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Bicycle mechanics: what takes expertise, what does not?

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Bicycle mechanics: what takes expertise, what does not?

Old 02-20-24, 12:22 PM
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Bicycle mechanics: what takes expertise, what does not?

Sometimes when I'm fixing bikes I think about what jobs demand the most expertise. Most of it is pretty mundane -- put the right tool into the fitting and turn the threaded thing until it's torqued correctly. Or clean off the dirty grease/oil and put in fresh grease/oil. It's basically just putting things on and off, tightening and loosening, rubbing with a rag, lubricating. Sometimes you get to cut something or spin up the grinder.

So, I'll start a list of things I think are worth some respect and would be curious to hear from others.

1. Diagnosing and eliminating an annoying noise
2. Freeing a hopelessly seized part
3. building a wheel
4. repairing carbon
5. realigning bent metal frames and forks
6. brazing a frame
7. tig welding a frame
8. designing a new component
9. inventing a successful product
10. turn a successful product into a company
11. grow the company through decades
12. become part of the fabric of cycling culture

My bike makes an annoying creaking noise, by the way.
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Old 02-20-24, 12:48 PM
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IME deciphering what a customer/friend/relative, without any knowledge of bikes, is trying to describe when they have an issue is one of the most difficult things to do.
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Old 02-20-24, 01:07 PM
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Expertise isn't binary, nor is it all one thing

For example, one wouldn't figure any expertise is involved in tightening a bolt, but consider.

Skill allows you to know how tightening seat post binder is different than, (ie.) an automobile head bolt. It also allows you to make intelligent calls on how tight is tight enough, yet not too tight.

So, IMO every aspect of bike work calls for a certain level of general mechanical expertise.

That said, some things are unique to bikes and require specialized skill that you wouldn't otherwise use. Wheel building and aligning fall into that group.

Than there's general and specific knowledge of how things work, ie. bearings.

So, let's say that you need a mix of instinct, knowledge, and hand skill.
‐‐------------
BITD I'd tell all new hires they only needed to know 3 things.

Know what you know, and be able to work independently.
Know what you don't know, and be willing to ask for help.
Know the difference.
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Old 02-20-24, 01:26 PM
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if people knew when to use good quality SAE vs metric tools with hardware, that'd go a long way.
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Old 02-20-24, 01:38 PM
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Getting people to say “No that is far too cheap, I insist on paying you more”. Lol.

Seriously, with anything mechanical having an inquiring mind, think “Sherlock with a spanner” and that is what sets you apart.
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Old 02-20-24, 03:09 PM
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Perfection: don’t let it be the enemy of good enough

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Old 02-20-24, 03:26 PM
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Originally Posted by ljsense
Sometimes when I'm fixing bikes I think about what jobs demand the most expertise. Most of it is pretty mundane -- put the right tool into the fitting and turn the threaded thing until it's torqued correctly. Or clean off the dirty grease/oil and put in fresh grease/oil. It's basically just putting things on and off, tightening and loosening, rubbing with a rag, lubricating. Sometimes you get to cut something or spin up the grinder.
That's automotive mechanic stuff, many bike things need more finesse in the setup: just bolting things on doesn't necessarily put them in the right place, at the right tension etc..
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Old 02-20-24, 04:04 PM
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Originally Posted by grumpus
That's automotive mechanic stuff, many bike things need more finesse in the setup: just bolting things on doesn't necessarily put them in the right place, at the right tension etc..
Yeah, that's what I'm interested in -- what you consider a finesse job.

Back in the golden days when I got a summer job at the local bike shop, I considered getting indexed shifting to work perfectly a finesse job. Same with adjusting and locking bearing cones on quick release axles. Cutting cable housing the exactly correct length. Wrapping bars figure-8 style without the little tags of cheater tape. But all those techniques now seem like they are just a sequence of simple steps that, if you pay attention, will result in predictable success.

Automotive jobs don't seem to involve more finesse necessarily, but they are more complex due to weight, access and torque. Stuff is hard to reach and tough to loosen. Plus it's all usually really dirty.
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Old 02-20-24, 04:19 PM
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I think of bike mechanics as the folks at my local shop, most of whom are very good. I cannot think any of them knows how to repair carbon, tig weld, braze, design components or invent a new product.

Repairing carbon is really a specialty of a shop that does this exclusively, like Calfee.

