An older couple ambled into Elk City Cycles in the middle of the afternoon, just after the owner and my new mentor, Brandon Kline, had set me to assembling a bicycle.
Having me put together a bike seemed like a safe way to dig into a month of learning about cycling. This was how Brandon told me he got started, by assembling bikes, by methodically learning and understanding their parts.
Brandon said that’s about all he did for a couple of years, just put together bike after bike after bike — but there was more to it than what people thought.
“I had a friend who worked at one of the big box stores,” he explained. “They wanted him to get the bicycle out of the box and get it put together in about 15 minutes.”
These were cheap, mass-produced bicycles, possibly made in a place where getting boxes out the door was valued and “quality control” meant something like, “Oh, look, the supervisor is watching.”
This wasn’t a knock on foreign-made bicycles.
Brandon told me a lot of bicycles are made overseas, not just because of labor costs (and sometimes convenient disregard for environmental and safety concerns), but because the market for bicycles is much greater in Asia and Europe.
“And they make a lot of great bikes overseas,” Brandon said.
But in some of the big factory operations churning out thousands and thousands of bikes, errors weren’t just inevitable, they were probable. Brandon said the company his friend worked for didn’t really care. They just wanted the bikes assembled as quickly as possible and out on the floor to sell.
“If a bike had a problem with it, if it was damaged or anything, they told him to toss it in the dumpster. Don’t waste your time trying to fix it,” he said.
If Brandon got a bad bike, he called his supplier. If a customer brought in a high-end bike that had broken down in an unexpected and inexplicable way, he called the manufacturer.
A good bike store owner or manager didn’t just want the problem fixed. They wanted to know why it happened, in case they saw it again.
I didn’t know what to make of the older couple.
The sun was out, but it was a little chilly. They’d dressed in layers. Their clothes looked lived in and they carried an assortment of bags with them.
At best, I thought they might have been cooped up over the winter months and because of the pandemic. Maybe they’d taken advantage of the sunshine to go for a walk, spotted the new store on their way and stopped in to get out of the breeze for a minute.
They were stout and hearty looking, but I also thought they might be homeless. Either way, they seemed as out of place shopping in a store that sold $5,000 mountain bikes as me.
The older man admired the bikes, while his wife looked at the skateboards and the accessories.
“I need to get my bike worked on and back on the road,” he said, then laughed and added, “Of course, the only place I’d take it to would be down to the Dairy Queen in Montgomery and back.”
It was a mile or so from his house, he said.
I could relate. The Dairy Queen in Elkview is about four miles from my house, though I’d never try to get there on a bicycle. That sounds like a good way to get yourself killed.
Then as I stood there, fiddling with the bicycle, the man and Brandon began talking about older bicycles. The man explained how he’d gotten into some kind of trail or dirt road bike racing in Indiana almost 50 years ago.
“Every time I went out, it seemed like I broke a spoke,” he said.
“That got to be expensive fast,” the man explained. “It cost five dollars to replace a spoke — and that was five dollars in 1974.”
The old guy finally said enough was enough and asked the young woman working behind the counter what it would take for her to show him how to fix his own spokes.
“She said she’d show me, if I brought her a six-pack of beer,” the man laughed.
He got her the six-pack and never had to pay to fix a spoke again.
“The new bikes don’t have as many spokes on their wheels,” he said.
Brandon agreed and even said he thought that some of them had taken it too far. They chatted for a few more minutes and the older guy said he thought he might come back sometime. As he left, I looked at the bags in their hands. One of them was from Panera, where they’d probably eaten lunch.
I was a judgmental idiot. They’d come to Charleston to shop, had parked their car somewhere in Elk City and were just out enjoying the day.
After they left, Brandon looked at how I was progressing with the bike. I’d just added the handlebars to the stem.
He nodded, loosened the screws, and turned the handlebars around. I’d put them on backwards.
Gently, Brandon told me, “When I was assembling bikes, they used to tell me that whenever I got stuck with how something was supposed to go, if they were all busy, I should just go look out on the floor and find a similar bike. That would tell me how it should go.”
It wasn’t that big of a store. I could have just looked up and across the room, instead of gawking at the customers.
At home, I finally dug my own bike out of the storage shed in the backyard. It was coated in a thin layer of dust. A spider the size of a quarter dropped out of the bottom of the seat and then scurried across the back of my hand as I freed the bike from a tangle of plastic deer netting and last year’s tomato stakes.
Both tires had gone flat long ago, but I hosed the dirt off the frame, checked for any additional spiders and then found the bicycle rack I bought five years ago.
Probably, I should have done both of these things before I started this month. As always, hindsight is 20/20.
I cleaned the rack off, spent 10 minutes adjusting straps and trying to remember how to attach the hooks to the back of my car.
After a modest amount of swearing, I lifted the bike up. It wasn’t nearly as heavy as I remembered or maybe I’m just stronger now. I like to think I am.
For a buck-fifty, both tires were filled. I did so carefully, like Brandon showed me.
Recklessly inflating an inner tube could lead to the tire coming off the rim. Brandon could probably fix that at his shop, but I couldn’t fix that at my house.
At home again, I oiled the chain and the gears. I thought it was easier to get to the moving parts by keeping it up on the bike rack. And besides, I was excited to take the thing for a spin.
Brandon had suggested the Elk River Trail, but I thought I might try riding around at Coonskin Park, sort of pick up where I’d last been on a bicycle. But then I couldn’t figure out where I put my bike helmet.
I might have located that before I started this, too. Five years is a long time and I lose my car keys at least twice a week.
Getting back on the road or anywhere else would have to wait another day.