The Axle

The Fuji (see Specs page) has always been a bike with rear-wheel problems.  When I first bought it eight years ago, broken rear spokes soon ensued.  I tried replacing the rear wheel, which repeatedly bent out of true, with a similar low-end product, and it also kept breaking spokes and bending out of true.  Now, while I’d paid only $150 for the whole bike at an end-of-year sale, the replacement cost per spoke was then $20, an intolerable fee for something that had never happened to me even once on any other bike.  (Since then, two other bikes have broken one spoke each.)  I remember one embarrassing occasion when a passing rider had to tell me that the rear wheel, bent out of true, was pushing the rear brake to the side with every revolution.

Finally I took it to a more competent bike repair shop (Step One: you get what you pay for).  They assured me that there were sturdier rims (Step Two: you get what you pay for), but that in my case it would be almost imperative to build the new wheel around the existing hub and cogs.  Why?  The Fuji has the old-fashioned threaded freewheel hub, and no modern pre-built wheel will accommodate it.  Partly that’s because the cogset is an archaic 7-speed group, including one ridiculous “granny gear” of 32 teeth.  If you got into replacing all that, you’d have to rehab the whole drivetrain, definitely not worth it in terms of the original cost of the bike.  And yet I like the old Fuji for comfortable cruising, rainy days, and even the anticipation of a time when my body may demand an “easier” ride.  So they rebuilt the wheel on a better rim, and I have had nary a broken spoke since.  Just one liiiittle problem: the “new” rim was originally bored to accept a Presta valve, and my old tubes were Schrader.  Rather than providing a Schrader adapter for a Presta valve, they re-bored the hole.  But they made it just a hair too big, and so after 80 miles the tube slipped inside the tire enough to “decapitate” the valve against the edge of the hole, thus flattening the tire.  I home-engineered this fix with two or three revolutions of electrician’s tape around the base of the valve on a new inner tube.  It’s worked perfectly for five or six years.

About six or seven months ago, the Fuji started making a new noise, a kind of periodic clicking.  I can’t pinpoint when it started, but it kept getting louder.  About three months ago it was really loud and persistent.  I checked out the bike after the ride and found the rear wheel  drastically askew, but in a way that did not result in rubbing against the brake.  Unmounting the wheel from the frame, I discovered a lot of play in the axle.  Then I quickly saw that the play was independent on either end: the axle had broken.  How long had it been that way, or nearly broken?  Goodness only knows.

It looked like a straightforward thing to fix, even assuming what I always take for granted about any repair, namely that there will be some unimagined complications.  So I proceeded to take the thing apart.  First I removed the skewers, and then went after the visible and accessible lock nuts.  Once they were off, that was pretty much it.  On the side with the gears there was a spacer and then a ball-bearing “cone” that holds the bearings in place.  On the other side there was just the locknut and another cone.  The ball-bearing race on the hub body was fairly accessible on this side, the left side of the hub looking forward on the bike.  The race on the other side could only be wholly accessed by removing the cogset.

I decided to try a “lite” repair, not removing the cogset.  The difficulty here is that the bearings are loose, not caged.  So I took out the “left” bearings and put them in a jar, all nine of them.  I had visions of servicing the old Dawes (see Home page) as a kid, chasing rolling bearings around a basement floor covered with sawdust and shavings from my airplane model-making.  I removed and laid out in sequence all the parts: lock nut, bearing cone, bearing cone, spacer, lock nut; skewer set with springs and nuts; two pieces of axle.  Shortly afterward I went to the bike shop with my two pieces of axle, asking if they had one just like it in one piece.  They did.  Then they gave me the shaft, or sold it to me for $7.99 plus tax.  (Sorry; couldn’t resist the bad and not wholly apt pun.)

The situation stayed at this point for some time while I attended to more urgent matters, such as paper grading and book reading.  Finally, though, I screwed up the courage to attempt the repair.  Yeah, I know it’s a little silly, but I feel a certain amount of incompetence even with such simple matters.  I turned to one of my favorite reference tomes, Complete Bike Book by Chris Sidwells.  It addresses all aspects of cycling, from touring to descending to nutrition and exercise, all with great color illustrations.  But 19 times out of every 20 when I open this book I am looking up something in the “Maintaining your bike” section, with its step-by-step pictured instructions and clear explanations.  Nothing about bike maintenance is rocket science, but it’s all about precision–“touch.”

So actually doing the repair was fairly easy.  The one definite glitch was that three of the greasy ball bearings from the gears side had left their race and worked down into the middle of the hub body.  I retrieved them by sticking a pencil covered with heavy silicone grease into the hub body, capturing each fugitive bearing and lifting it out separately, and then using more grease, the pencil, and a deft hand to replace them inside their race.  After that I left the wheel horizontal, gear side up, until that side was safely reassembled.

When the last lock nut was tight the wheel turned freely with very little “play.”  It all went back onto the bike properly, and I rode the Fuji 24 miles to Herndon and back without incident last Tuesday.  I’ll continue to monitor performance closely, but I think the repair is good.  Never too late to live and learn something new.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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2 thoughts on “The Axle

  1. Hmmm… Sounds a lot like rocket science to me. There must be similar things they do to rockets? In any case, I strongly admire your openness to learning new things. It’s always been one of the things I hope to emulate. Except in this case, I am virtually certain I would not have the patience, dexterity, or comprehension to do what you did! Wow.

  2. In this case the low-tech hub probably worked in your favor. “Better” units often have sealed bearing cartridges — who knows whether the shop would have had proper replacement units for those or whether the cost would have been so wallet-friendly. Anyway it’s nice that some things in our lives can still be repaired at home.

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