Lately, I've been feeling like a gearhead dilettante. The realization that there is indeed a gap between acquired knowledge and wild conjecture has been nagging me — particularly in regards to my beloved bicycle. Said beloved bicycle, once such a pleasure to ride, has recently taken to dragging its vulcanized heels every time we start up Potrero Hill, gasping, "I think I can't, I think I can't." Does the problem lie with my bearings, my rims, my gears, my chain? Should I have been filling my tires more than once every six months? Do I need to invest in a Shimano 105 RD-5501 Triple Rear Derailleur? (Full disclosure, I don't actually know what that is.) I'm embarrassed to turn up at a bike shop and admit that although I once traversed the pays Tamberma of northern Togo on a single-speed clunker, I can't even fix my own flat. And frankly, judging from the way I've seen some of you court death with your squealing brakes and your red blinkies in the front, I don't think I'm the only bike enthusiast in San Francisco lacking the fundamentals.
Question is: where can we go to gain some mad cycle skills of our own?
I naturally begin my search with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Andy Thornley, the boundlessly encouraging SFBC program director, provides me with a list of fix-it-yourself resources that astounds me with its paucity. I'd rather expected that a city with as flamboyantly visible a bike culture as San Francisco would have a greater emphasis on the DIY. But a little list is still a list worth checking out, especially if it promises to save me some coins and squeals.
Thornley also clues me in that although SFBC doesn't offer anything in the way of bike maintenance, it does give a free 10-hour, 2-day course on road safety for urban cyclists of all levels. The course, certified by the League of American Bicyclists, includes instruction on "riding in traffic, necessary equipment, crash avoidance, and legal rights and responsibilities." He recommends registering for the class online, where it's also possible to sign up for weekly e-mail updates on events, bike-related news, and volunteer opportunities.
On to my FYI FIY list. First stop: the Freewheel, a Western Addition fixture since 1978. The current course instructor, Wayne Brock, ushers me into what was once a health food and hardware co-op, and points out some of the amenities of the community workshop: four bike stands in the center of the room (plus two others for classes against the wall), a big blue solvent tank, a wheel-trueing stand, and a wall of shop-quality tools. A row of new hybrid cycles lines the far wall, but the emphasis here, unlike at the Freewheel branch on Valencia Street, is less on retail than on repair and custom building. Brock, 31, is a science teacher by day and actually acquired his own basic skills at Freewheel eight years ago.
"The curriculum has been ironed out over a long period of time," he says. "Really boiled down to the essentials that will get you going." These essentials, taught over two four-hour sessions, begin with flat repair, then continue with wheel-trueing, brake adjustments, hub overhaul, crank removal, drive train cleaning, chain maintenance, and derailleur adjustments. Already I'm a little overwhelmed. Which part is the crank? Fortunately for class participants, a take-home cheat sheet covering all of the above is provided and the $100 course fee includes a six-month Freewheel membership, with unlimited access to the community work space and tools during regular business hours.
One former student I talked to praises the Freewheel technique for "demystifying" the bicycle for her, though she admits to not availing herself of the membership benefits. She does, however, keep her bike much cleaner and better-lubed than before and feels more able to perform minor repairs on her own. Classes, generally held on Mondays, are limited to six students, and an absolutely nonrefundable $50 deposit guards against no-shows.