We were busy that rainy afternoon, all business actually, trying to work on a friend’s bike – his first road bike – with a wall of noise around us. And there were about 6-7 guys.. I am not sure. This was a long time ago in the early 90’s. The owner of the pieces that would become the bici just wouldn’t shut up. He had purchased a DeBernardi steel frame and fork, very nicely lugged with Columbus pipes, but he was nervous that we would screw up the build. Or that I would screw up the build, seeing that I was the only one with half-capable mechanical skills that would actually put the rig together. From the group sitting there, trying to hack it without a proper stand, the whole ensemble looked like that Rembrandt painting where medical students huddle over an open cadaver, including the bad lighting and low tech tools. So he kept intruding, literally sticking his hand in the process, distracting me with the harried demands of a nervous new bike owner. The other guys piled on: two of them didn’t even enjoy the sport, one was a triathlete and the others added so many extra hands that if you turned the sound off, the excessive gesticulating looked like a heated soccer argument in sign-language. It eventually took a while to assemble the bike, especially because Hélio (the owner) had particular, almost capricious requests. He wanted it to work like bzzzz. Bzzzz? What does that mean? That’d be the noise, or lack thereof, that results when the chain moves through the chain rings, zigzagging around the pulleys and coming on the other side. In sum: it had to sound smooth, efficient, purposeful and, well, quiet.
Back in the day, as in 20 years ago, stuff was simpler. Nostalgia doesn’t apply here as I do prefer modern machines. Have you ever tried to maintain a Campy Delta set of calipers? Well, good luck, never mind finding a 3.5mm Allen wrench to work with. But to their credit, parts back then were actually mostly fuss-free: a 7 or 8 speed Regina freewheel that was screwed to a threaded rear hub; derailleurs and gear controls were very straightforward in that as long as the chain wasn’t skipping, it was as good as it was gonna get. There was no index shifting (there was but it sucked), the levers were screwed to the down tube and the chain was thick. If you were cutting edge you’d sport a set of Simplex Retro Friction levers, those that are smooth when you shifted to lighter gears, but offered resistance when throwing the chain down the sprockets. Charly Mottet and Marc Madiot had them on their bikes back in the RMO days, so they had extra cool points (man I’m old). You could potentially mix parts and the setup wouldn’t complain, except due to neglect. And I carried that standard of sonic efficiency through my years as a competitive Joe Racer and amateur mechanic, making sure that every single technical development had to be SHUSH in order to pass muster.
Naturally, the more time I spent with the bike, the better I got as a mechanic and rider. And that resulted in a synergistic sense that was sharpened through years of close relationship. The feedback became more organic, some sounds are prefaced by ticks or clicks that translate to “there’s something off going on here”. A well-trained ear can potentially discern several micro irregularities in a similar way an Eskimo can detect multiple shades of ice (or at least I suppose they could). The point is, as we add more gears, goodies, parts, electronic doo-dads, one can get detached from the experience, neglecting the dynamic altogether. How many times have you been on a ride and some hapless roadie shows up on a filthy rig that is so noisy you wonder if he/she has imprisoned a small animal inside the bottom bracket? “Hey, there’s a bird inside your rear hub or something”. We all have that friend, right? Recently at a training race I had an issue with a piece of leaf that somehow wrapped around a spoke on the front wheel. I felt something wrong but couldn’t really hear it because a thick, horse-sized junior nearby was torturing his bike with each pedal stroke. His bicycle was protesting loudly and for a moment the distraction was welcome. Which is my point here: for most pros (and some elite-level amateurs) the bike becomes a commodity, going fast requires a lot of work, so cancelling out unwelcome static becomes a priority. That can be a good skill when you’re changing diapers while the wife is asking questions from another room and the cat is screaming because it hasn’t been fed yet. But for those of us who didn’t get to be pros (or elite racers), we have to resort to paying attention, good wrenching abilities and developing extra spider-senses.
My buddy, Hélio, although he has always been an awful mechanic, knew to appreciate a well-running bici. You may want to ignore your boss, the neighbor’s dog or the nagging partner, that’s all fine and sometimes necessary. But please promise me you’ll always listen to your bike.