Tick, tick, tick... clunk. Tick, tick, tick... clunk. The sound of a slow-shifting bike grates on me about as much as rattling e-bike motors or people who don't understand that the left lane is for passing, not where you live just because you're going 5kph over the speed limit in your Dodge Charger. And while the latter two problems might be unsolvable, I believe that most of us can - and should - figure out the first one. That's probably why I found myself so annoyed halfway through a ride last week...
"Ugh, this thing is shifting like shit,
" the friendly stranger said with obvious frustration in his voice as he slowly turned his cranks over, probably because he was stuck three gears too high with a set of tired legs. "I'll have to drop it off at the shop next week for them to fix it,
" he wheezed between gulps of air.
Had I not been barely holding onto the same struggle bus up a hill that felt a lot steeper than it should, I would have said that a quick quarter-turn of a barrel adjuster might sort it out. Or maybe just a friendly pull to bring the derailleur back into alignment-ish. Or could the cause have been his obviously rusty shift cable and housing cut three inches too short? Instead, I stayed quiet and stewed over how a strangely high percentage of mountain bikers, many of whom own the latest pricey gear, don't know how to keep their expensive toys running smoothly.
There are no doubt countless things that should be prioritized ahead of fixing your bike, including riding your bike, and having a moment of spare time is a luxury for many of us. I'm told that children need to be fed multiple times every single day and that many can't poo by themselves or even make dinner. I know people who have to drive to something called "an office" where they pretend to be busy for eight hours, which sounds nearly as horrible as actually being busy. Some of us have friends or even partners that we're supposed to spend time with and support. And yeah, all of that should probably come before shooting DOT fluid at the ceiling (and into your eyes) while learning how to bleed your ten-year-old Juicy 3s.
Even so, taking the time to work on your bike is well worth it, and not just to avoid a repair bill or stop that annoying tick, tick... clunk shifting that you've been putting up with for weeks. It's Good For the Soul
Fixing things simply feels good, doesn't it? There's something to be said for figuring out what's wrong and solving the problem on your own, whether that's as straightforward as turning a barrel adjuster or as scary as bending your $300 derailleur back to where it belongs.
Most of today's derailleurs and hangers are relatively sturdy compared to the half aluminum, half cheese stuff we were using not that long ago, but they're still far more vulnerable than they are indestructible. Rocks can be big and pointy and think your fancy XTR "mech" looks pretty delicious as you roll the dice yet again down that sketchy chute. And while it might not have felt like much of an impact, your fancy bike is going to tick, tick... clunk for the next year until you manage to get way too much money for it on the PB buy & sell because there's a worldwide shortage of everything.
However, if you owned a relatively inexpensive hanger straightener tool of some kind, and maybe found a video providing step-by-step instructions on how to not cause even more damage, you could likely massage things back to where they belong. A delicate pull at the bottom, rotate the tool to the opposite side and maybe just a gentle push, then re-adjust and work your way around, checking the progress as you make smaller and smaller adjustments until it's perfect. Maybe you bolt the derailleur back into place to find that it's pointing twenty-degrees off-center after being bent in the same incident, so this time you're using bare hands and eyeballs to carefully knead things straight.
You're covered in black grease but the next thing you know (or maybe hours later depending on how things go) it's shifting buttery smooth and tick-free. Not because you paid someone to use an over-priced tool or because you convinced a friend to do it, but because you did the right pushing and pulling of the bendy pieces until all the things that need to be aligned were aligned. Speaking of black grease, even a job as menial as cleaning your nasty-ass drivetrain can feel both constructive and cathartic; maybe it's just the solvent talking, but freshly cleaned pulley wheels make me happy. Okay, struggling to force that last bit of tire bead into place while stuffing a giant piece of foam inside your tire isn't exactly a meditative process, but maybe the result could feel just as beneficial after you've calmed down a bit...
Fixing stuff just feels good, whether that's rebuilding an STI shifter that you've stripped down to a thousand tiny pieces on your workbench, or sweating and swearing over the last three inches of stubborn tire bead.
The most rewarding job? If you've got the time, learning how to build a wheel should be on your bucket list. Taking all the measurements, laying everything out, and especially putting the spokes through the correct holes on the hub flanges is a process that will test everything from your math to your organizational skills, and especially your patience. But it's all worth it when all the spokes cross in the right places and go to the right nipples, and their length is millimeter-perfect when you bring the tension up evenly. Even more so when it doesn't implode halfway through the first ride.
