medium, tire pressure is king and just when you experience a moment of flow, the snow ruts will smack your ego back into place. You even have to learn how to dress yourself again, and your usual riding attire probably won’t cut it.
Experience the moment fully
Even if you don’t want to live in the moment, the super-slow pace of riding in soft snow will force you to quiet your mind and just soak it all in at approximately 5 mph. You’ll have lots of time here to engage in moving meditation. Let go of all expectations of time and distance and just quiet your mind. You are going to need to embrace mindfulness to keep that 4.5 inch tire inside a 5 inch tire track anyway.
Discard fear of failure
You will look silly, you will dress inappropriately, you will crash on flat ground, you will pack your glasses full of snow and you must laugh at all of it. The beauty of fat biking is it’s hard to take it too seriously. The moment you do, the snow goblins will reach up and smack you right down again because you are not in control here.
Use the spirit of inquiry
Focus on questions, not answers. The beginner’s mind will ask others about gear, tire pressure and whatever else you don’t know. Conditions dictate everything, so what you know one day will be different the next. It’s a blast to be soaking up information like a sponge, and fat-bikers love to talk tire pressure. Just ask them or go cop a feel when they aren’t looking.
For me, fat bike riding is an exercise in practicing mindfulness: a total state of focus that incorporates a togetherness of body and mind. It is an approach to an activity, skill or subject that emphasizes simplicity and intuition rather than conventional thinking or fixation on goals. No fixation on goals? Yeah, that’s a hard one for me, and it’s one of the reasons I now need fat biking.
Zen Buddhism asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, practice, self-contemplation and intuition. I insert “while riding a fat bike” on the end of that sentence. I’m using big fat tires in the snow as a modern way to inch toward my own enlightened state—well, at least until the snow melts.
With my apologizes to Bukowski.
Life continues to surprize me, and frustrate me, and bring moments of unmitigated joy.
I quit smoking almost 12 years ago. It was cold turkey, and it wasn’t fun. I fell off the wagon a few times, including a few months of stress smoking involving hand rolled cigarettes and a bad mental space I’d like to never return to. And I will admit to bumming a smoke this summer from an Irish guy in a basement pub in Prague after drinking a lot of wine in a bar named after a cockroach. I can deal with one a year but after the first two puffs, I didn’t want it anymore anyway. I can be a fickle drunk.
Smoking is on my mind, although not because I was wanting one. Rather, I realized how happy I am to not have the cravings anymore, which persisted for years after no longer making daily runs to the corner store for smokes. A recent excursion through some of my former regular drinking establishments had me somewhat dumbfounded that I spent so much time in places that smelled so bad, and how some of the same bartenders were still serving me so many years later. All that secondhand smoke, all those years. It is shameful that Pittsburgh can’t pass a no smoking ordinance like the rest of the civilized world.
What does any of this have to do with bikes? I’m not sure yet, but the ride has started, let’s see where it goes.
Cigarettes used to be a tool for celebrating happy times, soothing a stressful mind, fighting boredom, suppressing hunger or easing social situations. The bike does these all in a much healthier way. Except hunger suppression. Bike rides suck for that.
According to an online calculator, I’m over $20,000 richer for quitting smoking. I’m not sure where that money went, but I’m sure it didn’t go into the camper van fund. Which is a shame. With a bigger van budget I’d be looking at less rusty E-150s.
This [was written for] the last issue of Dirt Rag for . And the last issue for our long-tenured art director, who moved on to help art direct the shit out of a bike company in Salt Lake City. And the first issue for a new web editor. And I’m rolling up on my tenth year at the magazine. And, fall has settled into the city with a soft, cool hand on the cheeks.
It is making me all kinds of reflective and introspective and contemplative. Life continues to surprize me, and frustrate me, and bring moments of unmitigated joy. I’m glad they are almost never interrupted by cigarette cravings.
Fall also makes me miss the Punk Bike Enduro. Long before the current enduro craze was even a twinkle in the eyes above Mark Weir’s mustache, Pittsburgh had a true moto-style mountain bike enduro, including mass starts, uphill and downhill stages, costumes, kegs. No waivers, no entry fee and no questions were asked or answered. And more cigarettes smoked than your average bike gathering. I miss that event.
But enough of the the navel gazing. Forward into 2016! Tobacco-free, bad attitude intact, missing some things, glad to be rid of others. I’m always thankful for all the places bikes have taken me and I’m looking forward to where they take me in the future. Thanks for reading. I’m lucky to do what I do and can’t do it without the eyeballs on this page and the subscription checks in the mail. Sláinte mhaith!
Take a look at the bikes above. They seem to share very few things in common. One is a stripped down rigid bike, or as they say on the in Internets, “ridged.” The other is a very modern all-mountain bike, able to survive weekend trail rides and the worst downhill tracks imaginable.
What are they doing together? Why am I asking myself questions? They are together because they are both mountain bikes. I’m asking myself questions because it is a cheap and easy rhetorical device, utilized in this case because I’m already late with this column.
On a personal level, I love both these bikes, and understand why they exist. Maybe I’m just some kind of weird pansexual when it comes to bikes, or maybe there are just a lot of people who can’t see very far beyond their own front wheels.
Do you find yourself deriding other riders’ choice of bike? Do you look down your nose at old equipment? Do you often find yourself thinking that some new technology is ruining mountain biking? Do you like to complain that this sport is getting too expensive? Are you now asking yourself why I’m asking you questions?
It’s time to let this all go. Deep breaths, long exhales, get your damn chakras in line. All those thoughts are dead ends. Other riders’ bikes should have zero impact on your day. As for new technology ruining things? Where does that line of thought stop? Suspension? Gears? Pneumatic tires? You’ll be naked and walking if you head too far down that rabbit hole of Luddite-ism.
I’ve got no problems with people picking a station and getting off the train of technological progression, but admit its arbitrariness and move on. Next time you see a rider on a bike you don’t understand, and you feel that ugly anger and xenophobia bubbling up, take a look at the rider. Odds are the dude or lady is grinning.
It doesn’t seem to matter if the bike is a clapped out Trek 830, some guy Matt Chester-ing it through the woods on a fixed gear Franken-bike, or a $10k dream bike, riding is riding, and riding is good.
Right now, we have a huge range of mountain bikes available to us, from super basic single speeds to carbon fiber wonder machines. Ain’t no one telling you to ride one or the other. As someone who gets to ride more mountain bikes than 99 percent of the population, I’m only going to tell you to ride as many bikes as possible, as often as possible. This shit is fun. Don’t worry about everyone else. They’ll get by fine without your bad looks and grumbling about whatever it is you want to complain about.
Let the hate go, man. Or at least direct it toward something truly worthy of our distain: inline skaters. Those guys are the real numbskulls. ￼￼
Editor’s note: This rant originally appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #176. To make sure you’re reading all of our columnists, order a subscription today.