8 New Bikes Finished at Chain Reaction

Right before I walked into the basement room of the Estate Hotel to join the last night of March’s session of Chain Reaction, an innertube had exploded. When you inflate an tube toward triple-digit PSIs, in case you haven’t had the pleasure of this experience, and something proves to be imperfect with your installation, the rim, the tire, or anything really, the resulting noise resembles a gun shot, and the sonic effect, as you would imagine, is significantly more resonant indoors.

I didn’t realize this had just happened when I entered the former underground storage space and was introduced by the Matthew to the budding mechanics. I was there to help with last minute repairs, safety checks, and test rides of these newly refurbished bikes, and had arrived late after just getting off of work.

When each bike finished the checklist at the end of the zine-style Chain Reaction curriculum Matthew produced for the cohort, it was ready to reenter the world with its new owner who built the bike back up from the scraps of nearly as many previously functioning bikes as their are components to a bike. When my role there was established I was introduced to each of the 8 budding mechanics, their bikes in and out of the stands, and how close we were to the completion of each.

B–‘s single-speed Univega was ready to go, but the innertube of the front tire just burst after he tried to bring it above 100 psi to make sure everything was as prime as possible for his bike ride. Whenever I can I encourage folks not to worry so much about inflating their concerns about tire pressure. If you take the time every couple of weeks to bring yourself up to 50 psi, there’s nothing to worry about, and the squish will soak up the bumps before they impact your poor wrists. I don’t however want to be held responsible for pinch flats by anyone riding on a flat tire: if you can squeeze your tire easily, find a pump!

Matthew wasn’t sure if there was a usable 27″/700c tube for B–‘s sleek, thin tires, but he directed him to the hanging collection of tubes to find out while he juggled the needs of the other 7 bikes. I checked in with F– about the shifting on his bike. He had it pretty finely tuned, and the chain ended up where it needed to be eventually. I told him that as long as the upper and lower limits were set right, which it seemed he had done, it would pass a safety check since neither the front or rear derailleurs would throw the chain off course. If he wanted to make the chain react in seamless conjunction with the shifter, I told him, he would have to talk to Matthew.

B– had found a tube, but it was evident it had a hole in it. With each inflation, the air quickly breathed back out, like a lung receiving then expelling air. I could either do a test ride or help him learn how to patch a tube. It seemed logical to me to help those further behind in the process to make sure everyone could finish for the evening around the same time, so I helped B– find a marker and a patch kit to get the tube ready.

It wasn’t until I started working with B– that I remembered what it means to blow a tube. Years ago, I was riding a bike my friend had lent me, and suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the back tire exploded, making an awful, massive noise, and deflating instantaneously. Not only was it startling and viscerally upsetting, but, worse, I was no longer able to ride the bike, a couple miles from home. And you can’t patch a blown tube. It looks as though someone ripped a knife through it. I suddenly realized that in the moments before I entered the space, everyone just experienced a fairly traumatic experience, with B– catching the worst of it. I thought at first I knew what that meant, that now we needed to find another tube to put in the tire, but then remembered what it really meant: the enthusiastic effort to put air and give life to the tire turned wrong and made an overwhelming sound that will likely trigger everyone in the room into a sudden flight or flight impulse. B– needed to start over in a very literal way, just another moment in a long series of having to let go and begin again. But the steps were apparent and real, and I knew how to explain them to him:

1. Identify where the air is leaking out, and circle the hole with a sharpie, putting an X through the circle. This helps you identify where the hole is when the tube deflates and everything on the surface becomes indistinguishable.

2. Rub the surface where the patch will go over this hole with sandpaper to reveal a surface that the patch will easily mold to.

3. Squeeze vulcanizing fluid onto the sandpapered area and rub with the tip of the tube to distribute over the area.

4. Wait five minutes, take foil backing off patch, and squeeze onto the tube, rubbing outward from center of patch in all directions

I set a timer for five minutes and told B– I would be back when we were ready for the next step. I checked in with Tristan meanwhile because I saw he had pliers for his rear shifting cable. I asked him if we wanted the cable cutters, but he explained he was trying to get a kink out the cable by bending it back with the tip. I understood the principle, but I didn’t know you could do that. Working with bikes is like that sometimes. There are all these tricks that you encounter, but you can’t really recommend them until you’ve tried them a few times on your own without catastrophic results, or someone you trust tells you it’s sound advice. Having said that, I can’t recommend trying to remove a kink as such from a cable, but I don’t think it would compromise the cable too much, and you might just get it a little straighter.

