Professionalism in the Workplace

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It’s always fun to work on nice things in the shop.  Take, for instance, these HED Wheels above.  One is a disc rear wheel, the other is a tri-spoke rear wheel.  Both are very expensive, aerodynamic upgrades for a time-trial or triathlon bike, and are very rare to see in most bike shops on a daily basis.  The wheels were in the shop today to switch axles and overhaul the hubs, a pretty simple task.

I disassembled both hubs to find there was some writing behind the freehub bodies, on the aluminum surface that the carbon is bonded to.  It was not etching, like you may find from a machine shop, indicating a lot number or technical specification.  It was just a couple of stupid sayings, which made no sense to me, but were obviously written by the last mechanic that had done the same procedure on the wheels.

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The writing on the hubs was not a structural or mechanical integrity issue, but rather a professional integrity issue.  The writing was put there, thinking that no other mechanic or the owner of the wheels would ever see it.  Well… I saw it, and I take issue with it.

If I took my bike to a bike shop, I would want the mechanic that repaired my bike to treat my bike like it is a prized possession.  It is, after all, MY prized possession, that I spent my hard-earned money on.  Going into a bike shop, the customer has a certain level of trust in the bike mechanic, and from the time they drop off their repair, they believe that the mechanic will do the absolute best job possible, with great attention to detail, and care for the bike.

That was not done in this situation.  Was the repair completed by the last shop it was serviced at?  Sure.  Was it done with care and detail?  Absolutely not.  No professional bike mechanic, in my opinion, takes a Sharpie to someone else’s property without their permission.  Regardless of what it said, whether the customer would never know, or whether or not it affected the performance of the wheels, drawing on someone else’s property like this is childish and disrespectful.

I probably sound like I’m going off the deep end with this one, but I can’t help but feel that if a mechanic doesn’t take the work they are paid to do to your bike seriously, even in little matters like this, would they really provide you a proper level of customer service if you were in a bind?  I’ll say it again… working in a bike shop is less about bikes, and more about developing and maintaining relationships with people.  If you conduct yourself in a professional manner and provide a premium service, it will be recognized and you will have a loyal, repeat customer.  Act like a fool and treat customer badly, and they will pick up on it… and will find another place to have their bike serviced.

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I’m not sure why the customer that owns these wheels started bringing them to our shop to service them.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because he found the writing behind the freehubs on his wheels.  Maybe it was because he and I developed a working relationship, and he is more comfortable bringing his bikes to me for service than to take them to another shop, which I know is a shorter drive from his home.  I appreciate that he values the work I do, and I appreciate his business.

The Sharpie musings of the last mechanic came off the aluminum really easy with some light rubbing with a bit of steel wool, and it didn’t enhance or detract from the performance in any way.  But in case this customer takes his wheels to any another shop for service, I can rest assured that there is no mistaking that the repair was done properly and professionally… and that they won’t have anything to write a blog post about.

Passing It On

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with several mechanics, some who are aspiring to either jump into the race mechanic scene, and others who plan on opening their own shops in the near future.  We have had discussions about goals, dreams, plans, ideas, and aspirations for the future, as well as how I got started in the industry, as a race mechanic, and how I landed where I am right now.

I consider it a privilege and honor to talk to these up-and-comers, and appreciate the fact that they value my opinion as someone who has gone before them in the bicycle mechanic arena.  I don’t consider it a burden to pass on information or spend time with any of these guys and gals, because I was there once, myself.  If there hadn’t been other mechanics who had followed the same path and passed the knowledge and experience on to me, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.  I can’t name them all, but a few of the influential mechanics and bike folks in my life are:

