Much of the banter amongst the guys I ride with is (unsurprisingly) about the bikes. Upgrades and accessories – stuff you can buy – I’m good with. But when it comes to talking about repairs, I go kind of quiet. I can repair punctures, adjust gears and fit new V-brake pads. Anything more technical, I get cold feet. Despite going on two excellent Broken Spoke Bike Co-op courses, it’s in one ear and out the other with me if the going gets technical.
I mean, how are you supposed to know that pedals are left-handed or right-handed? Trying to attach the wrong pedal to a crank arm is an easy mistake to make, and an expensive one – it invariably wrecks the thread on the pedal as well as the crank arm, so you have to have the entire crank replaced along with the pedals. Not once but twice I’ve stripped the thread off pedals and crank arms.
Bleeding the hydraulic disc brakes on mountain bikes was always the stuff of my riding buddies’ horror stories. I’d always had my brakes serviced in a shop.
So when Broken Spoke advertised a three-hour hydraulic brakes course, I ignored my instincts and I signed up. Either the course tutor Jamie Smith is brilliant – or I am. I suspect it’s the former, but either way I can now bleed hydraulics set-ups and change pads on disc brakes with the best of ’em. Hydraulic brakes sound horrific but are secretly dead simple. Just how easy must be all bike shops’ dirty secret, for they’ll relieve you of the best part of £50 for bleeding your brakes and fitting new pads, a task easily and cheaply performed at home once you know how.
By day a plumbing tutor at Blackbird Leys College, in his spare time Jamie Smith teaches bike mechanics and builds steel-framed bikes. Some theory, with a dozen fascinating tangential anecdotes, made for a fun evening.
When I touched the disc on one of my brakes, Jamie tutted. Any contamination will reduce the efficacy of the pads. We went over cleaning discs – only ever use isopropyl alcohol. But a squeaky clean disc is no good. The braking power comes from a film of brake pad deposited on the disc after it gets hot. So after cleaning, you ride down a steep hill and brake hard in pulses all the way down to condition the disc.
If Broken Spoke’s wheelbuilding course (highly recommended) is like Zen Buddhism for bicyclists, then the hydraulics course is like bicyclists’ philosophy. The evening totally demystified something I’d never dared go near. How light I felt, how empowered.
But something else had lifted my mood too. It’s the Broken Spoke Bike Co-op itself. The world of bike retail and repair is very male-dominated. Yet every Broken Spoke course I’ve done has had at least 50 per cent female participants and at least half of its members and volunteers seem to be women too. The sense of equality at that place is tangible and powerful. The non-blokiness creates a positive atmosphere in which anyone, even this Oxford Mail columnist, can learn and flourish.