Thursday, August 13, 2009

Polishing Turds

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this phenomenon, but it seems American families of my generation (I’m in the ballpark of 30 years old) tended to fall into two categories: MASH watchers and Cheers watchers. My family watched MASH. Every evening, right after we finished dinner but before we had a chance to do dishes, we’d congregate in front of the TV to watch Hawkeye and BJ get up to no good. I remember in particular Charles Emerson Winchester III and his disgust at being a brilliant surgeon forced to work in conditions that continually stifled his genius. You see where I’m going with this?

In my tenure as a professional bicycle technician, which at this point has stretched to almost half my life, I’ve been fortunate to have worked in a variety of shops, from the bike shop that was really a hockey shop that sold bikes in the off season to a high end road shop where the aforementioned Look with Record and 404s became just another bike. Each shop offers its own unique experiences, some more positive than others. One of the things my current shop offers that is certainly unique is the chance to work on machines that are decidedly NOT bikes. I’m trying to decide if these experiences are positive or negative.

Rewind a week or so. A middle-aged woman wheels in some sort of four-wheeled contraption. There are no pedals, no chain, a bar that articulates the steering of the front wheels, a big chair made of webbing, and on the back of the chair, an enormous slow moving vehicle triangle. I look at the contraption, then at the woman.

“What the fuck is that?”

“It’s a dog cart.”

“You realize, of course, that this is a bike shop?”

Rewind again.

“Good afternoon, what can we do for you?”

“Well, this is my dog cart, and I need brakes installed.”

The well-intentioned Bossman strolls over to take a look and pronounces the ease with which V-brakes could be installed. Even from across the shop I can see the posts on the frame are well above the brake track.

“Uh, I think that frame is set up for U-brakes.”


I punch up the Q catalog on the computer and find the least expensive, quality U-brakes they carry, make sure they can be set up as a front brake as I’ll have no cable stops with which to work, give the customer a quote, add them to the basket, take the deposit, and the waiting game begins.

Fast forward to a couple days ago, when all the necessary parts arrived. I clear my bench, lay out the parts, move my repair stand because the cart is large and ungainly, and get started. Immediately, I start pondering Charles. Here I am, a wrench capable of overhauling an Ergolever or building light-yet-strong wheels. I can overhaul a Sturmy-Archer three speed hub with minimal help from Sheldon Brown. Most of the time, I don’t need to consult the owner’s manual to reprogram a computer. I got skills. And here I am, installing U-brakes on a fucking dog cart.

Well, my attention to detail and goals of perfection extend even to fucking dog carts, so the housing was cut to the perfect length, the ends sanded flat, brake levers positioned ergonomically, brake pads aligned perfectly, etc. And funny thing, when the job was done and I stood back to admire my handiwork, I was no less satisfied than after mounting a tubular or overhauling a Campy hub. If my goal is perfection, well…even a turd can be polished to perfection.

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