Likewise, brazing and welding on frames is a builders area, not a bike mechanics. Ditto designing and inventing.
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Old 02-20-24, 05:23 PM
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Ditto the indexed shifting and bearing preload adjustments. We see a lot of cantilever brakes on donated bikes and those can take some skill to tune correctly--set up the right yoke angle, and solve the three-dimensional problem of brake shoe alignment.
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Old 02-20-24, 05:32 PM
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Being able to do quality work quickly.

You don’t have to be a mechanic to do a quality job, but doing a quality job in a time frame that maintains a livelihood is what distinguishes the pro from the backyard guy.

John
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Old 02-20-24, 06:51 PM
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Warning - the words below are about finesse - not bicycles.

The most finesse repair job I can think of is a piano tuner. The basic idea is simple - put a wrench on a peg in a wooden block and turn it until the string attached to it makes the correct sound. Repeat 200+ times.

Not everyone can even agree on what the best sound is or how to hear it, so I'll skip the artsy-fartsy part and focus on three invisible mechanical problems. The pin you are turning can loosen itself slightly in the wooden pinblock after you leave. The pin can also have a slight twist in the metal itself that will gradually untwist. Finally, turning one pin flexes the piano frame slightly and affects the pitch of every other note. You need to expertly guess how to set each pin so the entire piano settles into perfect tune.

The second most finesse repair job I can think of is similar - pipe organ tuner. You crawl up into a space with dozens of tiny pipes. While your coworker pushes a key, you find the correct pipe and tune and voice it. You can't touch it, of course, because the heat of your fingers would affect the pitch. Of course, the heat of your body has already warmed up the air enough to affect all the pipes in the area. Believe it or not, even disturbing the dust in the area affects the sound. Best practice is to leave the dust to gradually accumulate.
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Old 02-20-24, 06:51 PM
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Originally Posted by FBinNY
Expertise isn't binary, nor is it all one thing

For example, one wouldn't figure any expertise is involved in tightening a bolt, but consider.

Skill allows you to know how tightening seat post binder is different than, (ie.) an automobile head bolt. It also allows you to make intelligent calls on how tight is tight enough, yet not too tight.

So, IMO every aspect of bike work calls for a certain level of general mechanical expertise.

That said, some things are unique to bikes and require specialized skill that you wouldn't otherwise use. Wheel building and aligning fall into that group.

Than there's general and specific knowledge of how things work, ie. bearings.

So, let's say that you need a mix of instinct, knowledge, and hand skill.
‐‐------------
BITD I'd tell all new hires they only needed to know 3 things.

Know what you know, and be able to work independently.
Know what you don't know, and be willing to ask for help.
Know the difference.
+100 especially on that last part. I say a similar thing to new mechanics and employees.
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Old 02-20-24, 07:24 PM
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Originally Posted by FBinNY
BITD I'd tell all new hires they only needed to know 3 things.

Know what you know, and be able to work independently.
Know what you don't know, and be willing to ask for help.
Know the difference.
This is great advice, but deserves to be broken down. The first part is great - find stuff that you can do and get it done correctly without bothering anybody. The second part is tougher because by definition, you don't know what you don't know. This can manifest itself as wasted time, botched repairs, broken tools, broken parts, injuries, or something else. Generally, a person is going to work independently or ask questions about every silly thing. i would prefer a mechanic that works so well independently that I could tolerate an occasional mistake due to not asking for help - especially if he fessed up whenever something went sideways.
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Old 02-20-24, 09:12 PM
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Originally Posted by ScottCommutes
Warning - the words below are about finesse - not bicycles.

The most finesse repair job I can think of is a piano tuner. The basic idea is simple - put a wrench on a peg in a wooden block and turn it until the string attached to it makes the correct sound. Repeat 200+ times.

Not everyone can even agree on what the best sound is or how to hear it, so I'll skip the artsy-fartsy part and focus on three invisible mechanical problems. The pin you are turning can loosen itself slightly in the wooden pinblock after you leave. The pin can also have a slight twist in the metal itself that will gradually untwist. Finally, turning one pin flexes the piano frame slightly and affects the pitch of every other note. You need to expertly guess how to set each pin so the entire piano settles into perfect tune.

