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Exclusive article: The Makings of a Good Bicycle Mechanic
Bicycle Mechanics: A Growing and Stable Profession / Career in Declining and Green Economies
Bicycle mechanics use hand and power tools to repair, service, and assemble all types of bicycles. They may do routine maintenance and tune-ups or completely rebuild damaged or old bicycles. Bike manufacturers, dealers, retail bike and sporting goods stores, and general merchandise stores may employ bicycle mechanics. The popularity of bicycles and the fact that many riders lack the time to repair their bikes makes for a steady employment outlook for bicycle mechanics. Approximately 8,000 bicycle mechanics work in the United States.
Bicycles have been said to be the most efficient means ever devised to turn human energy into propulsion. The first successful bicycle was built in Scotland around 1839. Like the bicycles built for many years afterward, it had a large front wheel that was pedaled and steered and a smaller wheel in back for balance. In time, advances in design and technology improved the ease with which riders could balance, steer, brake, and get on and off bicycles.
The first modern-looking bicycle, with equal-sized front and rear wheels and a loop of chain on a sprocket drive, was built in 1874. By the early 1890s, pneumatic tires and the basic diamond-pattern frame made bicycles stable, efficient, and fairly inexpensive. Bicycle riding became a popular recreation and, in some countries around the world, a major form of transportation. In the 20th century, bicycle performance was further improved by lightweight frames with new designs and improved gear mechanisms, tires, and other components.
After automobiles became the dominant vehicles on American roads, bicycles were usually considered children’s toys in the United 1970s, and the resulting concern with polluting fossil fuels, saw a States. However, the environmental movement of the 1960s and resurgence in their popularity among adults that has continued to this day. With the increasing costs associated with cars and environmental concerns, more people are using bikes not only for exercise, racing, or touring but also for short trips to the store, to visit friends, or to go to work.
Repairing bicycles takes mechanical skill and careful attention to detail. Many repairs, such as replacing brake cables, are relatively simple, while others can be very complicated. Mechanics use a variety of tools, including wrenches, screwdrivers, drills, vises, and specialized tools to repair and maintain bikes. There are many different brands of bikes, both domestic and foreign, and each has its own unique characteristics and mechanical problems.
Bicycle mechanics work on both new and used bicycles. They may be required to do emergency repairs or routine tune-ups, or they may need to repair and recondition used bikes so they can be sold. Many new bikes come from the manufacturer unassembled, and mechanics working at a bicycle dealership or shop must assemble them and make adjustments so they operate properly. Many department stores and discount houses that sell bikes contract out this type of assembly work to dealerships or bike shops, and it can be very profitable.
Some of the basic repairs that bicycles need can easily be done by the owner, but many cyclists lack the tools, time, or initiative to learn how to service their bikes. They prefer to take most problems to professional bicycle mechanics. One type of repair is fixing a flat tire. Leaks in clincher tires (those with a separate inner tube) can be fixed at home, but many owners choose to take them to a bicycle mechanic. Repairing sew-up tires (which have no inner tube) is a more complicated process that generally requires a mechanic. Mechanics can also build wheels, replace and tighten spokes, and “true,” or align, the wheels. To build a wheel, the mechanic laces the spokes between the rim and the hub of the wheel and then tightens them individually with a special wrench until the wheel spins without wobbling. A truing machine is used to test the balance of the wheel as it spins.
The gear mechanism on multiple-speed bikes is another common concern for bicycle mechanics. On some bikes, gears are shifted by means of a derailleur, which is located on the back wheel hub or at the bottom bracket assembly where the pedals and chain meet. This derailleur frequently needs adjustment. The mechanic aligns the front and rear gears of the derailleur to reduce wear on both the chain and the gear teeth and adjusts the mechanism to keep constant pressure on the chain. Gear mechanisms vary greatly among different makes of bicycles so mechanics have to keep up with current models and trends.
