The Art of Bicycle Maintenance

HERE in New Hampshire the weather's been veering: thick sweat shirts in the morning, T-shirts in the afternoon, and the gas heater turned on low for the evening. But I've dug the bicycle out of the storage shed and started to clean it and tune it. I started working on my own bike when a bike shop wanted to charge me an outrageous sum of money for a simple repair. I didn't have the money, but I had a library card, and I found out what I needed to do could be done with a small wrench, some oil, and patience.

I remember clearly the first time I broke open my bottom bracket and looked at the greasy shine of the bearings. I plucked them out with tweezers and dropped them with a small plop! into the paint thinner. They lay in the jar like silver fish eggs. The bottom bracket is like the trap of a sink - it collects junk: flakes of paint, grit, bits of metal worn off the tubing. And it's a chamber of suspended violence, where the axle and bearings are cushioned from a dissolving friction by only a thin gloss of grease.

When I had thoroughly cleaned out the bracket and wiped any residue from the threads, I carefully oozed out a pencil-thick line of grease and, one by one, as if I were nesting pearls on black velvet, I placed the bearings in the circle of their run, then guided the axle through until it firmly butted against the bearings. Still moving as if I were Faberg'e and this was my egg, I twirled the locknut back on and slowly tightened down the assemblage until there was no play in the axle. It turned perfectly, with a soft low-pitched whir and no drag.

It's hard to make words out of how satisfied I felt after I'd re-greased the bearings, tightened up the brake cables, de-gunked the derailleurs, and patched a hole in one of the tubes. It wasn't just satisfaction, it was mastery. So much depends in a bike on the smooth interchange of uncomplementary physics, and to harmonize this machine was to bear a certain relation to the world, of a doer, one who had worked to reduce part of a mystery into knowledge and make a disparateness of parts gear itself forward.

But I could never make a living out of these gratifying mechanics, because I'd miss the riding, the real reason for all the wrenches and fragrant oils. Cycling is not mechanical but hydraulic, fluids in pressure against the gravity of the road. When I do make my first ride, in a silty sunlight still unpacking from winter, the lawns are more thatch than grass and the culverts are stickled with branches, animal bones, and beer cans. In the spokes I hear a kind of aeolian odometer, a music measuring the asphalt miles full of my breath; the chain slurs over the sprockets. In the sunlight I feel sweat pile up under my shirt, the first moist inklings of summer, but in the shade still lingers a cold that steals it back and makes my skin perk and dance. As I'm racing home on that first day, I push back against the air pushing me, the right leg named ``yes,'' the left leg named ``I will,'' pumping endlessly to get me home.

After a week I'll be in somewhat shape; after two weeks, ready for a short trip. In that space I'll feel my body slip into its summer speed, hear the turnbuckles of winter-lazy muscles creak in their trimming, and the miles will slur like chain under me and, coming back around, press me forward until I come back home, full of returns and turnings. What bearings this bike has, what resonant cycles!

About the Art Commercial poster art developed in response to increasing urbanization. American Will Bradley designed the poster on this page in the Art Nouveau style, which was popularized at the turn of the century by such designers of the Arts and Crafts movement as William Morris. Art Nouveau emphasizes the repetition of organic design elements, such as the flowers in this work. New technology made it possible to reproduce high-quality color lithographs that could be readily disseminated.

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