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A month ago, I wondered aloud in this space why I was getting far fewer tech questions than I had been used to receiving. I received a lot of responses, and many of them are so interesting that I wanted to share them with you.
Some readers pointed to more difficulty finding my column since the website redesign. That was recently resolved; there is once again a link to get directly to it on the front page, in the TOPICS box a quarter of the way down the VeloNews home page.
Some people had some confusion about needing to join the $99 VeloNews Active Pass in order to read this column. That is not the case, which I suppose you likely know if you are reading this. While I think Active Pass is a good deal for the included coaching and magazine subscriptions, VeloPress books, and Roll Massif gran fondo entry, it is not necessary to be a member of it to read my FAQ column.
The other theories I received on why I was not getting many tech questions covered a broad arc, and I hope you’ll find these ones as interesting as I have. And, I’m happy to tell you that I am now again receiving lots of great questions every week, so look for those on upcoming Tuesdays.
I’m a 58-year-old former bike racer and avid bike mechanic. I’ve been reading your column since day one. Thanks to you, I think I’ve completed a Ph.D. in bike repair/mechanics. I recently was about to send you an email asking for help, but after a time procrastinating, it resolved itself. Next time, I’ll email you sooner so you can have some interesting topics in your inbox.
I’ve always worked on/assembled my own bikes. But new technology like disc brakes makes working on your own bike very tedious, which leads most people, including me, to the professional mechanic.
Gone are the days where parts were almost always interchangeable (after threading all became English at least). How many bottom bracket conventions are there now? Wheels are wheel “systems” now as opposed to just having standard hubs, spokes, and rims. Even shops have difficulty repairing some wheels.
Now at 72, I just want to ride my bike. Having a great local shop helps.
I guess riders now aren’t trying to make a 7-speed brand X freewheel work with an 11- or 12-speed brand Y chain and who-knows-what-kind of shifters. Those were the amusing questions I always wondered about.
If you could repair your bike on a computer, the younger guys could do it. If it requires actually turning a wrench, measuring a cable, or cutting a chain — they can’t grasp that.
Maybe people are so busy riding their bikes that they don’t have time to ask you questions. That is still a good thing.
Hate to tell you Len, but more ’bots and less intelligent people. Dark times.
Biking has been pedaling under the radar, at least in the SF Bay Area. Consequently, one reason you and bike shops aren’t seeing an uptick of questions is that everybody knows somebody or somebody who knows somebody that is an amateur mechanic. As one of them, my tools are getting a workout reconditioning old bikes.
I’m still building and maintaining our (mine and my wife’s) bikes, but few new exigencies arise. Occasionally I need a job like chasing threads on a bottom bracket, which I don’t have a tool to accomplish, arise. Guess I’m all “questioned out.”
You asked why so few letters with tech questions. My idea is that there is so much information online these days that a ready answer can be had more quickly than the response time for a personal interaction. I guess you’d need one of those pop-ups on a site that shows a person ready to take questions with immediate answers.
I was an extremely enthusiastic cyclist until the age of 35; then I lost touch with the sport completely for fifteen years and more pounds than I care to discuss. I have spent the last two years trying to get back in shape This has given me a somewhat unique perspective on how bikes have developed in that time. Everything has changed, not necessarily in good ways.
The single worst trend in the industry is the overwhelming proliferation of incompatible standards. I am a good enough amateur mechanic that I build my own wheels, and I think they are better than anything I can buy, But I can’t figure out what Shimano shifters will work with my current derailleur, no bleeping clue. Twenty years ago, if you were getting your bike ready at the start of a group ride and had a small mechanical problem, it was nearly certain that someone would have what you needed in the back of their car. A tube, a brake pad, a couple links for your chain after you jammed it fooling around with your bunny hop. The odds of a spare from a buddy saving your day now are just vanishingly small. The industry even managed to have two incompatible brake fluid standards.
The same trend is also massively complicating decisions about expensive updates. I would really like to buy one of the nicer power meters that are built in the crank spider. My single biggest inhibition on doing this is worrying that it won’t be transferable to my next bike. It hurts to orphan a thousand-dollar widget. As a result, bikes are becoming ever less attractive to upgrade, or modify. You ride what you have, for as long you have to, and then just buy a whole new bike.