Bicycle mechanics must be able to spot trouble in a bike and correct problems before they become serious. They may have to straighten a bent frame by using a special vise and a heavy steel rod. They may be asked to adjust or replace the braking mechanism so that the force on the brakes is spread evenly. They may need to take apart, clean, grease, and reassemble the headset, or front hub, and the bottom bracket that houses the axle of the pedal crank.
Mechanics who work in a bike shop sometimes work as sales people, advising customers on their bike purchases or accessories, including helmets, clothing, mirrors, locks, racks, bags, and more. In some shops, especially those located in resort areas, bike mechanics may also work as bicycle-rental clerks. Where winters are cold and biking is seasonal, bike mechanics may work part of the year on other recreational equipment, such as fitness equipment, snowmobiles, or small engines.
Note: Bicycle mechanics need excellent hand-eye coordination because they often work with small tools to make fine adjustments.
Completion of high school or other formal education is not necessarily required for a job as a bicycle mechanic, although employers may prefer applicants who are high school graduates. If you are considering this kind of work, you will benefit from taking vocational- technical or shop classes in high school. Such classes will give you the opportunity to work with your hands, follow blueprints or other directions, and build equipment. Science classes, such as physics, will give you an understanding of the principles at work behind the design of equipment as well as help you to understand how it functions. Since you will most likely be working in a retail environment, consider taking business, accounting, or computer classes that will teach you business and related skills. Don’t forget to take English or communication classes. These classes will help you develop your communication skills, an asset when dealing with customers, as well as your research and reading skills, an asset when your work includes reviewing maintenance and repair documentation for many different types of bikes.
Bicycle maintenance courses are offered at some technical and vocational schools, and there are at least three privately operated training schools for mechanics. Bicycle manufacturers may also offer factory instruction to mechanics employed by the company’s authorized dealers. Completion of many of the courses offered earns the mechanic certificates that may help when seeking a job or when seeking a promotion.
Certification or Licensing
The Barnett Bicycle Institute and the United Bicycle Institute offer certification programs for bicycle mechanics. Contact the institutes for more information.
For the most part, bike mechanics learn informally on the job. At least two years of hands-on training and experience is required to become a thoroughly skilled mechanic, but because new makes and models of bikes are constantly being introduced, there are always new things to learn that may require additional training. Many times a bicycle distributor visits bike mechanics at a shop to make sure the mechanic’s work is competent before the shop is officially permitted to sell and service a new kind of bike. Because of this steady stream of new information, bicycle mechanics must have a desire to study and add to their knowledge.
Bicycle mechanics also need excellent hand-eye coordination and a certain degree of physical endurance. They may work with small tools to make fine adjustments. Often, much of their work is performed while they stand, bend, or kneel. Mechanics must be independent decision makers, able to decide on proper repair strategies, but they should also be able to work comfortably with others. Frequently, they will need to interact with customers and other workers.
Did You Know?
• In 1863, the first practical bicycle, the velocipede, was invented by Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement in France. It was nicknamed the “bone shaker” because the ride was so rough.
• Bicycle racing has been an Olympic sport since 1896.
• Consumers in the United States purchased 18.3 million bicycles in 2004.
• Approximately 42.5 million Americans ride bicycles,
• A 2003 survey of bicycle riders found that most rode for exercise / health (41 percent) and recreation (37 percent), with only 5 percent citing commuting to work as their principal use.
• Bicycling is a low-impact transportation mode that is great for the environment. It is estimated that the use of bicycles as a replacement for automobiles eliminates the use of more than 238 million gallons of gasoline annually.
Sources: Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, National Sporting Goods Association, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, League of American Bicyclists
Many people become interested in bicycle repair because they own and maintain their own bikes. Taking general maintenance and tune-up classes that some bike shops offer for bicycle owners is a good way for you to explore your interest in working with bikes. Visit with the bicycle mechanics at these shops and ask them for their insights. How did they start in this line of work? What do they enjoy most about it? What is the most challenging aspect of the job? If a local shop does not offer classes, consider taking courses at a private school such as the United Bicycle Institute or the Barnett Bicycle Institute (contact information is at the end of this article).
