“The Wrench”

No, not my new wrestling name, ‘The Wrench’ is, apparently, what bicycle mechanics like to call themselves. Also, apparently, I can now count myself among their ranks.

I’d been looking for a mechanics course for ages and was ready to pull the trigger on one in the UK last year, but somehow couldn’t find the courage to fork out all that money. And hey, I might not have even understand the Manchester accent! So, it was with great joy that I found, hidden away on page 2 or 3 of a Google search, Winterborne Bicycle Institute – a place that also offered a ‘pro’ course, plus it was only an hour from where I grew up outside Toronto (and more importantly, had some free places to crash).

For those who don’t know me, or have never asked me to fix anything, you probably don’t know about my near-complete lack of a mechanical background. My two brothers appear to have hoarded all those genes and left me with…, with…, well anyway, lets just say I was more than a little anxious before starting this two-week, full-time tool-heavy course. The introductory material I found online didn’t help, I might add – the first chapter had headings like Identifying Threads, Thread Tendencies and Preparation and Assembly of Threads. Who knew threads were so important? In the end it was pretty straight forward, but man, Winterborne, you might want to start with wheels, pedals or handlebar tape if you want to attract the likes of me.

Below is part of the ‘classroom’, where we spent all our time. The giant manual you see center-left is called Barnett’s Manual, which was ‘The Bible’ that we referred to for nearly everything we ended up doing on the bike (wheel building being one big exception). Barnett’s is a famous bicycle institute in the U.S., and I had the impression that Winterborne was somehow affiliated. It isn’t, but it does use the books for their curriculum, probably because, as Jay told me one day, there is simply nothing that compares to this manual out there.

One of 6 workbenches, color coded so we could find them each day. I have just found the French word for ‘peg board’ and will try and get part of my wife’s workshop looking something like this over the winter. We used Park Tools pretty much exclusively, but I’m not sure why. They seemed to work just fine, so perhaps that’s it.

Here is Mathias, my partner at the ‘red bench’ for a couple of days, torquing some stem bolts, it looks like.

For two days in the first week we built wheels. Even though this was possibly the least pragmatic part of the whole course for me (unless any of you need any wheels built…), it was, by far, the most fun. Take a rim, a hub, and 32 spokes and fine tuning them into something that will support you on the road for thousands of miles was pretty cool. It’s also the cleanest job on a bike, since there’s nearly no grease involved. Plus, if you’re lazy, you can do most of it sitting down. Sure you don’t want a wheel or two built..?

The photo above, and the one below, show a part of the threading process, whereby the spokes are placed into the spoke holes (in a very particular way, you can imagine), before being placed inside the rim (above) for the tense operation of the actual threading.

After the lacing, the tightening begins – a rigid, step-by-step process that includes truing laterally, dishing (making sure the hub is in line with the rim) and truing radially (ensuring the rim is round). It’s a job that takes a bit of patience, but the results are pretty satisfying. I’d love to try it on a really good wheelset one day.

We used just about every single tool on that bench above and worked on ever conceivable part of the bike including, threadless and threaded headsets, all sorts of bottom brackets, the complete drivetrain and yes, handlebar tape. If there is one critique I would make it would be the shear concentration of content involved in the course, i.e. we never revisited something we had already done. Having said that, I understand why, since the course is billed as a pro mechanics course and time is limited.

Well, I guess I can’t say ‘never revisiting’, since we certainly had to for the last day’s exam – a diabolical multiple choice test (some questions had 7 choices!) and what you see below.  We all had to take a bike out of the box and have it showroom ready within two hours. Here is Jay Filer, the owner/instructor of Winterborne, trying to find ways to deduct points from Glenn.

Luckily we had partners for the assembly because Dalton, the guy who assembled the Trek below with me, had worked at a bike shop and it was all pretty old hand for him. Still, there were tense moments along the way, e.g. setting some pesky front brakes, and we finished just under the 2-hour mark.

I suppose I knew this before going in, but I really realize it now – you don’t become a mechanic by taking a mechanics course. I feel much more at ease taking things apart on my bike now (yes, I’ve already tried it..) and I know a heck of a lot more about the inner workings of this wonderful machine, but really, show me a ‘clunk’ that sounds like it’s coming from ‘down there by the pedals’ and I’ll be scratching my head nearly as much as before. What I need is practice. Fortunately I’ve got friends in the business who might allow me to use their workshops (Hi Doug!) once in a while, not to mention a few others who might even trust me with their own bikes (Hi John!) when they have troubles. I’ll get my hands dirty.

I don’t want this to turn into a review of the course, but I can say, if anyone is interested, that Jay is a good teacher who really knows his stuff (he even knows all the ParkTool codes for their tools, which is bordering on ‘geek’) and doesn’t make any assumptions about previous knowledge when explaining things. If he’s your teacher, you’ll be taken care of well. The course is nearly $1700, which sounds like a lot, but is in the same ballpark as other courses of its kind. There are others on offer, which are shorter and more focused (like the wheel building course). If you’d like to stay at home and learn for free, Jay has a few YouTube videos, which give a good idea of his attention to detail (‘Replacing a Bike Chain’ is broken up into two videos and is nearly 25 minutes long!).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I bought a wrench in Canada and must find something to torque.

13 thoughts on ““The Wrench”

  1. Yeah, yeah,yeah enough of this talk about torque,it’s november 1st and we [well me actually] want to know if you managed to get a place on the high route?

    • Andrew, your question is timely. We pre-registered as a team of 9 a few weeks back, so no problem getting in. Good thing, too, because I think the individual places sold out in minutes yesterday!

  2. So what’s the word for pegboard? You know, just in case I might require it during some conversation with another cyclist next year?! Or maybe over dinner somewhere.

    And I imagine this course was perfect for all the tours you are going to be leading in the near future. You might not need to be able to build a wheel, but it will no doubt be useful for more minor mishaps…

  3. Panneau Perforé, of course! And yes, you’re right of course. I never even thought to mention the new certificate I can add to my cycling guide CV. It can’t hurt…unless I make promises I can’t keep, that is!

  4. Hey Gerry, this is the most fantastic news! Julia has just completed a 6 week bike restoration course. You and her can service …. er……. practice …. on the fleet, while John and I test ride your handiwork! Oh and Park Tool is the campy of the bike tool world : )

  5. Hey Gerry, Thanks very much for taking the time to write about your experience here. I really like the photo you took of the hanging wheels with the paintings of the mountains in the background. Good luck with your newly acquired skills!

    • Jay, it’s my pleasure. Although the effort-to-blog-fodder ratio was pretty high on this course, I’m glad I could talk about it. Now, I need to start looking for mountain bike trails, so you can pay me a visit over here!

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