When I was about 18 years old, I purchased my first bicycle. While I’d always grown up with a pair of wheels, I’d never been able to pick one out specifically for me. It was always my parents’ best guess as to which model I’d like the most.
They usually got it right, but that wasn’t the point. I never had one that was completely mine until college. The beauty I picked was an aluminum, gunmetal black Trek hardtail mountain bike I bought off a friend of a friend. It looked designed to go on a spec ops mission with its subdued paint job and chrome Rock Shox.
While it scarcely made it beyond the boundaries of Auburn University’s campus with the vast majority of its life spent shuttling me between my apartment off Donahue Drive and the Shelby Center where most of my engineer classes were, it was my responsibility to take care of it so it would take care of me.
Then in my third year, I started to get interested in triathlon, a venue where my old steed was not going to shine. I needed a new cycling experience. With a bit of money saved up, I headed to a bike shop a friend of mine recommended and went for a test ride on a shiny new road bike.
With Keen sandals on my feet and a flappy, cotton t-shirt on my back I rode out a half mile and back. I could not believe the snappiness, the speed, the elegance afforded by this new machine. I’d never before ridden a bicycle like this one, and my life was forever changed.
I could ride for hours at 15, 20, 25 mph around the plains of the Southeast. I found new freedom in physical movement that I had never conceived of in my endurance running days. Almost immediately after the test ride, I had a brand new Trek 2.1, complete with red and black pinstriping and a carbon fork to boot (that makes it extra cool), settled into the back of my rally red Mitsubishi Lancer.
Her name was to be “April” after my birth month and the month I purchased her.
But with any new hobby, there was a lot more to it than what first meets the eyes. The experience of that first ride is what I would be chasing every time I clipped into the Shimano pedals, but I learned I couldn’t take for granted what it took to keep my bike and my body in the shape it needed to be in to once again attain that experience. That quality of smooth pedal strokes over perfectly paved asphalt.
One of my new triathlon friends showed me the ropes of basic bicycle maintenance. How to change a tire, how to adjust the derailleur, which parts to lubricate, grease, or add friction to, and so on. Geez, there was a lot more to this than I thought. He had an enviable array of Park Tool wrenches, pliers, Allen keys, fluids, and lubricants of various kinds and colors. And no shortage of shop towels.
Once I got the hang of it, though, it became a delight to spend a few extra minutes cleaning down my bike before and after a good ride. I learned pretty quickly what happens when you don’t regularly torque down your bolts, clean and lubricate your chain, take the necessary rest, and consume the right nutrition your body needs to generate quality experiences out on the road. Sometimes it was frustrating because there would be some squeak or tick-tick-tick noise whose source was not readily identifiable. After a few thousand miles of riding, I also found it necessary to take the old girl into the shop for new cables and housing to keep that crispness alive.
But that’s all part of the game. To sustain that quality sense of freedom on the open road, a few basic tidbits of know-how are a prerequisite to keep that spark alive for the long haul. I didn’t need to be a Tour de France-grade bike mechanic to accomplish that end—just a bit of layman’s wisdom and intention to fix the most common “mechanicals” — bike-speak for when something breaks down.
A few years later, another friend of mine decided he wanted to get into triathlon, too. He’d been riding for a while but complained that the drivetrain and overall ride experience were not what they used to be.
“When’s the last time you cleaned and lubed your chain?” I asked him. He shrugged and pointed to all the cleaning stuff he had on hand.
Even though the tools were available, he didn’t have the experience to know how or when to use them.
I showed him how to clean the chain and let him borrow my chain measuring tool so he could keep track of when a new chain would be needed. The next time we spoke, he was delighted at the difference that five-minute maintenance made in his riding experience.
For him to have a much higher quality long ride of two, three, four hours or more, all it took was a bit of intention and time to make that happen.
Our body’s health is much the same. We long for quality interactions with our social circles, work-life, self-talk, and sense of play. But, frequently, there’s rust on the old chain that we might not have the know-how to clean, even if the tools are readily at hand.
This blog series will take us through some basic maintenance we can do on ourselves that can make for a far better life experience that only requires the smallest of additions to our day. We’ll start by discussing what it means to have your psychological map of the world destroyed and what it looks like to rebuild. Later, we’ll get into some simple nutritional swaps, physical movements, and spiritual practices you can incorporate which can have a huge effect on your body’s ability to cope with stress.
We’re not here to learn how to fix a broken carbon frame or overhaul a DT Swiss 240 rear hub; just how to wash your frame and maintain a chain, as it were.
If you feel like your metaphorical bike has been left outside to rust for years, half-buried in the back yard with little hope of becoming your steed again, I would offer that the best thing to do is pick one thing at a time and work on that rather than thinking it all has to find a solution right away, or to think you need the insight of a world-class mechanic to start making progress.
So, the first step might simply be to bring the bike to the garage and hosing her down and remind her that she’s a bike again; remind her that she’s part of a bigger story.
See you in the next post.