Bike shops sometimes hire inexperienced students as assistants to work on a part-time basis or during the summer when their business is most brisk. Such a job is probably the best way to find out about this type of work.
Various magazines available at larger newsstands, bookstores, or public libraries are devoted to recreational cycling and serious bicycle racing. These magazines often cover the technical aspects of how bicycles are constructed and operated, and they may provide helpful information to anyone interested in bike repair. Bicycle associations can provide additional information regarding classes, industry news, and employment.
There are approximately 8,000 bicycle mechanics working in the United States, and they are employed nationwide. They may work in local bicycle shops, for large sporting goods stores, or for bicycle manufacturers. Resorts and some retail stores also hire people with these skills. Bicycle mechanics may also be required to repair other types of equipment or serve as sales clerks.
If you are a beginner with no experience, start out by contacting local bike shops or bike manufacturers to find one that is willing to hire trainees. Check the Yellow Pages for a list of bicycle dealers in your area. Bike dealers may also be willing to provide on-the- job training. In addition, the want ads of your local newspaper are a source of information on job openings. Also, try joining a local bicycling club that will allow you to network with other enthusiasts who may know of open positions.
People who have learned bike repair and have accumulated the tools they need may be able to do repair work independently, per haps using ads and referrals to gradually build a small business.
There are few opportunities for advancement for bicycle mechanics unless they combine their interest in bikes with another activity. For example, after a few years on the job, they may be able to start managing the bike shop where they work. Some mechanics move on to jobs with the bicycle department of a large department or sporting goods store and from there move up to department manager or regional sales manager. Another possibility is to become a sales representative for a bicycle manufacturer or distributor.
Some bicycle mechanics are merely working their way through college. Others want to own and operate their own bike stores. If they gain enough experience and save or borrow enough money to cover start-up costs, they may be able to establish a successful new business. College courses in business, management, and accounting are recommended for aspiring shop owners. Bicycle businesses tend to do best in progressive communities where there are publicly funded bike paths and people actively look for alternatives to America’s automobile culture.
Many bicycle mechanics work a standard 40-hour week. In some areas of the country, mechanics may find that their hours increase in the spring, when people bring their bikes out of storage, and decrease when the weather gets colder. Workers in this field are typically paid on an hourly basis, with 2006 salaries ranging from $7.48 per hour ($15,550 per year) for the lowest 10 percent, comprising trainees and inexperienced mechanics, to $14.95 or more an hour ($31,090 a year) for the top 10 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median salary for bicycle repairers in 2006 was $10.48 an hour, or $21,790 a year.
Benefits vary depending on the shop or facility where employed and the number of hours worked. Some jobs may include standard benefits.
Bicycle mechanics do much of their work indoors standing at a workbench. They work constantly with their hands and various tools to perform the prescribed tasks. It is a job that requires attention to detail and, in some cases, the ability to diagnose and troubleshoot problems. Because of the wide variety of bicycles on the market today, mechanics must be familiar with many different types of bicycles, and their problems and repair procedures. Although it is sometimes greasy and dirty work, it is, in general, not very strenuous. Most heavy work, such as painting, brazing, and frame straightening, is done in larger bike shops and specialty shops.
Once the job is mastered, workers may find it somewhat repetitious and not very challenging. It may also be frustrating in cases where bicycles are so old or in such bad shape that they are virtually irreparable. Most often, bicycle mechanics choose this profession because they are cycling enthusiasts themselves. If this is the case, it may be very enjoyable for them to be able to work with bicycles and interact with customers who are fellow cyclists.
Mechanics work by themselves or with a few coworkers as they service bikes, but in many shops they also deal with the public, working the register or helping customers select and purchase bicycles and accessories. The atmosphere around a bike shop can be hectic, especially during peak seasons in shops where mechanics must double as clerks. As is true in any retail situation, bicycle mechanics may sometimes have to deal with irate or rude customers.
