The dust on the Roadmaster bicycle I’d been keeping in the backyard toolshed was nearly as thick as what had been on the Jeep brand mountain bike I’d pulled out of the same place a few weeks ago.
I walked the flabby, tired road bike to the side of my house, flipped the kickstand out onto the cement slab and started looking at the rear brakes.
When I’d been given this bike a few years ago, I’d been told the bike needed brake work. The previous owner had tried to fix the brakes but had failed. She told me she’d messed them up and that I’d maybe want to hire someone to fix them.
I wanted to see if I could do it instead.
Brandon Kline at Elk City Cycles in Charleston, where I’d been spending some time this month learning about bicycles, let me spend a couple of hours assembling a bicycle and adjusting its brakes.
To be sure, he checked everything I touched — many times.
When I made mistakes, he had me go back and fix it or else he made it right. Brandon encouraged me, but he didn’t turn me loose with tools and let me wreck an expensive mountain bike.
What I learned to do was how to tighten the brake cable to make the hand lever more responsive and how to set the brake pads properly.
“You want the pads to come down on the rim of the wheel together evenly,” Brandon told me. “You don’t want them rubbing up against the tire. You’ll wear a hole in the rubber and ruin the tire.”
I couldn’t set the pads as quickly as Brandon could. He has 20 years of practice, but if I took my time, I could get the job done — probably.
It seemed like I’d picked up enough knowledge to maybe fix the brakes on this very basic road bike.
I had high hopes for the Roadmaster. A few days before, I’d finally taken the Jeep mountain bike out to Coonskin Park, not the Elk River Trail. It still didn’t feel like the right bike to take on an actual trail, but I wanted a safe place where I could practice riding and get used to the bike.
In my hands, the bike seemed lighter than I remembered. Getting secured on the bicycle rack was easy, but pedaling it on the road could be a chore, and anything more difficult than a modest incline turned into a chore fast.
While I rode, I switched from gear to gear, trying to find some sweet spot, some happy medium where it felt more like the mountain bike I’d borrowed from Arrowhead Bike Farm in Fayetteville, but no, the Jeep bike refused to be agile and easy.
It handled like an old shopping cart full of bowling balls.
I hoped the Roadmaster would be a good replacement.
Following the little bit of knowledge and experience I’d picked up from Brandon, I tinkered with the brakes. I moved the brake pads into position, tightened the cable, adjusted and then gave the brake lever a squeeze.
The brake calipers closed around the tire.
And stayed there.
I loosened the calipers by hand and then adjusted some more. I squeezed the lever again. The calipers closed, but only one side released.
I fiddled with the brakes for half an hour before I came to the conclusion that something was broken and I’d have to replace the entire rear brake. The parts would cost me $20, but I wasn’t sure if I could pull that off on my own if I wanted to even try.
The Roadmaster wasn’t exactly the top brand on the market. It seemed like an OK entry-level bicycle for people (like me) just getting into riding. I could take the bike in for repairs, but the repairs could run as much as what a new, cheap bike would cost.
I needed to think about what to do.
Meanwhile, I went back to Elk City Cycles to see what I could learn and ask about used bicycles.
With sunshine and moderate temperatures, the shop was booming in the middle of the afternoon on a workday. Brandon and Chris Huckaby had a couple of bikes on racks to repair, but Brandon said they’d barely made any progress.
Business was booming.
“It’s not a bad problem to have,” he said.
Though, it was a little aggravating. Brandon said he hated leaving things undone. The sooner he could clear the repair work, the better he’d feel.
They’d sold a couple of bikes, a bike helmet or two, parts and a few people came in to just look around and ask questions. Bikes were in demand, though Brandon was a little frustrated with some of his bike manufacturers.
“Getting new bikes is slow,” he said. “They’re all backed up on orders.”
I asked Chris and Brandon if the stimulus money was bringing people into his shop. Brandon thought the extra cash might be nudging a few people to spend a little more money, but nothing crazy.
“Say, you want a new bike, but were only planning on spending $500,” he said. “If you had an extra $1,400, you might go ahead and consider the $800 model because you had the extra money.”
Brandon said stimulus money and tax returns might be increasing traffic a little, but it was also just the beginning of cycling season. The weather had turned nice and people would be on bikes until everything went grey and cold in October or November.
Bicycle shops stay steady to busy about 10 months out of the year, he explained.
“It gets rough in winter, so you put a little ahead to get through January and February,” Brandon said.
While Brandon helped a customer install a bicycle rack on his car, I asked Chris about stolen bikes. I was interested in maybe finding a good used bicycle, something better than what I currently had, but was value priced for a newspaper writer with a mortgage.
I had high hopes of taking a bike with me for a road trip this summer, but had zero interest in buying a stolen bicycle.
Brandon told me he’d sell used bikes from time to time, but only from people he knew and trusted. These were higher end bicycles he could trace back to an owner, but there were plenty of stolen bikes floating around.
Chris told me thieves were usually easy to spot.
“If a guy comes in on a $50 Walmart bike and he wants to sell you a $2,000 bike frame, you have to know something is up,” Chris said.
Thieves would sometimes scratch off serial numbers found on the underside of the bike, near the pedals.
“Or they’ll just paint over it,” Brandon told me.
While Chris packed a bicycle for a customer to ship across the country, I explained what had happened with my Roadmaster and with the Jeep bicycle. I wasn’t sure if the Roadmaster was worth saving and I wasn’t happy with the Jeep, which frustrated me and rode like a tank.
“Huh,” he said. “I’ve seen a few Jeep bicycles.”
“You mean people actually ride them?” I asked.
Chris shrugged and said, “Sure.”
He didn’t seem to think they were that bad, maybe not the best bicycle you could buy, but certainly workable.
I sighed and wondered if maybe I was just not using it correctly or if I just wasn’t in very good shape. I guess I wasn’t done with either bicycle. Maybe this project with bicycles was really only beginning to roll.