Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Message From The Trenches

 NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

There was an article circulating over social media during the Thanksgiving weekend which was talking about bicycle mechanics and tipping them. ("Bicycling" February 2019) I wanted to slide my two cents in as a person that has wrenched on bikes professionally for 20+ years now.

First of all, as you might expect, there were a lot of trolls and comments to the effect that if being a bicycle mechanic requires anyone to tip, then "get a real job". These people are likely also the same ones that say that LBS mechanics are terrible and screw everything up. Using their logic, things would be bound to get better, right? 

Good luck with that.

So, besides that nonsense, what I drew from reading comments on this article where it was posted in two different places, and on the original article, is that there are two camps of thought regarding bike mechanics and the work that they do. First is that it is such basic stuff that "anyone can do it" and so it requires little skill. It's mostly just specialty tools and nothing more, and since bike shops own the tools, why should some grease monkey get any money for a job that is basically on the level of flipping burgers.

The second opinion I saw voiced most often was that bicycle mechanics are a valuable resource and should be paid commensurate to their value to the community. Look at other mechanics and service people who make far more dollars per hour.

One side thinks bicycles are simple machines that require little skill to fix, and the other side thinks we are like car mechanics and the like. Guess what? Both have it completely wrong. Let me explain.

It's just tools- anyone can do it. Right- Tell me what this is and how to use it. I know both.
First off, bicycle mechanics are not anything like car mechanics, or what have you. There is one reason for that- people don't need bicycle mechanics to live. I've worked on cars and I've seen the panic in people's eyes when you tell them that their vehicle is too dangerous to drive. It is as if you have told them that their Mother has died. Worse in some cases. Life stops. All sense of reason flies out the window. People cannot even imagine the world without cars.

Bicycles? pffffft! We can live without those. So, the people that fix them are a luxury tax. A necessary evil. Why, these toys can't be that complicated! Any child with the right tools can fix a bicycle. And of course- that thinking is completely wrong as well. 

Now- you need mechanics. Why? Because a LOT of people have no idea, inclination, nor talent to fix anything. That's why. Not just anyone can "fix". Give them all the fancy tools you want, it ain't happening. That is truth. I've seen these people and know them. They live all around me. And guess what? That's okay- because I don't cook all that well, and I can't sew worth a damn, nor can I do woodwork. You get the picture. I can draw portraits. You can't. Tools have little to nothing to do with it.

I find most people that think we don't need mechanics to fix bicycles, or that if we do- they should get minimum payment, are the ones that (a) are mechanics but don't work in the field and think everyone possesses this talent, or (b) are thinking bicycles are toys, not worth investing a ton of money in to, so a mechanic's pay is dispensable. Again- both have poor perspectives.

Tipping: I wish we weren't even having this conversation. I do not tip anyone but waiters and waitresses because their economy is jacked up and we have accepted that practice instead of actually paying for servers that get paid well. I don't tip a plumber, an electrician, or the guy bagging my groceries because I expect they are all getting a fair wage. Bicycle mechanics do not get a fair wage for their knowledge, skill, and for the amount of BS that many bicycle mechanics put up with.

Oh.....and I own my own tools, thank you! I have to buy new ones to keep up with ever changing standards. I have to learn new things every year to keep up with the latest in technology, which is delicate, subtle, and beyond the comprehension of even some engineers I have met. Sometimes I have to buy tools to cover old standards which might be found on jobs people bring in that I didn't already have tools for. I have to also know how and when to use all of these tools. You cannot expect to have a high school boy or girl, or even college aged younginz, know this stuff, because I've watched all of them come and go through the doors of the two shops I've worked at, and let me tell you- hardly any of them were, or are mechanics worth training. 

So, when I read articles and the comments that go with them regarding bicycle mechanics, pay, and tipping, I shake my head in sadness at the misconceptions and laugh at the foolish thoughts on display. Most folks have little idea what bicycle mechanics actually have to know, nor what innate skills and thought processes make for a person with an aptitude for being a mechanic. They have no sense of what is appropriate behavior when dealing with mechanics. They have, in many cases, irrational expectations and beliefs. And articles like the one I saw only help to prove all of this.  


graveldoc said...

It has come to my mind often when I see new bicycle technologies come out, I think about bicycle mechanics and how they have to continue to keep themselves educated to be able to installl and service those new bits. Folks need to realize that this ongoing education and knowledge/skill is definitely worth reimbursing.

Guitar Ted said...

@graveldoc- Thanks for that comment.

Tman said...

I was a professional bike wrench for over a decade and have worked on my own stuff for 35 years. I have passed and tried to pass on my skills to dozens of folks over the years. Some get it, some never will. I have also been involved in motorsports and can build a hot rod, doorslammmer or racecar from scratch. I have found that I can take a good bike mechanic and teach them how to do automotive repair yet the same can not be said for a good auto mechanic. Bikes are nuanced things. There is a level of proficiency that entails knowing the basic wrenching and then less tangible items that are hard to pass on.

Guitar Ted said...

@Tman- That's a great perspective. Thanks for commenting!

Richard said...

The tool in the photo? I think it's for fitting tyres to 'ordinary' bikes and early safety bikes. The loose component sitting on the baseplate would be to prevent the tyre from getting burnt.

Guitar Ted said...

@Richard- Good guess, except that the "loose component on the base plate" is actually important for another reason. You got half of it.

Skidmark said...

@Tman, with all due respect—your first 2 years were to see if there was anything you could do right.- The next 2-3 years a mechanic learns the simple everyday skills to at least not be dangerous. If you get that: after 2 or 3 more years around some good, experienced folks, you might become good front-line bike mechanic. If you had decent mechanical skills all along, you keep learning and your people skills match up- you’re a professional bike mechanic.

Mac said...

I'm a mechanically disinclined engineer. I can work through some things, but it takes me twice as long as the talented amateur, and four times as long as the professional bike mechanic. Outside of preventative maintenance, and emergency repair, it doesn't make sense for me to do much of the work myself.

So I'm willing to pay what is necessary to make it possible for my trusted mechanics to be there for me when I need them.

Then there is still the intangible skill of dealing with customers who have unrealistic expectations, and no understanding of mechanical constraints...

jdc said...

Holy geez! Touched a nerve! As a long time wrench working in a modern shop scenario, I don't even know where to begin. We aren't just turning limit screws on derailleurs and toeing brake pads any more. Far from it. I've probably forgotten more than most customers think there is to know. With the new tech rapidly changing every year, the amount of new knowledge that we have to learn, usually on our own time, is staggering. The latest crop of road bikes are FAR beyond the mechanical capability of the people who buy them. We just received a batch of the new 2020's....and the hydraulic brakes have to be finished off from the factory! What shop has the time to do that? These high end bikes are incredibly popular and therefore always coming in for this adjustment and that issue....and time being money, they hog WAY too much time on a repair stand and end up screwing your repair schedule COMPLETELY to hell. Factor in that shop service can NEVER be fast enough or cheap enough for the average customer, and you've got plenty of frustrated mechanics. (but of course I'll just bump you ahead of the line and do cables, chain, cassette, bleed and bar wrap so that you can ride your Gran Fondo this weekend that you signed up for 3 months ago. We're bros, remember?) Tips? Man, there are days when a simple smile and a thank you would be all the reward we're looking for. But even those are in short supply. And why? Trust me, we earn them.