By Stephanie Nitsch
I’m a mountain biker, and, admittedly, a pretty decent one. In my three short years of riding, I’ve trekked to Baja Norte in search of desolate Mexican singletrack; discovered the ego-shattering technicalities of Austin’s challenging trails; and fallen in love with the eroded slickrock at Gooseberry Mesa.
While I’m often in the company of veteran riders, it’s not unusual to find me on a solo pedal fest, miles away from any bike shop. And it’s here, while my head is spinning in the joys of solitude and singletrack, that something inevitably goes wrong. Flat tires, squishy brakes, broken spokes, busted chains, and a handful of other unexplainable mechanical ailments have stopped me dead in my tracks, rendering me helpless until a good Samaritan stops to offer a temporary solution—or, other times, until I arrive back at the trailhead after an unexpected hike-a-bike.
Which is why I—along with 13 other two-wheelin’ females—gathered in a classroom for a women’s-only bike mechanic school in Portland, Oregon, last summer. Over the course of a week at United Bicycle Institute, we learned to pick apart our trusted steeds, like savvy shop mechanics.
After short introductions between my fellow classmates and the four UBI instructors assigned to our course, we eased into the first day with a basic task: removing both bike wheels and mimicking the process of changing a flat tire. Though I’d had my share of mid-ride flats, the fix proved challenging for a handful of the women. Unlike a trailside repair, however, there was no pressure to hurry because of impatient riding buddies or, say, impending thunderstorms or sunset.
It didn’t take us long to get into the rhythm and flow of pulling things apart. Bolts, nuts, screws, and cables came unhinged with a twist of an Allen key or snip of a wire cutter, and, in their state of disassembly, we began to understand how each component functions individually and as part of a whole system. Until you’ve reattached the bottom bracket, for instance, you can’t affix the cranks and pedals, which are needed to install the chain, which is kept in place by the derailleur. The successful reassembly of each component requires a methodical order and lots of patience.
On day three, we opened up our syllabus to the most challenging lesson of the week. “Who is intimidated by derailleurs?” asked Dylan, one of UBI’s instructors. Hands were raised and nervous laughter spread throughout the room, indicating that we weren’t alone in our seemingly ungrounded fears. And indeed, I found comfort in sharing the same hesitations with my fellow classmates.
Anticipating our response, Dylan encouraged us to forget what we knew about the fickle contraptions. “Repeat after me,” he said. “I am smarter than the derailleur. The derailleur has no power over me.”
What followed was a thorough lecture about the function and maintenance of front and rear derailleurs. With my bike dangling from the repair stand and Dylan’s words hanging in the air, I confronted my nemesis with a cold stare. “The derailleur is like Mr. Magoo,” Dylan explained, referencing the nearsighted protagonist who was only blindly aware of his surroundings. “It doesn’t know anything. We need to tell it where the cassette lives and where it starts and stops.”
Tools in hand, I began the step-by-step process: calibrate the adjusting barrels, remove old derailleur cables and housing, install new derailleur cables and housing, tweak the high limit screw, tweak the low limit screw, tighten the anchor bolt, and marvel at doing it all without swearing. A few hours and a couple of adjustments later, both derailleurs were perfectly tuned, shifting smoothly between gears without jolty hesitation.
Nevertheless, frustration was common during class. Many of the demonstrations were made using basic components, but the parts on my high-end mountain bike required more patience, additional procedures, and extra help. And, though our savvy instructors helped us troubleshoot our individual struggles, I couldn’t help but feel like I was depending on their help a little too much.
After all, we were an independent bunch. Throughout the week, we shared stories of our solo bike travels: touring Europe’s cobbled roads, commuting along busy metropolitan streets, or climbing peaks via steep singletrack. Our ages ranged from early 20s to mid-70s, and we came from different places, including a woman living in New Delhi, India. We had all enrolled at UBI to cultivate our self-sufficiency, but our freewheeling spirits each ran much deeper than a weeklong class.
Shortly after graduating from UBI, I found myself pushing my bike toward the nearest highway and hitchhiking back to the trailhead. A broken spoke had lodged itself into the rear cog, rendering my bike un-pedalable and requiring more than a simple trailside repair job. I drove to the nearest bike shop and articulated the problem to a mechanic, who seemed caught off guard by my specific request. “I’d fix it myself,” I told him reassuringly, “I just don’t have the tools to do it.”
Whether you find Zen in the art of bicycle maintenance is up to you, but it’s guaranteed you’ll feel more empowered on your next ride. Sign up for one of these women’s maintenance classes or workshops this summer, which range from two hours to five days, and start taking repair jobs into your own hands.
For a schedule of United Bicycle Institute courses, visit bikeschool.com.
This article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine‘s Summer 2013 issue.