  • John Duncan – John was the owner of the first bike shop I worked at, WheelSport Bicycles in Anderson, SC.  After begging for a job for a long time, John finally gave me a shot.  I had already been working on my own bikes for a few years, but he gave me the entrance into the industry that I had been longing for.  John schooled me on repairs, especially fine-tuning derailleurs.  One of the tidbits of advice that John told me, that sticks with me is, “Tune every bike like MY kids are going to be riding them.”
  • Merlyn Townley – As the back of his business card says, Merlyn “gets things done.”  One of the most experienced mechanics I’ve ever met, Merlyn has been around the world and back, wrenching on bikes all along the way.  Merlyn was one of my instructors at the Bill Woodul Mechanics’ Clinic in 2005.  He instructed classes on cyclocross race support and wheel changes.  His tips and advice in that clinic stayed with me, especially his compliments on my attempts at pushing riders back into a race.  I pride myself in a good push… and Merlyn taught me that.  He is one of only a handful of Category 1 mechanics in the United States, something I still aspire to be.  We’ve become friends over the years, and chat often regarding work we’re doing.  Good to have him on my side.  Visit Merlyn’s business here.
  • TJ Grove – TJ is a rock-star mechanic, and also one of my former instructors at the USAC Mechanic’s Clinic.  His resume is a mile long, including work at several Olympics, World Championships, and multiple WorldTour teams, just to scratch the surface.  It’s always good to see him at the races, because of his amazing demeanor, even under pressure.  He’s one of the hardest working mechanics in the business, and I observe him in action, every chance I get, in order to soak up a new tip, trick, or shortcut that I can use in my own work.
  • Calvin Jones – Anyone who has used a blue, Park tool in the past 20 years, can most likely thank Calvin for the development of it.  Calvin is the head mechanic/tool guru at Park Tool, and also an instructor at the Bill Woodul Clinic.  He’s a very likable character, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that has to do with bicycles.  To obtain some of Calvin’s knowledge for yourself, visit his blog.

Like I said, these are just a few of the great mechanics that have helped me along in my career.  They’ve given a little bit of themselves and their vast knowledge and experience to mechanics who want to follow in their footsteps.  Now that I’ve got over a dozen years in the industry, including several years as a race mechanic, I feel indebted to these men, and many others, for their help along the way.  It’s my pleasure to offer advice, help, or any input to those who are looking to get a start in the business.

Thanks, to those who I’ve been speaking with about the business.  Feel free to contact me any time.  You keep me motivated to wrench, write, and create.

Building a Friendship

Several years ago, I was road cycling regularly, participating at and leading most of our shop’s group rides, doing some solo training, and doing some other casual rides with friends.  I stayed fairly fit, but at this point in time, I was pretty close to my mid-season prime, and had some legs about me.  I started seeing an older gentleman show up for our group rides on occasion.  I had seen him before, riding on his own, but he started tagging along on our Wednesday night “hammerfest.”

I gave him the obligatory once-over, the look that all roadies give to new members of their cycling group, not to belittle or offend, but to size up our new riding companion and his equipment.  He was kitted out in Italian-made cycling garb, and his steed was a custom titanium and carbon Seven, with a full Campagnolo Record 10 gruppo.  Upon this first glance, I could tell that he and I shared the same appreciation for very nice things.  He straddled the bike, one foot clipped in, and was ready to ride… and was grinning from ear to ear.  Interesting.

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We didn’t make verbal pleasantries at first, we just introduced ourselves by exchanging pedal strokes and paceline duties.  This interesting character, who was obviously a few decades older than I, was able to suffer with the best of us.  Upon returning to the parking lot to complete the ride, I gave the obligatory, “Good ride,” and continued home.  The entire way home, I wondered, “Who was that guy?”, like I was trying to find out the identity of the Lone Ranger, or another masked superhero from a black-and-white television series.  I didn’t anticipate someone his age having the ability to ride that hard and hang with us twenty-somethings.  I was impressed… and respected that greatly.

Over the course of a few years, the guy kept coming back to our rides.  He always rode at a very-high level, and we forged a friendship.  His style never changed, and his smile never went away. He began coming into the shop more often, and I had the privilege of working on his Seven.  I glued his tubulars, installed his Campy Super Record 11-speed gruppo, and did other maintenance on the bike, from time to time.  One day, he brought a lady-friend into the shop, to help her purchase some cycling gear.  He introduced us, but he didn’t tell me she was his new flame… he didn’t have to.  He had a glow about him that I hadn’t seen before, and it was obvious that he was really into this lady.  We outfitted her with cycling shoes, clipless pedals, and some proper cycling attire… keeping it perfectly fashionable, of course.

A while after that, I received word that my friend had been hit by a car, knocked off the bike, and had broken his hip.  He was hurt pretty bad, but I knew he’d make a comeback.  It was a long recovery, but he was a resilient old bugger, and I was sure he’d ride again.  I didn’t see much of him for a while, after all… if he wasn’t riding his bike, he didn’t really need any maintenance or anything that I could provide at the shop.  Just recently, he stopped by the new shop I work at, and we exchanged pleasantries.  I knew he had visited that shop in the past, so I wasn’t shocked to see him, but I was happy that he found me.  He greeted me with that same big smile on his face, same gentle attitude, and he seemed extremely happy that we had the chance to talk, even for just a few minutes.  I was glad that I would be able to work on his bikes again, and to be able to ride with him again soon.

