The wind hitting my face. The tires rotating on the pavement. The force of my legs trudging up a hill. Those first few moments riding outside, after being stuck on a bike-trainer all winter, were unforgettable. The snow had finally melted in Wisconsin and temperatures were finally in double-digits again. My stress fracture had healed and I had gotten over a vitamin D deficiency, which partly contributed to the stress fracture.
But as my mileage gradually increased, rides lasting several hours at a time became the new normal. And that’s when the honey-moon phase of riding outside abruptly ended. Anxiety about getting a flat tire or the brakes going out dominated my every thought prior, during and after a long workout.
I craved the same confidence I had with running for cycling but had no idea where to start. I had more than two decades of experience with running under my belt and a coaching certificate hanging up on my wall. With cycling, I hardly knew the difference between a hybrid and road bike.
Then one day I stumbled across an article about a non-profit based out of Madison called “We Are All Mechanics,” an all women’s four-week program about basic bicycle maintenance. The program was founded in 2003 by two women in Madison, India Viola and Ali Dwyer, who saw a need for bicycle education in the community.
Because classes are a month long and are only taught by two teachers, getting a spot can be difficult. But you can sign-up for newsletters to be notified about upcoming classes. I started looking into this in March and successfully got in by April. Actually, my partner successfully got me in the the class by April as a birthday gift. And it’s definitely the gift that keeps on giving!
The Madison Charm
The classes took place within the repair area of Revolution Cycles, a unique and charming bike store located on the east side of Madison. As we sat in old movie theater chairs (all part of the charm!), two cats roamed the place and greeted each student. The shop is casual and has a hip vibe, which makes for a fun environment to learn in.
The two instructors also bring their own Madison charm to the mix. India, a scientist who also works part-time as a bicycle mechanic in Madison, is an avid year-round cyclist and can share an array of stories from her trans-America ride to leading the local “Mondays Around Monona.” Ali also brings a unique perspective to the class. A yoga instructor and accomplished cyclist, she can advise beyond the mechanics, including proper cycling form.
The duo make an excellent team coming from different backgrounds and are both engaging and patient with students.
Class One: An Overview of the Bicycle and Removal of Wheels
Right away, I was impressed with the small class size, which has a four-to-one student-teacher ratio. The small class size gives students the opportunity to ask the instructors as many questions as they want without feeling like a disruption.
India and Ali started out the first few minutes going through the basic anatomy of the bicycle. Then, we spent some time getting to know the various tools we’d be using throughout the course.
Each class came with a hands-on learning experience. This teaching method ensured that we’d actually apply the skills. During this particular class, the hands-on portion of the class involved taking the front and back bike tire on and off our bikes. While something like taking on and off a tire may seem so basic, it’s a critical step in knowing how to maintain and fix other parts of the bike. And this is where India and Ali really get this course right. Ensuring that students are confident with every step, no matter how big or small, is the key to ensuring confidence for the more technical aspects of taking care of your bike.
Class Two: How to Fix a Flat
Every cyclist should know how to fix a flat tire. You can take the precautions, like ensuring your tires are at the correct tire pressure or inspecting your tires every so often. But with tires, there’s just no guarantee you can avoid a flat. And it’s actually better if you just accept that and prepare for something that’s inevitable.
Viola and Dwyer went over all this verbally for a few moments, then we were each given tools to take out the tube of the tire ourselves. I was stunned how quickly this can be done. All this time I was terrified of having to come across a flat but turns out, it’s not that scary!
This class was perfectly timed, too. Because without knowing how to take off the front and back tires as we learned in class one, it’s that much more difficult to fix/change a flat tire.
Class Three: Brakes
Class three was my favorite of all the classes. We were given an overview of the brakes, how they work and how the wheels and brakes work together, and then we spent time on brake adjustment and maintenance.
The lessons we learned were simple, just unscrewing/screwing the barrel adjusters to add or remove tension on the brake cable, but extremely useful. We also spent time on brake pads, which gave me the confidence a week later to change my own brake pads.
The brakes have always fascinated me the most because it’s one of the key elements of the of the bike that keeps me the safest. And now that I’m more familiar brakes, I can properly take care of them and feel safer on the road.
Class Four: The Chains and Gears
Prior to class four, Ali invited students to the class 30 minutes early to talk about bike fit. As I mentioned earlier, Ali is a yoga teacher in Madison. She had several tips on how to properly position yourself to ensure the best possible fit. She also showed us a few stretches we could do in an effort to have better posture.
When class started, we dove right into our last lesson: chains and gears. We spent a few moments going over the different aspects of the chain and gears and how to keep them properly lubricated. Then we each got to clean/lubricate our own bikes ourselves.
Confidence by Default
While Ali and India acquire the same knowledge most bike mechanics would, it’s the way these two pass down their knowledge that sets them apart from everyone else–in a judgment-free zone.
The $160 registration fee is well worth the money. In just one month of applying the skills I’ve learned, I’ve adjusted my brakes, replaced the brake pads, and cleaned the bike and lubricated the chains and gears. I even purchased a fixie at a garage sale to give me an incentive to take my knowledge to the next level. And in general, I now ride with more confidence. I’m not only prepared for something that may go wrong on a ride, but most importantly, I proactively prevent things from going wrong on a ride. The $160 is a long-term investment. Just like a car, by performing routine maintenance, you’ll ensure that bike has a longer and healthier life!
For more information about We Are All Mechanics, check out their website.