Fixing Bikes – To Learn, It’s Best to Teach

“My husband is the one who always works on our bikes. I’d like to know how to do it myself.”

I heard the refrain over and over while teaching a basic bikepacking field maintenance clinic as part of the Women Outdoors weekend in Durango back in early October. 

“I carry a spare derailleur cable, but I’d have no idea what to do if I actually needed it.” 

I could identify with that statement. I was, and potentially still am, if I’m being honest about the situation, notorious for riding bikes that maybe don’t quite shift right, or have some creak, or maybe need a new set of tires. A good friend once quipped early on in my bike racing career, “Eszter, you are better at riding partially functional bikes than anyone else I know.” 

I took it as a compliment. 

Working on bikes can be intimidating. Clinic participants gather around to learn. Photo: Krista Rust

At the time, which was well over a decade ago, I was pumping my hydraulic brakes to try to get them to function before starting a long descent down a rowdy trail off of the Monarch Crest. To be fair, during that time period, I was riding bikes scrapped together from parts found from the second-hand gear store in Boulder. A perfectly functional or high-end bike was much less important to me than having the time to actually get out and ride it. And hydraulic brakes were still in their infancy and didn’t have a reputation for reliability.

But since then, my bike mechanic skills have consisted pretty much of a hope and prayer that nothing worse than a flat tire would go wrong. And sometimes I couldn’t even fix that. I started my 2012 Tour Divide run with a brand-new hand pump that I hadn’t bothered to test. When the sealant in my tires dried up five or six days into the race, I was forced to limp into the famous Outdoorsman in Butte with a slowly leaking rear tire that I was only able to get inflated to about 10 psi. I was unable to figure out how to convert the pump from a schrader valve to presta! I had fumbled with the little rubber gasket that most pumps used to switch between the valves for far too long before giving up the fight. Shop owner Rob Leipheimer, who is a legend on the Divide, added Stans to my tires and showed me how to use my pump (it was a universal one, no futzing with little rubber pieces required) before sending me on my way, proverbial tail between my legs. To be fair, he was very kind throughout the interaction, but I can only imagine the stories he told about me afterward. Which is totally okay, because I tell the story with laughter as well.

Broken chain demonstration. Photo: Brandon Mathis

The situation didn’t get particularly better over the next decade where I often traded the offer of making dinner if my partner would fix my bike for me. If there ever was an embracing of gender roles, this was it. But bikes were scary, I often broke stuff if I tried to do something myself, and derailleurs and their barrel adjusters, limit screws, and cables mystified me. I feared installing brake calipers onto a fork out of fear of cross threading the bolt and stripping everything out. Doing anything to suspension? Count me out. 

And then a few months ago, I received a text from a friend at Tailwind Nutrition, “Want to teach a bikepacking field maintenance clinic in Durango this fall?” The event would be part of the fifth annual Women Outside event, a long-weekend of women story-telling and hands-on clinics, including packrafting, photography, writing, and apparently bikepacking field maintenance. The idea was to provide women with both the inspiration and the skills to confidently move through the outdoors.

As a self-proclaimed introvert and a hater of being in front of a crowd, my original thought was a firm, Nope, that sounds like a terrible idea, but then I got to thinking. We’d just launched The Town Bicycle with the goal of empowering women and inviting them to ride bikes. If working on bikes scared me, someone who is a trained engineer and has been riding bikes for more than 30 years, what would it seem like to someone new to sport? What better way to invite more women to be self-sufficient and more confident on their bikes than to teach this clinic? Walk the walk, or something like that.

So I agreed, and immediately regretted my decision. 

Eszter’s bikepacking toolkit. Photo: Krista Rust

What did I know about working on bikes? But as it turns out, while I’ve tried with every fiber of my being to avoid having to fix broken bits on my bike, over the course of three decades, I have learned a lot. As I started making a list of the common things that go wrong while out on a ride, I realized I actually knew how to fix most of them. 

What I didn’t know, I asked someone about. I worked out the mechanics on how limit screws actually work and how to tell which one to tighten or loose if your chain is threatening to jump into the spokes or refusing to drop into the bottom cog. Understand, don’t memorize, was my mantra. I thought about the mechanics of barrel adjusters and how unscrewing (lefty loosey!) the barrel from the shifter would effectively increasing the cable housing length and tighten the cable, solving the common problem of cable stretch over time. I wanted to be able to say something more intelligent than, If you’re bike is being funny about shifting, just turn the barrel adjuster one direction or the other until it gets better. I took apart my repair kit and realized that over the years, I’d lost many of the parts that would actually be fairly critical for basic trailside repairs and I was down to one very sad tire plug. I watched a fair bit of YouTube to understand the basics of suspension and how to get the negative and positive air chambers to equalize if too much air has built up in the negative chamber and sucks the fork down, a common occurrence for lighter riders. 

And then I showed up to Backcountry Experience in Durango on a cloudy Saturday morning, and 25 women showed up to learn. When I asked about general experience level with working on bikes, it was everything from people feeling fairly confident about being able to fix most things to those, who like me for so long, operated on the hope that nothing would go wrong on their bike, and if something did, there would be someone else there to fix it. 

It’s interesting to observe the differences between men and women and how they approach working on bikes, and really most things mechanical. Men often dive into an unknown problem with gusto and confidence, feeling certain that whatever is wrong can be worked out and fixed. On the other hand, women tend to tinker far less with mechanical systems. I don’t know if this is a result of nature or nurture, but it’s clear to see that far fewer women are steered into fields that require hands-on mechanical knowledge. Only five percent of professional bike mechanics are women, and most engineering fields aren’t all that much better. The idea of breaking something or making an issue worse is terrifying to most women I know.

But the 25 people sitting in front of me were proof that women wanted to know how to work on their bikes. It wasn’t a lack of interest but maybe just a lack of a pathway to acquiring the knowledge. 

So we dove into the multitude of repairs that can be done trailside with a minimum number of tools. I went over the various spare bolts and parts that were a good idea to carry in a repair kit on a long trip, from a spare cleat and bolts to a derailleur hanger. The group gathered around my bike to look at limit screws and talk about the steps to turn a bike into a singlespeed. I brought in a pile of tires with sidewall tears, gave everyone a sewing kit with a small curved upholstery needle and a length of thick upholstery nylon thread to call their own and watched as everyone did a beautiful job sewing up the gash. Ideally, I would have given them sliced tires still on the rim and let them learn how to sew tires without breaking the bead and taking the tire off the rim, because that really is the ultimate flat-tire-fixing victory. 

Clinic participants practicing sewing tire sidewall tears. Photo: Brandon Mathis
Practice makes perfect. Or at least creates confidence. Photo: Brandon Mathis

The hour-long clinic flew by, and once we officially wrapped up so that chairs and tables and tents could be put away, I got to talk with many of the women who’d attended. What I walked away with was the realization that while I’d been fairly ashamed of my lack of mechanical knowledge and my continued choices to let others work on my bike, my story was far from unique. In fact, I’d argue that I am part of the majority. 

And that really is a shame. For so many years, I lived, and still do on some level, in fear of something going wrong on my bike. I was intimidated by doing something wrong in trying to fix an issue, making it worse or potentially causing permanent damage. But I understand that when it comes to mechanicals, it’s often just a matter of luck. And while I’d had exceptionally good luck during my riding and racing career, everyone’s luck runs out eventually. I don’t think I’d necessarily classify myself as confident when it comes to working on my bike, but I know a lot more than a did before.

They say that in order to learn something, you have to teach it. I would probably have never sat down to learn more about the details of how the various parts on my bike worked if it hadn’t been for teaching this clinic. If I have a hope for the women who attended, it’s that they go out and ride with more confidence and knowledge about their bikes, and when something goes wrong, they can assess the problem, look at the tools that they have at their disposal, and figure out a way to solve it. 

And when the opportunity arises, they share their knowledge with others. 

Knowledge is power, and bike-fixing ability allows for self-sufficiency. Photo: Krista Rust

As for me, I’ve come to realize the importance of being able to confidently work on a bike as a form of self-sufficiency that I have willfully neglected. Being able to avoid the nagging feeling of not knowing what to do if a derailleur cable snaps or a dropper post hydraulic line loses pressure is important for long-term bike happiness. I don’t know what it was about working on bikes that intimidated me so much, or what kept me from taking the steps to learn, but I’d like to help other women both avoid disaster on trail and the feeling of helplessness of knowing that a problem is solvable, they just don’t know how to do it. 

I always figured that I was alone in my lack of mechanical knowledge. But I’m not. And if you feel like I did, you’re not alone either. Stay tuned to The Town Bicycle this spring. We’d like to take steps to help others learn more about their bikes and how to fix them.

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