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Guest Blog | Getting down and dirty at our intensive maintenance course

Andy Brown, from Just Ride the Bike describes his day of getting down and dirty; in amongst the grease, nuts and bolts of a mechanics course at The Bristol Bike Project.

Anyone that owns a bike needs to know how to make basic repairs and adjustments – sometimes it is the difference between getting home or not, let alone a large bill. That’s why a bike riding friend and I went along to the Intensive Cycle Maintenance course run by the Bristol Bike Project (BBP).

It does exactly what it says on the tin: you receive clear, but thorough and intensive education in bicycle maintenance. The course notes were concise and brilliant: “Saturday, from 10am-4pm. Please aim to arrive just before 10am. We advise you to wear clothes you don’t mind getting oil on.”

All the tools you will ever need are provided, plus tea and coffee, all you do is bring your bike to experiment on. It doesn’t matter what bike, brake system or set up. In fact, the more different the better. We had two bikes with disc brakes, one with v-brakes and the others all callipers, one full carbon, one steel, one hybrid and lots of alloy. The difference in machines allowed more scope and understanding. Our instructor, Luke Friend, made a point of observing that we live in a society of assumed knowledge: he welcomed the stupid questions and requests to repeat things more than once, or twice even.

He began with the basics, outlining the M-rule: you start assessing your bike from the front wheel hub, work your way up the forks and trace an ‘M’ of the frame. It’s simple, but you need to be methodical. Luke pointed out that too many bike maintenance errors occur because people begin enthusiastically, but with no clear plan and often are quite disorganised without having somewhere clean and clear for parts or tools.

We were lucky: we each of the six of us has a bike stand in which our machines are safely and firmly clamped so we can work on them at a good height. The workshop is tidy and spotless – something I need to learn from – making it easy to operate.

We learned about hubs, cut, comb or pressed – how to remove, take apart and clean. We talked about wheels and tyres, how they wear and the tell-tale signs to spot. We examine all the braking systems; and we talk headsets, cartridges and bearings and a passing reference to the bespoke hubs and headsets hand crafted by Chris King that might be as expensive as some bikes.

Probably the highlight was working through gears. This was what we had all come for: to learn the dark arts of indexing and tuning. Luke did not disappoint and instructed us very clearly about setting upper and lower limits of our gears; he showed how manually we can make the chain smoothly move from low to high and back, so the chain moved like water over the rear cassette. Previously I’d never would have dared do this. I might still be reticent about releasing the cable itself for the brakes or the gears, but I know how to release the tension and re-set it everything for the front and back.

I am still nervous, but that’s because I need to practice now – something Luke stressed. There’s no point doing a course like this and leaving and not applying what you have learned. For me, a key thing now, is knowing what to look for (or listen to) so that I know when something is wrong. Luke emphasised the need to know the bike – he said more than once you need to “get to know your levers”. Diagnosis is something I would have previously struggled with. That alone can save time and money. After all, how many times have we described a sound from our bike to a fellow rider or mechanic and not been able to properly pinpoint what it is like, or where it is from? Now I know the difference, and with practice I can do something about it as well.

I would thoroughly recommend the course at BBP. If you don’t believe me check the reviews – all five-star and the comments are excellent. Don’t just do day one, book on to the follow up day as well. Then, make use of the facilities, because BBP actively encourage you to become part of the bike community. BBP is exactly the kind of place that ticks all the criteria boxes if JRTB were to dream up a workshop and education centre focused on advocating bike riding as a mode of transport and a way of life. BBP want you to ride to live. For them the bike is a means to an end.

There is a lot to take in and can be technical, but not in a way that blows your mind – I am not very engineering practically minded so I did need to concentrate. A key thing was the difference between tightening things up obsessively and “snugging up” (one of Luke’s favourite terms). My friend, who is the opposite of me, loved every moment and I could see him absorbing every ounce (or gram) of information and every one of us is made copious notes throughout the day.

Look out for details of a project or centre like BBP where you live.