Cycling continues to gain in popularity. People are bicycling for fun, fitness, as a means of transportation, and for the thrill of racing. Bikes don’t burn gas or pollute the environment, and they are relatively cheap and versatile. With personal fitness and the preservation of the environment as two of the nation’s biggest trends and concerns, the bicycling industry looks to a positive future. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts employment for bicycle mechanics to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014.
Bicycle repair work is also relatively immune to fluctuations in the economy. In times of economic boom, people buy more new bikes and mechanics are kept busy assembling, selling, and servicing them. During economic recessions, people take their old bikes to mechanics for repair.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For biking news and to read online articles from the magazine Adventure Cyclist, contact:
Adventure Cycling Association
150 East Pine Street
P0 Box 8308
Missoula, MT 59802-4515
For information on courses in bicycle repair and mechanics, contact
Barnett Bicycle Institute
2755 Ore Mill Drive, #14
Colorado Springs, CO 80904-3159
For news and information about upcoming races and events, contact
League of American Bicyclists
1612 K Street, NW, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20006=2850
For more information on the industry, contact
National Bicycle Dealers Association
777 West 19th Street, Suite 0
Costa Mesa, CA 92627-6130
For information on beginning to advanced courses in repair, frame building, and mechanic certification, contact:
United Bicycle Institute
401 Williamson Way
PO Box 128
Ashland, OR 97520-1250
John Stevens is the general manager of the Bike Shed, a bicycle repair facility located on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley. He discussed bicycle repair with us below.
Q. Please tell us about the Bike Shed.
A. The Bike Shed was established in 1970 as a centrally located, on-campus bicycle repair shop that offered free tool usage, low-cost repairs, replacement parts, and rental bikes. At that time, none of the local shops were able to meet these needs of the students. The shop is an old dairy barn built in 1910. The shop continues to meet these needs, adding the selling of used bicycles and repair classes to the list. Currently, the Bike Shed repairs 10,000 bikes annually and maintains a rental fleet of 200 bicycles.
Q. Tell us about your duties as general manager.
A. As general manager, I have a wide variety of duties. I am the primary decision maker, establishing all policies and procedures. I perform repairs, train employees in the discipline of bicycle mechanics, and teach student managers how to run a commercial, not-for-profit business. Administratively, I conduct interviews, hire, discipline, and release employees. I create the budget, attend budget hearings, and work with student senators for funding and repairs and improvements to the building and shop. I am responsible for ensuring the building receives the repairs and maintenance needed. I supervise a staff of 13 – 18 student employees. (Generally, they are between the ages of 18 and 22. All of my employees are required to be currently enrolled at the university.) I perform all of the parts ordering, interact with vendors and sales representatives, and maintain the inventory. In addition, I attend trade shows and teach bicycle safety and repair classes.
Q. Do your employees go on to pursue careers in bicycle repair, or is this just a good job while they’re in college?
A. I have been the general manager for 10 years and have hired and trained around IOU employees. Most leave the shop for jobs outside the bicycle industry. Some have become bicycle racers; one directs a large bicycle supply company. Many go on to earn graduate and doctoral degrees. Some have become medical doctors, scientists, optometrists, psychiatrists, and mechanical engineers. The job provides the employees with a good foundation that helps them succeed as they put their degrees to work. They gain customer relation skills, problem solving skills, and decision making skills. Because the bicycle industry tends to be more a labor of love then a lucrative career, many, sadly, leave the bike world to pursue more lucrative careers.
Q. What do you like most and least about your job?
A. The best part is getting to work with such bright, intelligent, young people. They learn so quickly, so it is a pleasure to teach them. The worst part is saying goodbye once the student graduates.
Q. What are the three most important professional qualities for bicycle mechanics?
A. Honesty, integrity, and love, them the truth about the work that you have performed on their bike.
Honesty: Customers can usually tell when you’re not telling.
Integrity: Do the job right, to the best of your ability.
Love: Enjoy what you do because many people are envious of how cool your job is. Share that passion with others.
Q. What are some of the most offbeat repairs that you’ve encountered in your time at the Bike Shed?
A. • Flat repair on a 36” unicycle—the tire was very tall!
• Rod brakes on a vintage Dutch bicycle, through the frame from the crank whacking the chain stay.
