Tell Q, "Mend Little Nellie"

I hate fixing things. I suck at fixing things. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Do I hate fixing things because I suck or do I suck because I hate? This is one of life’s mysteries. When things break, I use my best tool, my credit card. As a friend of mine once told me, this is why God invented money.

As I mentioned yesterday, Little Nellie just crossed the 8,000-mile threshold.  After 7,000 miles, I was thinking about getting rid of this bike, a Bike Friday New World Tourist. For those unfamiliar with such beasts, Little Nellie is a folding travel bike. I had it custom-built to mimic the riding position of The Mule, my old Specialized Sequoia touring bike.

I made two changes to The Mule’s specifications when I bought Little Nellie. At the assurance of a Bike Friday salesman, I bought wider handlebars for Little Nellie. This took some time to get used to, but after a few months, I liked them so much that I bought wider handlebars for The Mule. My second modification was to use a Brooks B67 saddle instead of a Brooks Flyer saddle.  The main difference between the two is that the B67 is wider and springier than the Flyer. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the B67 to work with my body mechanics.  So a few weeks ago, I rode to BicycleSpace, a superb new bike shop in DC, and bought a Flyer. Within 50 miles, I had a new bike. It was simply incredible what a huge difference this one change made.  There will be no more discussions of sending Little Nellie away.  She’s a keeper.

I had the mechanics at Spokes Etc., my local Mount Vernon bike shop, replace the cassette (the gears in the back) and the chain on Little Nellie last summer.  It has never shifted properly since.  I took the bike back to them  twice and still no improvement.  I then tried twice to fix it and more of the same. The problem is that seemingly at random the chain would skip over the cogs. Nevertheless, I have put 2 or 3 thousand miles on the chain making do with a less than perfect situation.  About 200 miles ago I started hearing a “tick” somewhere down near the chain rings (the gears in front). I could get it to go away by fiddling with the front derailleur, but it would come back. These kinds of noises usually mean that something is loose or a ball bearing has gone bad.  (It can also be something much more ominous like a cracked frame.) I tightened the right pedal, but this had no effect on the noise.

On the way home from work I stopped at Spokes to have them look over the bike and tell me how to resolved these problems. After about 15 minutes the mechanic decided that I had a stretched chain, a bad right hand shifter (this controls the gears in the rear), and a bad front derailleur. I really like this shop, because they routinely do minor fixes on my bike for free.  And this evaluation was free too, but something about the evaluation didn’t ring true.  The shifter felt fine to me. Front derailleur replacements are very rare. 8,000 miles are not enough miles to account for either of these problems.  I was skeptical about the chain too, but, after thinking it over, I realized that the chain is in about the condition one would expect given the mileage I put on it. 

I slept on the evaluation and decided that I would definitely change the chain, but I would take my bike to BicycleSpace for a second opinion. The head mechanic, a bearded sage named Paul, is the dean of DC-area bike mechanics. He’s our Sheldon Brown, a legendary Boston area mechanic.  About 15 years ago when Paul was at CityBikes in DC, I had a problem with The Mule. Its headset kept coming loose. I took it to one bike shop after another and nobody could fix it.  Finally, Bailey Garfield, the owner of Papillon Cycles in Arlington where I used to live, recommended Paul.  I called CityBikes and before I could finish explaining the problem, Paul said, “I know what’s wrong. I can fix it. Bring it in.” I rode to the shop at lunchtime. Paul fiddled with the handlebars and headset, then started rummaging around in some drawers. He stood up with a small washer pinched between his fingers. He held it up to the light like it was a gem and said, “This is what you need.”  In five minutes, he removed an-ever-so-slightly-thicker washer from the headset, inserted the gem and Voila!  I was ready to get rid of the bike, but Paul saved it with a ten-cent part. And it has stayed fixed for 15 years and well over 15,000 miles.

Paul was not at the shop, but Brad was. I listened as he dealt with a customer in front of me and thought, “He’s the man.”  I explained the situation with Little Nellie and Brad went to work. In no time flat, he found that the bolts that hold my chain rings (front gears) together were loose. Out came an Allen wrench. Turn, turn, turn. He couldn’t find anything wrong with the front derailleur and shifter.  Then he looked at the rear gears.

With a skillful glance he said, “Your derailleur hanger is bent.” Ah ha!! I thought.  (The derailleur hanger is the metal piece of the bike to which the rear shifting mechanism is attached.) He pulled out a strange looking contraption and I stood in admiration as he straightened it out.  The device he used looks a lot like the hardware that surgeons use to line up bones during a knee replacement. (I used to watch the TV show “The Operation.)

Next he took the shifter cable off and re-attached it with a bit more slack. Then he adjusted the gears three times, once for each chain ring in the front.  His final recommendation was to replace the rear cassette and chain, and to ride the bike and see if his work on the chain ring bolts eliminated the ticking noise.

This particular cassette is expensive and I am not a big fan of the gearing it provides. To change it I will have to change the entire rear wheel, because the hub is specific to the cassette. My plan, then is simple: ride the sucker until the shifting sends me around the bend (figuratively, that is). I hope that Bike Friday can give me guidance on the proper replacement wheel/hub/and cassette.  Then I will replace the whole works and the chain and I will be good to go.

BicycleSpace charged me less than $20 for the repairs and advice. Good on you guys. I will be back to buy more bike stuff in the future.

As for Spokes, no worries there either. I have spent a few thousands dollars on bikes, spare parts, and repairs there over the last 20 plus years. They have a great policy of fixing minor problems while you wait, saving many a bike commute for me. On many occasions, I have watched them come to the aid of cyclists touring the east coast. As a once and future bike tourist, I can not tell you how important this is. So they’ll still get my business. Local bike shops are indispensable and need all the support they can get. 

And if you live in Arlington, Papillon is a superb resource, the epitome of a good local bike shop.

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