The second most finesse repair job I can think of is similar - pipe organ tuner. You crawl up into a space with dozens of tiny pipes. While your coworker pushes a key, you find the correct pipe and tune and voice it. You can't touch it, of course, because the heat of your fingers would affect the pitch. Of course, the heat of your body has already warmed up the air enough to affect all the pipes in the area. Believe it or not, even disturbing the dust in the area affects the sound. Best practice is to leave the dust to gradually accumulate.
That's cool. That's the perspective I was looking for. Thank you.
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Old 02-21-24, 12:18 AM
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I don't think a good mechanic has to know how to do all the advanced stuff and along the same lines, being able to do those advanced things, doesn't necessarily make a good mechanic.

I do 100% of my own bike repair, to the point of having done my own carbon fiber repair and I machine some of my own parts. While I have the skill set and ability to do those extras, I don't consider myself to be anything more than merely competent...those are just processes that anyone can learn IMO. Being a good mechanic involves good troubleshooting abilities, my ability to troubleshoot isn't nearly to the level that I wish it was. I eventually get to the root cause of the problem, or adjust something to my liking, but it isn't as smooth of a process as a good mechanic.
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Old 02-21-24, 01:07 AM
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Originally Posted by 70sSanO
Being able to do quality work quickly.

You don’t have to be a mechanic to do a quality job, but doing a quality job in a time frame that maintains a livelihood is what distinguishes the pro from the backyard guy.

John
to make a living i can agree a mechanic needs to be fast & provide quality work. For a hobby, time is not really high on the list, but does often seek quality parts that saves time.
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Old 02-21-24, 01:17 AM
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Originally Posted by 70sSanO
Being able to do quality work quickly.

You don’t have to be a mechanic to do a quality job, but doing a quality job in a time frame that maintains a livelihood is what distinguishes the pro from the backyard guy.

John
I've been able to do good journeyman work for a long time, but never at the pace where someone could make money off me. In fact, most of my wrench work in college was paid per bike, not per hour, because otherwise it wouldn't be worth their while to hire me. Plus the other marketable skills I've picked up in the meantime pay much better.

That's why I like volunteering at nonprofits (currently 3 different ones). They don't care, as long as it all gets done in a somewhat timely manner.
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Old 02-21-24, 01:38 AM
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Once you really know how to true a wheel, you can often do a better job than the LBS, because you have all the time you need to get it really close, especially on a used rim, which is harder. The LBS couldn't spend that much time per wheel. And a really good true or build job, superb in radial, lateral, and tension, lasts an incredibly long time, if no big bonks in the road or terrain.

You can sometimes accomplish what is not supposed to be possible. Looking on the forum years ago, someone would ask about putting a double or triple crank on a dahon folder and the answer was, you can't do it. This was before I discovered the Folding Bikes subgroup, where this is common knowledge. But before that, I did a good deal of measuring, calculating, then ordering parts that mostly worked; A triple crank would not fit, due to a combination of the fat seat tube and thick front derailleur adapter, not allowing the FD cage to go far enough in. But a wide-range double crank worked great. Enormous improvement to bike on the uphills. Around town here, people were astonished, "How did you do that?!" Like I said, simple parlor tricks in the Folding group.
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Old 02-21-24, 08:58 AM
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It's pretty much the same as everything else in life: experience is king.

One must know their limits and when it's ok to pay for professional help.

It is not evil to have a good LBS you like to do work, and should never be discouraged, as what some here think.

I know folks that believe they should DIY everything in their life. They screw everything up, everything they have is shoddy and crap, and they seem proud of it.

I know folks that spend more time on DIY fixing their bikes that riding them. I'm simply happy it was 0% of my time on their broken crap.

Having said all that, I DIY because I'm a bike wrench that has worked in LBSes, and I resell bikes at a business sustainable profit.
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Old 02-21-24, 09:10 AM
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Originally Posted by Duragrouch
Once you really know how to true a wheel, you can often do a better job than the LBS, because you have all the time you need to get it really close, especially on a used rim, which is harder. The LBS couldn't spend that much time per wheel. And a really good true or build job, superb in radial, lateral, and tension, lasts an incredibly long time, if no big bonks in the road or terrain.
True, true, true. BikeFarmer (a bike mechanic on YouTube) often moves quickly through repairs with the comment "Good enough for who it's for". He doesn't even think about trying to hide this attitude - he puts it out there for the world to see.

