Janet Jackson & The Art Of Bicycle Maintenance

I dropped the camper van rental off at its Hawthorne home yesterday morning, settled the bill and boarded my bike for the nine miles or so from Rosecrans and Crenshaw to work in Westchester. Eight-tenths of a mile later, making the turn to go north on Prairie up to Manchester came the telltale sound of a front wheel spoke breaking: SKROIK!

As an always-be-prepared veteran of previous spoke failures, I thought, “no big” as I eyeballed the rolling wheel to see it wasn’t too warped to be rubbing the brake pads. And I continued riding carefully to work where I would change the spoke out afterwards with the spares I carry… or rather, usually carry. See, I’d taken them out of my pack Wednesday while packing for our Death Valley trip, and in my mind I could picture prefectly where they were, which was sitting in my pen cup on my desk and doing not a whole lotta good to me there.

So I went to work hoping there might be a bike shop along the way up Prairie to Manchester to Sepulveda, but there wasn’t. Lots of laundromats and liquor stores, though. And I worked late and I got pedaling home and didn’t get there until a little after 10 p.m., rolling tenderly and slowly so as to not risk bending the wheel further or maybe breaking another spoke.

And by then I was too tired to perform the repair. But I did it this morning and it went surprisingly well and quickly, in part because during the course of the replacement I discovered a trick that far more astute and experienced DIY cyclists have known about since forever, but for me it was the first time figuring it out and it saved me a couple minutes, which I spent high-fiving myself. I even did a little dance, the moves of which I will spare describing, other than to say it did involve a Paula Abdul-patented “Miss Jackson If You’re Nasty” shoulder roll out. And back. And out. And back.

Don’t judge, focus! Going all the way around the inside of most bike wheels is either a rubber liner or adhesive rim tape. This membrane may not seem important but it most certainly is, providing an effective little protective barrier between the tender inside of the highly pressurized innertube and either the base of the little screws — called nipples — that the spokes screw into or the spoke holes those screws sit in — and yes you won’t be surprised to learn that I carry a spare roll of rim tape wherever I ride.

Now, what I usually do is peel off the tape if not fully from the wheel than at least to the broken spoke in question. Then I’ll pull the spoke and it’s little screw out. Depending on how much of the adhesive is lost, the tape then may or may not be reusable.

But what I did so geniusly different this time was leave the tape the hell alone and just unscrew the broken spoke from the nipple, leaving it poking out the the hole in the rim. Then I threaded the spoke through its place in the wheel’s hub, appropriately maneuvered it over and under the neighboring spokes it crossed and screwed it into that nipple.

Applying my at-the-ready spoke wrench I tensioned the spoke tighter and then placed the rim on the upended bike’s front fork to serve as a makeshift truing stand only to find the wheel was damn well pretty much hell-yeah straight.

Then I did that little dance.

Then I took the rim off and put the tube and tire back on it, put that back on the fork, pumped up the tire, and spun the wheel checking it for straightness and finding it still true. Turning the bike upright I got on with my morning routine.

Then what I didn’t do was tighten the axle nuts down against the fork. Fortunately and thankfully I realized this not after the front wheel separated from the bike after hitting a bump at 18 mph somewhere on my way to work, but rather about a block out from home when on my way down a hill at about 25 mph I looked down and found much to my surprise (as you can certainly imagine) that one of the nuts was about a thread or two away from rotating off the axle.

I’ll tell ya. For my ability to have momentary gains of minor genius, I can sure go backward with the dumb.

Stopping and promptly dismounting I fished my 15mm wrench out of my pack and tightened both nuts as necessitated by my intense desire not to have my front wheel fall off of my bike while in motion. I think it’s called survival instinct.

And yes, no dancing ensued. Just some raised eyebrows and a sigh or two of relief.

Then I got on my way.

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with laonstage.com, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."