14 Sep 2009 9:00 am   //   Filed under: Bicycles

Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance

bikelightNote: I’m riding in the Bike MS ride on October 4. (Info.) Since I’ve got cycling on the brain, I’m declaring it Bike Week on the blog! Every day at 9 a.m., Monday through Friday, I’ll have a new post about biking.


I recently read the 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. It was a fascinating read, and kind of a head trip. Amid some heavy philosophy and reflections on family and mental illness, Pirsig offers some sound advice about taking care of a motorcycle. He argues that it’s better to know your machine and work on it yourself than take it to a mechanic.

When it comes to bicycles, I generally agree. I always try to do as much bike maintenance as I can by myself. It saves money, it’s more convenient, and it’s personally satisfying. My bike is also simple and solidly built, so it usually only requires minor adjustments.

This past weekend, in preparation for my big ride next month, I decided to upgrade a few components on my bike. I installed new brake pads and adjusted the brakes. I mended a rip in the seat covering. I oiled the chain and wiped some of that sooty New York City street grime off the frame. And I decided to replace my cheap plastic pedals with lightweight metal ones with toe clips. A helpful guy at the friendly neighborhood bike shop, Brooklyn Bicycles, sold me a good, inexpensive set of metal pedals and clips. I decided to install them myself. Easy, right?

Oh, those damn pedals! Pedals are basically one big screw that twists into the crank arm. They’re standardized, so they should swap in and out easily on almost any bike. You need a 15mm wrench to take them off. I don’t have a full set of wrenches, but I have an adjustable wrench that I thought would do the job.

Actually, no, I don’t have an adjustable wrench. Lost it somewhere. I tried using a vise grip, which gripped the pedal screws tightly, but it didn’t give me enough leverage to loosen them. So I went to the hardware store and bought an adjustable wrench. Of course that didn’t help either. (Working theory: No hard problem has ever been solved with an adjustable wrench!)

The next step was walking to the nearest bike shop and buying a special tool called a pedal wrench, which is designed with a long arm for solving this exact problem. Even with this specialized tool, I couldn’t loosen the pedals. Too tight. At this point, I had already dismantled one of my old plastic pedals trying to get it off, sending ball bearings scattering and rendering the bike virtually unrideable.

In Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig describes a scenario in which a stripped nut prevents a mechanic from making a critical engine repair to a broken motorcycle. In that situation, he writes, the five cent nut is worth as much as the entire motorcycle, since the machine is worthless until that one small problem gets solved. I felt that way about my stuck pedals.

Defeated, I did my best to reassemble the bad pedal and began to limp my bike to some place where I could get professional help. The pedal grated and squeaked in protest as I rode over the Brooklyn Bridge to a good bike shop in Manhattan, Gotham Bikes. I like Gotham for two reasons. First, unlike many bike shops, the people who work there aren’t assholes. They don’t look down their nose at you if you own a cheap bike and are there for a simple problem. Second, Gotham is near enough to my office that I could pick up the bike on my lunch break Monday or Tuesday if the work took that long. It didn’t take that long. The good people at Gotham replaced my pedals in a few minutes. They charged me $10.

So let’s review.

  • DIY bicycle maintenance: $30 on new tools, several hours of wasted time, and a mess of greasy bike parts strewn about my kitchen. (When you live in an apartment like mine, your kitchen is also your workshop.)
  • Taking bike to professional mechanic: $10 and less than and hour of time.

Pirsig, you can suck it!