Not only do bike shops have the "good enough" attitude, but also probably every other profession. I went to the emergency room once with lacerations from a dog bite on my face. The surgeon was honest. He could stitch me up, but for cosmetic reasons he recommended calling in a plastic surgeon. I opted to have him do it and I can absolutely guarantee you that he put more care and effort into stitching my face perfectly than he would have for another part of my body. He did great work, by the way.

The key to staying profitable in any endeavor is knowing exactly which corners to cut and when.
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Old 02-21-24, 12:49 PM
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Originally Posted by Duragrouch
Once you really know how to true a wheel, you can often do a better job than the LBS, because you have all the time you need to get it really close, especially on a used rim, which is harder. The LBS couldn't spend that much time per wheel. And a really good true or build job, superb in radial, lateral, and tension, lasts an incredibly long time, if no big bonks in the road or terrain.
True. When the rim sidewall on one of the Sun Rhynos on our tandem failed, I made the mistake of having the shop that sold the tandem to us do the rebuild. Between the time of us buying the tandem and getting the rebuild that shop had seen about 100% or more staff turnover. A 48-spoke build on strong rims should be one of the easiest builds ever, but what I received was a mess, with tensions all over the place and out of true and round. I spoke to the shop, and the kid who did the build assured me it was just fine and that he knew more about wheelbuilding than I ever would*. I ended up taking the wheels apart and relacing and rebuilding them from scratch, and they've been fine since.

In the past few weeks, a rider in my group has been having problems with a front brifter. They charged her $10 for a shot of WD-40 into the mechanism, which didn't fix a thing. They then charged a lot for a new brifter, and it still doesn't work.

No, I don't spend a lot of time in retail shops anymore - just the nonprofit I volunteer at once a week.

* Reminiscent of visits to the Apple Store, where a kid "genius" starts lecturing me on something I already know well, and I reply, "Kid, I was ResEditing System 6.0.3 before you were born."
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Old 02-21-24, 11:10 PM
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Originally Posted by RCMoeur
True. When the rim sidewall on one of the Sun Rhynos on our tandem failed, I made the mistake of having the shop that sold the tandem to us do the rebuild. Between the time of us buying the tandem and getting the rebuild that shop had seen about 100% or more staff turnover. A 48-spoke build on strong rims should be one of the easiest builds ever, but what I received was a mess, with tensions all over the place and out of true and round. I spoke to the shop, and the kid who did the build assured me it was just fine and that he knew more about wheelbuilding than I ever would*. I ended up taking the wheels apart and relacing and rebuilding them from scratch, and they've been fine since.

In the past few weeks, a rider in my group has been having problems with a front brifter. They charged her $10 for a shot of WD-40 into the mechanism, which didn't fix a thing. They then charged a lot for a new brifter, and it still doesn't work.

No, I don't spend a lot of time in retail shops anymore - just the nonprofit I volunteer at once a week.

* Reminiscent of visits to the Apple Store, where a kid "genius" starts lecturing me on something I already know well, and I reply, "Kid, I was ResEditing System 6.0.3 before you were born."
Of course I agree with you agreeing with me. But also, I think truing a wheel is one of the most satisfying things one can do, if that kind of thing doesn't try your patience. And, it comes out better. Same for ironing, the dry cleaners/laundry don't take the time to line up the pants crease and I get a double-crease. Rainy days for me used to be, put clothes in washer, work on the bicycle, hang-dry the clothes (don't shrink that way), iron. It helps that, even before engineering, I have an inherent understanding of the geometry at play, but I think this is teachable; It's not inherently obvious that you want to prioritize radial true first, above lateral, but once explained, it's easily grasped.
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Old 02-22-24, 03:44 AM
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That's an interesting list. I've got to say that finding and eliminating creaks and clicks would try the patience of the most saintly of people. It requires a combination of patience, experience, luck, patience, luck and probably sacrifices to the goddess Anoia.

By definition, anything that's hopelessly stuck is stuck for good. Otherwise, see above reference to Anoia.
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Old 02-22-24, 09:02 AM
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The real expertise in fixing bikes for money is doing right by the customer. That is a lot of communication and listening. Anybody with the right training can do work on a bike and charge accordingly. However, there's not much sense changing shift cables or derailleurs on a bike (even if they need it) if you discern that the customer doesn't ever intend to shift gears.
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