Currently, there is some training happening, but the riding that might make riders want to upgrade things or make major changes to their bike aren’t really there. We aren’t having big group rides. We aren’t having races. We aren’t having mass start recreational events.
That certainly has resulted in my bike needing less care lately…
I wonder if any of the down-tick in your email traffic has anything to do with recreational riders like myself getting (slightly) more self-reliant? At least in my immediate social circle, as our local bike shop is completely overwhelmed, we’ve all had to basically make a go of more advanced bike maintenance ourselves. We’ve found there are a lot of high-quality books and videos out there to walk the basics of improving bike function (and we actually have time to read/watch). Things we would have normally sought out professional help for, we’ve been working out amongst ourselves mostly.
Thanks for your interesting and insightful articles.
If riders are becoming more self-reliant at fixing their own bikes, then perhaps I am doing my job.
I used to be able to just walk into my local bike shop and get immediate help. (They know me; they appreciate that I keep my bike clean and in good repair. It’s not a chore for them to fix what I can’t do for myself.) I’ve heard the stories now about the bike that has hung on a hook for twenty years and now needs an upgrade to the tune of several hundred dollars. Oh, and it will be ready in three weeks. The pandemic is slowing customer service too. There is always a line out front to get in. Masks required.
And another thing; I live in the SF Bay Area. For approximately five years or so I have noticed (anecdotally) that there are more small retail bike shops, (a few of them cater to E-bikes exclusively.) I can only guess that more folks are commuting. Or the complaining by the knees is finally getting some attention.
Re: your column. I have always marveled at the number of people who need to know if part X will sync with part Y. And for sure I am doubly impressed that you know if the mix will or not work.
Which may answer one of your questions: The gear one can get these days is virtually flawless. After the initial setup, you only have to maintain the cables or keep the battery charged. (Electronic shifting only has one drawback; If the Zombie apocalypse comes, and the grid goes down, how will I charge my drivetrain?)
Or maybe your repair books are to blame for the dearth of repair questions?
As to your question on your column on why you might not be getting many questions, I have a few thoughts:
- There are really good mechanics now. I used to feel having someone else work on my bike created a liability, as they were usually less experienced or particular; now they might save me several hours and even do a better job.
- It would be hard to remember the last time I built a wheel. A broken spoke today is an anomaly and the sign that something is very wrong. Wheels have just gotten that good.
- Some equipment has been simplified, such as headsets and bottom brackets — so easy to manage, not much to go wrong and easy to replace.
- Some equipment has become complex and hard to work on without specialized tools. You end up turning it over to the mechanic. I’m looking at you, press-fit bearings.
- Electronic shifting works with little maintenance.
- Internally-routed cables seem to get less dirty and need less frequent tuning and replacement. When they do need replacement (annually for me), it can be a pain, so give it to the mechanic who has the tools to get it done with minimum shouting of expletives.
- Even handlebar tape will last more than a full year, barring crashes.
- There’s a YouTube how-to video, or an online forum post, for almost everything.
The reason your inbox is thin is because the new folks don’t know what they don’t know. Bikes now are “point and pedal” out of the box, and riders (new and old) don’t know how to operate or maintain them, much less ride them well. Furthermore, bikes have devolved… yeah, I’m a relic… still riding steel, shifting friction, and wearing wool… but my steeds are dependable, economical, and efficient. I neither need nor want a whatever-speed cluster and wheels that cost four figures… nothing warms the cockles of my cranky old-school heart more than putting the hurt on young bucks riding the latest trend (my fenders and rack just add insult).
Wonderful theories, everybody! Thanks for sharing them!
Lennard Zinn, our longtime technical writer, joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a custom frame builder (www.zinncycles.com) and purveyor of non-custom huge bikes (bikeclydesdale.com), a former U.S. national team rider, co-author of “The Haywire Heart,” and author of many bicycle books including “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,” “DVD, as well as “Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes” and “Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.” He holds a bachelor’s in physics from Colorado College.