Knowledge (and getting greasy) is power

6th December 2012 by

It was about 5 years ago that I decided it was time to end the humiliation of having to take my bicycle to the bike shop each time I had a puncture.  It was time to stop being so ignorant – and so fearful – of how to tinker with my beloved steed myself and fix its simpler ailments. So I signed up for a Level 1 maintenance course over a whole weekend, and got myself schooled in the basics of brakes and inner tubes.

In the years since then I’ve probably saved myself a pretty penny, and earned a smidgeon of self-respect, as a result. But working at Otesha, where people bleed bike lube if they cut themselves, I decided recently it was time to go to the next level. That’s, er, Level 2 – keep up!  I was also fresh from reading The Case for Working With Your Hands by Matthew Crawford and was feeling inspired by its call for ordinary bods to exercise the parts of our brains and personalities that get deep satisfaction from understanding how things are put together and being able to repair them ourselves.

So off I went to Bikeworks, the splendid bike repair and bike shop social enterprise, for a full day of getting intimate with brakes and gears, determined that I’d leave being able to look squarely at (and even touch, maybe even fix) my cassette and my gear cables without feeling like a chimp with a spanner let loose on the Large Hadron Collider.

Our tutor was Jelil, who was really clear and approachable, didn’t mind being asked dumb questions (a teacher’s most important quality) and went at a manageable pace, and he was joined by his dependable and knowledgeable wingman, Raj.

We started with the most thorough M-check I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s the basic roadworthiness check you should be able to do to make sure you’re getting on a bike that’s basically safe before you ride off into the Wild West that is our roads. This was no M-check Lite.  No, we went deep. Not content with warning us about how to recognise dodgy-sounding rattly headsets and so forth, Jelil and Raj showed us exploded cross-sectioned bike components to explain the role of ball bearings and how – if you’re bold enough to do this much disassembly – to recognise when they’re in need of replacing.

Then on to the main business of gears – replacing cables, checking for wear, simple maintenance tips, and then – ulp! – fiddling with the barrel adjuster and the rear derailleur screws, which is how we can deal with some instances of slipping or reluctant gear changes. Yes, I can now say that my derailleur is no longer a terrifying alien landscape but rather somewhere I feel confident I could at least have a go at trying to put things right. I can tell you, that feels good.

We also learned a good deal more than I knew before about changing and adjusting brakes, and we even squeezed in time for a go at wheel tuning, using a spoke wrench, which is an oddly satisfying tool and task.

What really made the session, though, was Jelil’s passion for empowering cyclists to take control and save themselves money – rather than taking the word of a bicycle industry he was surprisingly scathing about, accusing it of routinely putting profit before the needs of cyclists.

Even when you’re faced with a problem you may not be able to fix yourself, you can still arm yourself with enough knowledge to judge whether bike shop staff are pressuring you to have work done on your bike that’s not actually necessary. For example, he said, bike mechanics will often claim that your chain is worn out and needs replacing – but by equipping yourself with a simple chain-checker tool you can verify this for yourself, and potentially save yourself a significant amount of money. But better than money-saving, even, is the feeling you get when you can diagnose, twiddle, tweak and fix all on your own-ee-o.

So get yourself down to your local bike class, get equipped, get greasy, get empowered!

Besides the classes of the kind I went on, Bikeworks has a FYOB (fix-your-own-bike) session on Thursdays, last entry 7pm, where you can bring your own bike, hire a bike stand at £8/hr (minimum £5) and get access to the tools you need – and guidance from expert bike mechanics, so that you can ease your way into bike repairing while knowing you’re in good hands. You can also access Bikeworks’ stock of recycled parts.

If you’re in London and want to check out the kind of class I took at Bikeworks, contact or call Jo on 020 8980 7998 – it’s £60 for a six hour session and the co-op has two sites, one in West and one in East London. Upcoming dates are:


Sunday 17th February – Level 1

Sunday 3rd March – Level 2


Sunday 20th January – Level 1

Sunday 3rd February – Level 1

Sunday 17th February – Level 2

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