• Cranks that wobbled so much, there were holes worn.
• Wheel and flat repairs on a vintage Schwinn bicycle that had a flower garden growing in the rear basket—it was very heavy!
More Jobs and Career Resources:
Cheap Bikes are not Bargains!Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, Toys "R" Us and similar department stores sell plenty of bikes from brands such as Huffy, Mongoose, Roadmaster, and Schwinn for $100 to $200. They may, at first, seem like good deals -- but they aren't. Realistically, you should be prepared to spend at least $300 for decent-quality bike. Why?
Because you get what you pay for. Mass-market -- Wal-Mart and Sears -- bikes have cheaper, less-rugged construction than higher-priced bikes and can weigh 7 or 8 pounds more. They come in only one size, so you're not likely to get a great fit. And mass merchants can't match bike shops for quality of assembly, expert advice, and service.
Adults should consider cheaper department-store bikes only for the most casual use, and stick with a no-suspension or front-suspension model, which is likely to be better built at the price than a cheap full-suspension bike. You may want a mass-market bike for kids who'll outgrow a bike quickly or rough it up.
Still, if your budget allows, we'd recommend that you buy one from a dedicated bicycle vendor such as JensonUSA. You'll get a lot more bike for the buck.
Bicycling needs to be taken more seriously as an alternative form of transportation for many important reasons. Here are just a few:
I live in Los Angeles, California and prefer to get around town without using a motor vehicle.
Outwardly, it may seem that I am severely limited with respect to accessibility. I moved to LA from Toledo, Ohio in February 2004. In Ohio, I had not just one car but two, and drove (and relied on them) everyday for virtually every task: from going to work and grocery shopping to visiting the local park (only 1 block away!). I wasn't lazy or overweight; I worked nearly everyday, and exercised at home on a cross-trainer. Ohio has some excellent bike paths. On a rare off-day, if the weather was good, I would attach my self-modified Gary Fisher hybrid to a bike rack, and drive to one of the local bike paths. None were farther than three or four miles away.
The move to California was a career-changing event, and I now work out of my home. Regardless, one still needs to get around: shopping, errands and leisure. Southern California is, also, quite a bit more interesting than Northwest Ohio, so the urge to "get out of the house" is more significant than in an area which is hot and muggy in the summer, freezing cold in winter.
I actually drove my car quite frequently for the first couple of months after my arrival in California. Driving here in traffic-congested So Cal is quite a bit different than in the relatively laid-back highways and streets of Toledo. In addition, the price of gasoline is higher here than in the Midwest. Getting a bit fed up with these annoyances, I decided to oil up my 10-year-old Gary Fisher bicycle and see what it was like biking to and from various locations.
Up to this point, I had never cycled for more than 14 miles or so, and that was mostly on quiet streets and dedicated bike paths in Ohio. So, not only was there the physical challenge of traveling longer distances, there was also the challenge of riding a bike on the busy streets of Los Angeles county. The former took several weeks to become acclimated to; the latter became comfortable after experience, reading books and perusing web sites for how-to tips, and using the right equipment. top of page
Biking vs. Driving -- the bottom line when it comes to non-recreational bicycle use:
The purpose of this web site is to promote bicycling as a serious and realistic alternative to automobile transportation.
This web site is new and, currently, a bit sparse. The first issue that needs to be addressed is bicycle safety for commuters and "non-recreational" bike riders. Hence, I have developed an extensive section to address safety-related topics. It is not an exhaustive section, so please tell me (KHashmi316 AT fastmail DOT org) what I missed or what needs improvement.
Also, tell me what you want or what you expect from a commuting-bicycle site. The pictorial format of the Safety page is how future pages will be structured. Here's an example of an important topic that will be incorporated into a upcoming page:
When crossover gears are taken into account, this is no longer a 21-speed bike -- it is a 19-speed bike.
If this example was helpful -- please tell me. Your comments will be used to design and improve future pages.
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Last updated: Friday, June 5, 2020 8:25 PST