a bicycle built by two

The Bicycle Kitchen is one of those things that makes me glad to be living in L.A. A not-for-profit “educational center,” the Bicycle Kitchen will not — as I heard the employees patiently explain perhaps half a dozen times while I was there — fix your bike or sell you bike parts. Instead, they teach you how to fix your bike. (In the course of which they will sell you the parts you need.) For $7 an hour, you can have the more-or-less undivided attention of a bike repair expert who will guide you through whatever you want to do to your bike and occasionally provide an extra set of hands when it’s needed. (It also seems like they occasionally get tired of waiting for you to figure it out and put their hands in to show you what you would be doing if you weren’t such a noob.)

I’ve had my bike, a beautiful blue Bianchi Strada, for three years, and I’ve never done any maintenance on it aside from filling the tires and occasionally tightening down a loose screw or two. So the bike and I went into the shop looking as much for diagnosis as for specific repairs. Fortunately, she was still in pretty good shape, so my coach and I started off with a couple of simple projects: first we replaced the brake cable, which turned out to be far easier than I imagined, and then we replaced the chain, which took a little more work and a special tool. Those two together were about an hour’s labor (but would probably have been much faster if I had known what I was doing), and then just for fun we took the front wheel off and checked to see if it was still “true.” (It wasn’t, but it wasn’t off by much, either.)

All during this process I noticed that everything on the bike was designed to be taken apart quite easily, with a few basic tools. Sure, the chain tool is a specialized device, but it’s simple to use, and more to the point, everything is intentionally easy to get to. The brakes, for example, enclose the wheel in a way that would keep you from removing the wheel, so Bianchi provides a little quick-release switch that opens the brake caliper to a wider position.

Now, a bicycle’s a simple machine, but this got me thinking about car design. Old cars and especially trucks — say, anything built before 1980 — tended to be built in a way that facilitated repair. Partly this is because cars were simpler back then, but I think it’s mostly because car companies gradually realized that if they made cars intimidating enough and got people into the habit of coming to the dealer while the car was under warranty, many people would continue to bring their cars back to the dealer for service.

I wish this were simply my paranoia at work, but one of my closest childhood friends worked as a mechanic for nearly 20 years, including time working for both Ford and Toyota dealerships, and he made this quite clear: service is a cash cow for dealerships. And it’s a cash cow largely because many kinds of service and repair that any shadetree mechanic used to be able to do now require highly specialized tools and computers to interface with the car’s computer.

I know what you’re thinking — “But dude, the reason cars are more complicated now is that they’re better! All that electronic gadgetry might be a pain in the ass for home mechanics, but it ensures cleaner exhaust and better gas mileage. Or so I’ve been told.” And perhaps there have been some substantial increases in performance in the high-end vehicles, though I found it comical that during the $4-a-gallon crisis BMW was advertising mileage in the low 30s as a technological breakthrough.

In the low end, though — where I shop and where many of my friends shop — this is bullshit. Figures from the federal government’s fuel economy webpage show that a 1985 Ford Escort got 29 mpg in town and 39 on the highway, while today’s Ford Focus, the equivalent small car by the same manufacturer, gets a mere 24/35. We’ve actually lost performance over the past 23 years. (The 1985 diesel Escort clocked 36/46 — comparable to the 42 mpg claimed by Ford’s European diesel Focus.) The Toyota Corolla has been similarly stagnant: the 1985 model rated 26/33, while a 2009 will get you 26/35.

So the electronic wizardry isn’t really getting the consumer much for his money. And the mechanical design of modern cars is simply a nuisance. It started out with small things — I remember the first time my dad went to replace a headlight on his car and encountered the star-shaped hole in the head of the screw holding the light in place. Nowadays star heads for your screwdriver are readily available, but at the time it was basically a “screw you” to the home mechanic. Increasingly, bolts are moved to obscure, difficult-to-reach locations requiring special sockets, while parts and systems that used to be in fairly obvious, standardized places are now hidden around the engine compartment like Easter eggs. And a huge number of mechanical parts are now sold as disposable whole units. You can no longer buy individual components of, say, a water pump — you just throw it out and buy a new pump. Or, if you’re not mechanically inclined, the mechanic throws it out and charges you an outrageous fee to bolt on a new one. (Our family also had a Chevy wagon whose whole driveshaft had to be replaced because one pin broke. Chevy wouldn’t sell you the pin — only the complete shaft.)

This is one of those ways in which capitalism can fail the consumer. In a theoretical world, a car company ought to arise that builds a simple, easy-to-fix car. But consumers rarely consider ease of maintenance and repair when buying a new car, because new cars are under warranty. And by the time the vehicle is paid for and off warranty, it’s usually sold to somebody else. So the world of mechanical repair is largely walled off from the purchasing decisions that influence what kinds of cars survive in the market.

Bianchi, thank goodness, makes its money selling bikes, not replacing things on them. So bicycle manufacturers take pride in making the mechanics on their products as easy to work with as possible — that’s actually a selling point on bikes. Partly that’s because cyclists tend to be prideful do-it-yourselfers anyway, but the two things go hand-in-hand. After all, cyclists also tend to be the type of people who buy iPods and Macbooks, and I bet they don’t do their own computer repair.

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2 Responses to a bicycle built by two

  1. elana says:

    I hope this is part one in a series that will go on to include topics such as "Kids Today" and "Why You Should Get Off My Lawn".

  2. The Camel says:

    Yes, and I think you’ll be impressed by the figures from the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT showing a 45% increase in lawn traffic since those Andersons moved in down the street….

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