Life’s Little Victories

Robert Pirsig not surprisingly has some things to say about the Zen of motorcycle maintenance in his best-selling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It’s not the major topic of the text, but his words have been helpful to me.  The gist of it is to be careful, calm, focused, orderly, and at peace with the task.  Do not consider the machine to be your foe.  A corollary conclusion I have drawn, based on the Zen approach, is not to worry about time. The task will take longer than you think.  There will be problems you have not anticipated.  Repeat your mantra and continue.

When I apply Zen to bicycle maintenance, it seems almost silly, almost overkill.  What makes motorcycle maintenance difficult is the internal combustion engine, with its precise calibrations and myriad moving parts, extremes of heat, combination of mechanics, combustion, and electric circuits.  The bicycle is, in comparison, child’s play; literally, kids can maintain their own bikes.  Bikes these days may be more complex than their ancestors of 75 years ago, what with carbon parts, disc brakes, torque requirements on some fastenings, and refined tolerances.  Still, they work about the same way the old ones did, and a set of hex wrenches, standard screwdrivers, and several specialized wrenches and hand tools will do 90% of the jobs required.

Still, I get a kick out of every successful repair I do.  The other day my Jamis Coda’s front derailleur began malfunctioning on the way home from a ride.  The chain would not lift up onto the largest chainring, nor would it drop down to the lowest easily.  The shifter had some effect, but not the usual precise, clean movement.  Back home, I found that the cable from the handlebar’s control levers to the derailleur itself was almost severed; about half of the strands had broken so it was hanging on by the proverbial “thread” of the remaining strands.  These had been stretched by the force of the derailleur’s spring mechanism that pulls the shift arm inward toward the bike’s frame.  Force applied by the cable to the shift lever is needed to pull the shift arm outward, thus seating the chain on the big chainring.

The repair is simple: remove the compromised cable, install a new one, and adjust it.  So I went to Spokes Etc., the local bike shop, and bought the $3.99 replacement cable.  Taking off the old one wasn’t so bad, except that (per Pirsig) I needed to lay everything out in the sequence in which I removed it.  Every mechanism is different, but this one seemed logical enough to disassemble and find the “head” of the cable.  The other end, at the derailleur, needed cutting so that it would slide back through the cable casing at the top of the downtube.  That done, the new cable slid through all the proper apertures, out the casing, down the downtube, under the bottom bracket, and up to the derailleur.  Right then and there I reassembled the housing at the handlebar end, which demanded only that I turn one little item so that all the holes and pins lined up right.

Adjusting the cable tension at the derailleur is always the hard part of this repair.  The derailleiur has set screws for high and low fine tuning, but getting the tension in the right ball park and tightening the screw to hold the cable in place is a challenge.  Too much or too little tension and the gears won’t shift properly.  The chain may rub on the shifter arm, or jam up, or be “thrown off” (i.e. pushed out too far so that it doesn’t stay in the teeth of the big sprocket but drops off altogether).  This is where patience, intuition, and calmness come in.  I have to put tension on the cable with pliers in one hand, while I tighten the screw clamping the cable onto the derailleur with the other.  When I can hand-crank the bike as it rests in the repair stand with the  rear wheel off the ground, shifting from gear to gear, and everything works smoothly without the chain rubbing on the mechanism, I’m almost done.  Now I can cut off the excess cable length and crimp a cap over the end of the cable.

When I have it fine tuned I take a test ride up and down the street to see how it works.  Took about four tries this time (dropped the chain twice), but it now shifts like new.  Paying a mechanic may be less hassle, but doing the job perfectly yourself is priceless.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

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One thought on “Life’s Little Victories

  1. We could probably apply the same “Zen” philosophy to many if not most of life’s difficult (and not so difficult tasks).

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