Little did I know, that was the last time I would speak with him.   Bud Phillips, my friend, was hit by a truck while riding his bike in our town.  He was air-lifted to a local hospital, and is currently on life support, with little to no brain activity, and has been that way since Saturday.  Barring a miracle, Bud will pass away soon after the machines are unplugged from his body, which will be any day now.  Since Saturday, I’ve been waiting for word of my friend’s impending passing.  Needless to say, it’s been a rough week.

Just last week, I wrote about the death of champion mountain biker Burry Stander (“Death and Fear in Cycling”), and how much of a tragedy it was, not knowing that the same tragic situation would darken the roads of our town, just a few days later.  Cyclist versus vehicle incidents seem to be increasing at a staggering rate.  I don’t know the exact situation surrounding Bud’s incident, so I can’t blame anyone for the accident.  I will say that motorists today are more distracted, less patient, and seemingly less sympathetic to individuals who choose to exercise their right to take a more healthy, two-wheeled approach to travel.  Bud is not the first friend of mine that has been on the wrong side of this equation, and I can say, without a doubt, that he probably won’t be the last.

But it needs to stop.  I’m tired of losing friends.

“Parts Hangers” vs. “Bike Mechanics”

Working on Nice Stuff is Easy.
Working on Nice Stuff is Easy.

There is a difference between “Parts Hangers” and “Bike Mechanics.”

A Parts Hanger can resemble a Bike Mechanic, and knows their way around a bike, but doesn’t like working on bikes unless they’re installing new, high-end parts.  You can tell a Parts Hanger by the way they check in a repair.  If, when checking in a repair for service, the “mechanic” (and I use that term loosely in this situation) starts tallying up a list of new parts without properly checking over the bike, you may have a Parts Hanger on your hands.  Inside the bike shop, a Parts Hanger “cherry-picks” the repairs they work on, leaving less expensive bikes or repairs that require actual work, for another mechanic to handle.

A real Bike Mechanic can actually fix bikes.  It doesn’t matter what brand or style of bike, or what shape it is in… the real Bike Mechanic can make the bike function properly.  Sure, there are instances where bikes are too far gone to repair, but in most cases, the real Bike Mechanic will do their best to repair the bike to the best functioning order it is capable of.  Real Bike Mechanics are fluent in all bicycle styles, and you do not usually see them turn up their nose at a challenging repair.

Don’t get me wrong… real Bike Mechanics like working on nice things.  It is extremely fun to piece together a custom build for a good customer, but that is not the only part of a Bike Mechanic’s job.  It’s easy to work on nice stuff… it’s engineered to work flawlessly.  The mark of a true Bike Mechanic is whether or not they can make the crappy stuff work.  Real Bike Mechanics do not cut corners, and they get the job done right – the first time.

And Bicycle Race Mechanics take it exponentially farther…

You Just Never Know…

On any given day in Atlanta, a traffic jam can pop up anywhere.  For me, today was that day and the location was a few miles ahead of me…

I decided to take my Dad’s old van to work today.  I stopped at the gas station to put some gas in the car and grab a soda before my 8 mile commute down the interstate to the bike shop.  I kept thinking that I wished I had ridden my bike in, rather than drive, but I had a lot of old gear that I was taking down to the shop to get rid of, so it was a necessary evil.

About two miles down the interstate, traffic immediately came to a standstill.  We were going nowhere, and by the pace of the first 5 minutes of traffic, we would be there for a while.  After several minutes, cars started creating another lane in the shoulder around the two normal lanes of traffic.  It was getting crazy.  Unfortunately, so was the temperature of my engine.  I noticed the temperature gauge on the inside of the car start rising at a fairly abnormal rate and started to get worried.

After a few minutes of rising temperatures, the van started overheating and smoking.  My first instinct was to say, “Crap.”  I had to wait for a hole in the “shoulder traffic” to move the van into the grass on the side of the road and park the van.  I had to get to work and didn’t have a ride, so… I pulled my bike out of the back of the van and prepared for my commute in to the bike shop.

It was pretty neat riding around and through all the traffic jam.  It was especially fun to see the cops at the top of the exit ramp, looking at me like, “What did you just do?”  The thrill was fun for a second, but wore off when I remembered that I WAS wearing rolled up blue-jean trousers and sandals for the last 6 miles of my commute… sheesh!

I kept reminding myself of a video I spotted a few weeks back.  In the video, a group of cyclists take to the LA Freeway during rush hour to show how fast they could ride in comparison to the cars.  It was awesome!  Bottom line today was, you just never know what you’re gonna run into when you head off to work.

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