It was about then that Matthew had diagnosed that F–‘s chain was stretched, and was skipping the cogs of the rear cassette because of the worn chain’s difficulty engaging. The chain was broken and laid out on the concrete floor next to a replacement, used of course, but usable. The easiest way to replace old parts, housing, chains, or whatever, is simply to replicate what was on there before. You could put a new chain on and eventually find out exactly how long it’s supposed to be, or you could just measure it against the old one. It’s always a lesson in hubris and haste when you’ve dismantled something to replace without memorizing or taking a quick picture of what it looked like before.

There’s always something to improve on a bike, especially an old bike cobbled together with used parts, but there’s always the urge to call it early and get out on the road. Especially if you’ve been working almost three hours ironing out the shifting, braking, and that ever-evasive sweet spot between no play and smooth as possible. That qualifier “as possible” could drive a person crazy as they go back and forth between loosening to the point play arises, and then tighten again to find the smoothness to be wanting.

The machine of Chain Reaction was inspiring to see. Each of the four stands was its own unique universe, like a hub, bottom bracket, or rear derailleur, pedal, headset, or caliper brake. But the thing moves together. Those finished with their bikes, Matthew and myself included, can consult as individuals voice doubts, concerns, or needs. We get tossed like chain by a derailleur to a new situation and fall in with its flow. But the conversation flowed between the 10 individuals present fluidly. A couple had established themselves as the jokers, giving everybody a hard time, quoting Cheech and Chong to each other from opposite sides of the room while they waited for their bikes to be safety checked and test rode. D– waxed lyrical about the perfection of his ninja bike, and how he owes his impeccable style to consulting with ladies instead of men. Tristan was trying to replace his grips, and figuring out how to get the old ones off the handlebars. B– was now applying a fourth patch to his tube, after identifying a fourth hole after the third patch. Everything was running smoothly so I took R–‘s Huffy coaster out for a test ride. I was shown the elevator and took the bike upstairs, past the woman at the front desk who asked if I was there for the NA meeting when I arrived, and outside to see how this bike held up out of the stand. A crowd had gathered around the entrance to the building. Someone had their phone hooked up to a boom box and was blasting music. I turned right on Couch and realized it was 9pm on a Friday, and all of this was happening out here, lines for the clubs, suburbanites finding parking, the sidewalks full of excitement. I crossed third and fourth, alternately accelerating and pushing back on the pedals to brake like I did on my first bike. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.

I realized I would enjoy riding this bike around, and came back. “We got another bike,” Matthew called out to cheers. I test ride more and more as the party developed outside. At the same time B– found a fifth hole to patch. A despair that would have cracked someone else an hour earlier began to settle on B–. It was now 9, when the session is supposed to end. Half of the folks had left with their bikes, a month of commitment fulfilled.

B– had mentioned “The Bike Gods,” previously, in what seemed like jest. But hanging over a pile of scrapped frames, on the opposite end of the room from the rest of the tubes, was a single tube. At the peak of frustration B– noticed it. 27 x 1.25″ with a schrader valve. It held air. It even had a dust cap on it. Maybe the Bike Gods do exist, or at least the bike bunny. But why did it have to happen this way, with so much agony before the ease of what needed to be done could occur? Part of me thought, well, that’s how you learn something, somebody convinces you of the necessity of doing something five times in a row. B– can definitely patch a tube now, and he will always be able to recall the night he learned. But that kind of lesson has to sink in.

I instead asked what he plans to do with his new bike. He tells me he’s going to ride every morning, crisscrossing the bridges. There’s an AA meeting he likes on the east side. He chose his pedals so he could ride barefoot in the summer. I told him where I worked so he could stop by whenever he wanted to. He hasn’t been on the new bridge, Tilikum Crossing, yet, and he hopes to ride over at soon as possible.