What my bike is teaching me about learning

For the past 15 years, I’ve been a bike commuter, and I try to ride to work at least a couple days a week.

I love riding my bike. I also like to tinker, but for whatever reason I haven’t spent a lot of time over the years tinkering with my bike. The city I live in is cycle crazy, and there are just as many bike repair places in town as there are coffee shops, so it has been quicker and more convenient to just let the experts deal with it. But in the past year with a longer commute, I have found that I spend more money each year on bike maintenance. So, a few weeks ago when I noticed that my rear cassette and chain were starting to slip and grind, I thought I would try to save a few bucks, teach myself a new skill, and learn how to replace the drive train.

I started doing a bit of research on the web last weekend. I found a few decent videos and websites that explained the process and tools I would need. Late Saturday, I went down to the local bike shop, bought a couple of new tools, a new rear cassette and chain.

Sunday morning, I got down to work.

It started off well, and I had the old chain broke and old cassette off in about 20 minutes. It was then I noticed I had a broken spoke. I’ve never replaced a spoke (but have many times paid $15 bucks at the bike shop to have it done – owch), and figured that since things were going well, I might as well give that a go. So, after watching a few more videos and figuring out how to true a wheel without getting into expensive gear, I went back to the bike store to buy some spokes and a spoke wrench.

“What size do you need?” asked the bike store mechanic. Uh, they come in different sizes?

Back home to get the wheel, and back down to the bike shop.

With spokes in hand, I decided to tackle the spokes first and get the wheel built before getting to the new drivetrain. Turns out, I had 3 spokes that needed replacing, and spent the better part of that Sunday getting the tire trued up.

Last Sunday night, I tackled the drive train. The new cassette went on and I threaded the new chain through the gears. I thought it went well, but when I started rotating the pedals, I heard a chunk-chunk-chunk clicking sound coming from the rear derailleur. I had threaded the chain incorrectly. So I had to break the chain, rethread it and try again.

Second time through it seemed to work. No clicking. Until I geared down to the lowest gear possible and saw that the chain was sagging. There was no tension.

Huh? I did everything that the videos told me to?

It was then that I compared the old cassette with the new and saw that the gears on the new cassette were half the size of the old one. Turns out there is more than one kind of 8 speed gear-set with different gear ratios.

So, off comes the new cassette, back into the box it goes. I spent last week without my bike.

This Saturday, I bring the cassette back to the store. I also bring the old cassette with me so I get the correct size this time. I speak directly to the in store mechanic, feeling sheepish I didn’t speak to him in the first place. He hands me a new cassette (which actually cost $15 less then the original one I bought), and gives me one of those Mike Holmes-ish smiles that says (in a very kind and empathetic way), “I’ll see you next week when you bring me your bike to clean up your mess.”

I get home, put the new cassette on and…

As my chain sags I am reminded...

As I sit here looking at my sagging chain once again, I am reminded that learning new stuff is not easy. It means making mistakes and enduring moments of frustration as you struggle to figure out what went wrong. It means recognizing that you are blind to what you do not know.

It also highlights the siren song of the availability of abundant resources. Right now, I am crashing on the rocks. Nowhere in the resources I looked at did anyone speak about correct gear ratios, or the fact that cassettes can come with different gear configurations.

I am learning this the hard way. But I am learning. I am not beaten yet. I still have some tricks up my sleeve, including going to the network, which I haven’t done yet, but will soon because I know at least 4 people in my network who are avid commuters and can help me figure out what I am doing wrong.

My drive train is my bow drill. And I will figure this out.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out https://edtechfactotum.com/.


2 thoughts on “What my bike is teaching me about learning

  1. Love the youtube video "please…tell..me…how…to…do…it" – no shame, just an honest desire to learn, and sure enough, instead of the regular vitriol in a youtube comment thread, lots of really helpful feedback. Definitely a keeper.

    Oh, and on your bike chain – no idea! Good luck 😉

    1. Yeah, that video is a wonderful example of networked learning. I think you might have introduced me to that one, although I've seen it pop up a few times in Alec's presentations. My bike is looking better. Sure enough my network came through and pointed me in the right direction. Turns out, new chains always come 3-4 inches longer than needed and you need to shorten it. I was afraid to do that, but after hearing that from some people in my network that this is how it is done, I'm on my way to having a ride-able bike again.

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