Pre-built wheels make all the sense in the world for pretty much everyone, especially if you live a busy life and haven't even gotten around to sorting out your shifting, let alone lacing a bunch of spokes. Regardless, if you set some time aside to fix your bike, be it a simple shifting adjustment or as involved as a complete damper tear-down, I bet you'll find that it's just as beneficial to your wallet as it is to your mindset. Mechanical Sympathy
Burning palo santo and laying out your favorite crystals in your workshop while you lace a wheel is a little woo-woo, I admit, but there's no better way to spend a full moon night. That said, there is a far more tangible reason for you to fix your own bike: mechanical sympathy. In other words, when you know how something works, you're less likely to beat the shit out of it.
Have you ever taken a close look at your derailleur? They're basically a 400-ish gram exoskeleton of aluminum (and maybe some carbon) with a whole bunch of tiny pivots, pins, springs, and plastic that all need to be perfectly aligned for it to move the chain across twelve cogs to within a hair's width of accuracy. If the geometry is out of whack by even just a smidge, maybe because you took the wrong line down that damn chute again and hit it on the same pointy rock again, it might tick, tick... clunk until you shift it into the spokes and all those pieces get spread over the trail like a violent crime scene.
But if you've had the nervous sweats while slowly bending a tired derailleur hanger back into alignment for the third time, you might be a bit more careful about blindly flying into that chute again. After all, you know what it takes to repair and that the hanger might not survive yet another impact, so you choose a slightly better line that's just as fast but four inches to the left and far kinder to your bike.
Wheels and tires are the first components to feel the brunt of things, which makes them a good indicator of how much mechanical sympathy you may or may not possess. So many dents that your tire won't seal anymore? Flat spots and loose spokes? Rim hasn't been straight since the day you bought your bike? Always getting flat tires on your rides? You could be using the wrong parts or the wrong pressure, of course, or maybe you're just riding like you pay someone else to keep that wheel from imploding.
When you're the one swapping spokes over to a new rim at 2am in the garage so you can ride the next day, or pulling out rim dents with a crescent wrench, or spending far too long making sure your bike's shifting is bang-on perfect, you're also more likely to treat your bike better on the trail. You Don't Need Much
Unlike your car, dishwasher, and so many other things we own, most of your mountain bike's mechanical bits are on full display rather than hidden behind a plastic cover held on by twenty small screws and too many impossibly tight trim clips. If your bike isn't shifting right, you can probably figure out why by staring at it for a while or using Google; you don't need an automotive lift or ODB reader to decipher some clandestine code, and certainly don't need an expensive repair stand, expensive tools, or a clinically-clean workshop.
Many riders live in a place where doing any sort of mechanical work is challenging or impossible, which is a pretty good excuse for turning to a shop. But you can also get a hell of a lot done in a small space if you're careful and clean.
I remember being thirteen and doing a drivetrain overhaul with my bike upsidedown on the back patio in the rain, my only tools being a chain breaker, some rusty hex keys, and even rustier wire snippers. I remember nervously rebuilding a suspension fork in my carpeted bedroom with slip-joint pliers, too much grease, not enough oil, and no instructions. I remember kneeling at the back of my bike while trying to remember if I'm supposed to turn the derailleur's barrel adjuster to the left or to the right while wondering what the two tiny Phillips screws do and if I should invest in my first screwdriver. I remember trying to force fresh DOT fluid through my brakes but forgetting to open the bleed port, the result being more of it going onto the ceiling than anywhere else.
You don't know what you don't know, but you'll never know unless you dig into it.
If the extent of your handiness tops out at changing lightbulbs and your tool collection begins and ends with a single Phillips screwdriver, I can understand why you'd rather pay a professional to repair your expensive mountain bike. But I'm not talking about re-shimming a damper or even lacing a new wheel; it's the far more straightforward mechanical work that keeps your bike running smoothly day-to-day and, more often than not, all you really need are a few wrenches of some kind, some grease, and some time. Depending on how deep you want to go, all the tools should cost less than one or two over-priced tires, and there's a how-to video for pretty much everything online these days, from fixing your shifting to cleaning DOT fluid out of your eyes.
Life can be hectic, unpredictable, and full of countless things that are far more important than your bike. Hell, people have no qualms about paying a stranger to clean the mess they created in their own house, so expecting everyone to find the time to quiet their creaky bottom bracket is a little far-fetched.
But all I'm saying is that taking the time, when you can, to repair and maintain your bike will do more than just save you money... It'll also keep others from having to listen to you tick, tick... clunking your way up any hills.