Pursuing Healthy Recreation in the Age of Covid

After the umpteenth instance of waiting for my gears to engage as I struggled uphill I decided that I couldn’t put off servicing my bike any longer. Biking outdoors is what I do for aerobic activity in these warm days of our Covid Summer. Since my neighborhood would put San Francisco to shame for hilly streets I can get a satisfactory workout in just 3.5 miles.

Properly resolved to end my procrastination I called around to local bike shops. No answer anywhere except for one. They said they’d be happy to help but it would take several weeks. Now adjusting gears is something I’ve seen people do in like ten minutes. I told them I’d take their kind offer under advisement and then immediately looked up how to do it myself on YouTube. So as a Public Service Announcement (PSA) and cautionary tale here is the simple 8 step procedure.
1. Jury-rig something up to hold your bike off the ground so you can spin the pedals as you test your adjustments.
2. Follow the YouTube procedure to adjust the front derailleur first. The key word here is subtle. Any adjustments you make won’t be obvious until you’re already at severe risk on the road.
3. With your best guess on that part complete. Follow the YouTube instructions for the rear derailleur. Soon thereafter it should be obvious that you should’ve never touched the front derailleur. What was a minor adjustment has now become a ‘rebuild the bike from scratch’ project.
4. Sleep on it before tempting any more damage. The next day tackle it afresh and finally put the rear derailleur to rights. Whew!
5. Go back to the front. Mess around with that for a while til that feels adequate but then note that the rear gears are all ****ed up again.
6. Go back and forth a few times adjusting front and rear. It’s kind of like those old circus acts where someone is trying to keep a dozen plates spinning simultaneously.
7. Test the gears. Before my adjustments I had twenty-four discrete gears or speeds. Not anymore. I may now have ten that actually engage the way they should. Now I can empathize with Homer Simpson who famously said “Who’d have thought a nuclear reactor would be so complicated?”.
8. Humbly take your self-adjusted bike to the bike shop so it can be tuned by professionals over a few weeks. Couldn’t hurt to mention to them that an errant screwdriver adjustment found its way to the rear brakes too.

Sometime later…

With all due patience I returned to the bike shop to pick up my professionally tuned bike. I was anxious to get going but they sensibly suggested I take it for a test ride first. I hopped on and immediately caught my shoelace in the gears. The bike shop owner probably saved my life by pointing this out before I got on the street.

Anyway, I waited for him to catch up and tried to get off the bike. Unfortunately, the lace had wound around the gears a couple of times so I couldn’t separate myself without taking the shoe off. A couple of minutes later I was back in the saddle, so to speak, and speeding down the road. What a difference. I had all my gears back and they engaged smoothly relative to my own adjustments.

The next day as I rode around my hilly neighborhood I noticed a rattle coming from the pedals and recognized that the chain was rubbing the front derailleur. This wasn’t obvious on the flat test ride near the bike shop. You can imagine my dilemma. Should I call the bike shop back and wait for however long or try to adjust it myself? I chose the latter. After making my own adjustment the problem got- wait for it- worse. Later on I learned that one quarter to a half turn on the adjustment screw should be sufficient. I did twelve times that.

Back to the bike shop I went. Thankfully, it was an adjustment that I could wait around for. I tried to get a look at what he was doing so I could learn but he took it in back to perform his dark arts. After an uneventful but successful test ride I was ready to go. Before I left, however, I got a lecture on adjustments and gear usage.

I have three gears in the front and eight in the back to make for twenty-four overall. But apparently one should never use the slowest and fastest (easiest and hardest) gear combos that I find indispensible for steep grades. So I took the advice with a grain of salt. After all, I paid for twenty-four gears not twenty two. And what did he know of my riding environment? There are at least two hills in my neck of the woods that could double for the sheer vertical rock wall of half dome in Yosemite. In other words it might make more sense to tackle them with rock climbing equipment than a bike.

To tackle my usual neighborhood bike ride I gradually click into the fastest gear as I careen downhill to build up momentum before climbing the uphill. As I build up speed my facial features contort the same way astronauts’ do when undergoing high ‘g’ acceleration tests. With this terrific head of steam I pedal like crazy to start my assent. During the climb I’m forced to gradually downshift til I eventually get to the slowest or easiest gear. Foot speed on the pedals is still frantic but snails zoom past me til I crest the hill. Then I start the process again for the next incline.

But I digress. Hopefully, my little adventure in bike repair will amuse. And as we navigate these troubled times it’s important to maintain a sense of humor and a routine that allows for some diversionary recreation.

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  1. Kathleen Foy says

    Brilliant story Michael. One we can all compare with!!

  2. Nice story! Keep writing 😃 and stay safe!!

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