Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance
I set out on a cross-country trip. Two miles from home, my bike broke
Two days ago I set out to ride across the country on a bicycle, from my home in Brooklyn to the Pacific coast off Portland, Oregon.
Two miles from my house, crack:
My bike broke down.
And so this is my little tale of an eternal lesson: Things rarely go as you plan — so the only thing to do surround yourself with things that are easy to fix.
First off, the obvious question in: Why exactly would one want to cycle 3,800 miles? Oh, and yeah: The Rockies.
Well, if you’ve read my previous essays on cycling, you’ll know that after a lifetime of studiously avoiding athletic activity, a few years ago I became an avid cyclist — and also grimly, if not morbidly, fascinated by testing the limits of my endurance. I’ve been doing increasingly long jaunts on my bike: First a 100-mile-a-day century, then a few strung together, until last fall I trekked up to Montreal with my son in the blazing 98-degree August heat, being occasionally chased by terrifying lighting storms dancing towards us while Vermont fields of corn headbanged in the wind.
I’ve also been increasingly interested in the world of micromobility — i.e. moving people around, and heavy piles of stuff around, using things that I loosely classify as “smaller than a car”: Electric bikes, cargo bikes, electric scooters, tuk tuks, electric mopeds, plain ol’ non-electric bicycles, those funky unicycle thingies I see dudes riding around town, and, of course, that weirdly successful category of electric vehicle amongst retirees, the golf cart. In cities around America, all of these oddball vehicles are being pushed to do things they’ve rarely done before.
So I decided to write a book about it, and frame it with a trip that pushes me to new limits, too: I’d cross the country on a regular, non-electric bike.
I spent the last few months preparing nervously for this odyssey. I got myself a highly-recommended touring bike — a Kona Sutra, a gorgeous black piece of all-steel engineering that’s rugged as hell and designed to be tricked out with bolt-ons for the long-distance cyclist. I ditched my cheaper pannier bags and got a new set. (Since I’ll be doing a fair bit of camping, I needed to turn myself into a snail, carrying my home on my back — a tent, sleeping bag, teensy handheld cookstove, inflatable mattress, etc.)
Since I’d be carrying a bit more weight, I practiced loading up the bags and riding around. It was heavy, but not unduly so: I’ve done tours with nearly as much weight. Plus, I do all my family’s grocery shopping via bike, riding up the steep hills in my neighborhood with pannier bags groaning under the weight of five days’ worth of food.
To make sure my bike would carry those bags nicely, I got myself a nice new back rack.
Which is where my troubles began.
When I installed the rack, it was a style I’d never yet seen. Most bike racks I’d put on my previous bicycles had two flat metal struts holding the rack in place. This one had two rods. They looked pretty badass, and I figured they’d be even stronger. I shook them with my hands: Sturdy.
Alas, this was not the case.
When the time came for me to set out two days ago, I said good-bye to my teenage kids as they left for school in the morning, promising them that I’d be FaceTiming them frequently, to a probably annoying degree. I did one last check that I had everything packed in the right place. And then I said goodbye to my wife (who you might think would regard this whole plan very dubiously, except, reader, she’s the one who suggested this voyage!)
And then I was off.
My goal is to travel about 60 to 65 miles a day, so my first day’s ride was to Princeton, NJ. From thence I’d I’d head across Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, then shoot across Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, the Great Plains and Colorado — then climb lung-bustingly into the mountains of Wyoming and Montana before crossing Oregon to the ocean. I had all that itinerary in my head, feeling a combination of excitement and utter terror, while I weaved through Brooklyn traffic. I could see the skyline of Manhattan peeking from between buildings, off in the distance, and thought, damn, I won’t see that for a long while. I was about two miles from home.
Then I went over a slight bump, and heard a ferocious crash behind me.
I instantly hit the brakes and craned my head around. To my astonishment, those seemingly sturdy struts holding my bike rack in place had cracked and separated. My rack was tilted backwards, my pannier bags dragging, forlorn, on the ground. A few chunks of metal from the disintegrated rack jingled away on the road, like loose change.
I actually said — out loud — “Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do.” (I picked up that phrase from a Bloom County comic strip from the 80s; Opus used to say it. It seemed appropriate.)
I still can’t figure out why those struts broke. The back panniers weren’t loaded particularly heavily — most racks are rated for around 50 pounds, and the two bags together were probably only 22 pounds. Possibly I’d weakened them over the last few months with my anvil-heavy shopping runs?
Either way, I wasn’t going anywhere until I fixed this mess.
I got off the bike, whipped out my bike-repair toolkit, and removed the busted rack. I locked up my bike and put my bags into a cab to zip back home. (“WELL NOW” as my wife joked, when I’d messaged her a picture of the catastrophe.)
Bikes are actually, for the most part, exquisitely fixable machines. It is one of their great joys. We live in a world where so many devices have non-replaceable parts — or components legally locked down with DRM — that the craft of repair is evaporating. Back in the 60s or 90s, cars were built so a capable owner could fix them, with easily-available tools and parts. That’s considerably less often true now.
But bikes? Bikes invite you to repair them. They possess no secrets, and require few rare tools. With just a couple of Allen keys, a wrench, some needle-nose pliers and plastic levers to remove tires, you can repair most of the common things that go wrong. I’ve had to fix flats on the roadside, to tighten brakes and tweak gear mechanisms. To prepare for the trip I’d taken a lesson from a local bike mechanic on the ins and outs of my bike. I figured that with nearly four thousand miles of riding, I’d be practicing zen and the art of bicycle maintenance quite a bit.
I just didn’t think I’d be doing it twelve minutes into my journey.
When I got home, I assessed the situation. My old beater bicycle had a rack that had lasted for years, with the old-school style of struts. I’d ridden thousand of miles using that rack; it was Old Faithful. So I quickly removed it and swapped it onto my new bike. It took about 15 minutes.
Then I said goodbye to my wife — again! — and hit the road. I got a later start than planned, but by evening I’d reached Princeton.
I’ll let you know how the rest of the trip goes.
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I’m a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. I’m also the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. I’m @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram, and @firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon.