We live in a strange time technologically. If you really think about it- part of the reason we ride mountain bikes stems from a tiny little rebellion from the ever-advancing march of technology. After all, we are individuals choosing to power our machines with our own legs (a technique you may note that is not unlike how Fred Flintstone's car worked) in an era where a silent electric motor and rechargeable battery pack could be doing all the work for us. For less money in most cases.
Yet, while we refuse to give up on the simplicity of locomotion itself, we are pretty fond of packing as much high tech goodness as physically possible all around our pedals and cranks. Our suspension is often designed upon tech directly from the world of F1 or rally car racing. Our frames are built of materials that, until only a few years ago, were relegated to engineers at NASA. Our brakes could literally be used to stop an ATV. The means by which we get under way may not have changed much these past hundred and ninety-nine years but what we're setting into motion sure has. Side note: some of the earliest bikes had wooden tires. Strange that nobody has tried to bring that back.
Anyway, like with all things mechanical, there comes a tipping point where the technology advances faster than the human capacity (or willingness) to grasp the fundamentals of how it all works. If you're anything like me, and for the sake of your wallet, I certainly hope not, you spent your formidable years tinkering with bikes. I come from the era where bicycles basically fell into two camps: BMX and 10-speed road bikes. In either situation there was no suspension to futz with, no hydraulic lines to bleed, no wheel-size controversies on which to spend endless hours arguing about on forums.
You learned to perform maintenance on a need-to-know basis. In short- I need to know how to fix this thing if there's any hope of me getting home in time for dinner. Chains that came off sprockets, brake pads too worn to make contact with rims, handlebars that became loose in their mounts; you learned to find the correct tool and do a little experimentation lest push the bike back home. And often that happened anyway.
These days the potential for failures beyond the average neophyte's trail-side repair skill set certainly exist. I had a riding buddy who never bothered checking the mineral oil levels in the master cylinders of his hydraulic Hayes before a ride. Over time the rear had run down pretty low and the created a situation where the caliper wasn't retracting all the way. Pads were dragging just enough against the rotor to get things hot. Like really hot. He didn't realize there was a problem until leaning his bike over in the dewy morning grass resulted in an unmistakable hiss and plume of rising steam.
Of course the only solution, save carrying a bottle of oil with us on all rides, was to manually pry the caliper open with a flat blade screwdriver and stay off the rear brakes until the oil level could be topped off back at home base. Forget and grab a little rear resulted in having to get off and start the process over.
You'd think that because of the added complexity of our bikes, the only way to get things tuned up or repaired would be to take them to the shop. After all, this is a sad reality for the backyard automotive mechanic who must now contend with sensors, strict emission regulations, digital fuel mapping, on-board computers and so on. And this will only get worse as we transition into electric-powered vehicles, automated driving systems etc.
Yet I've observed that even though bikes are getting more and more complex, riders aren't shying away from tackling repairs and tuning up/ setting up their equipment. In fact, maybe even the opposite. It's never uncommon to encounter resourceful riders along the sides of the trail network I frequent changing out tubes, bolting on a spare derailleur hanger or tinkering with compression and rebound clickers until they feel right for the conditions.
This got me thinking about how we're keeping up to the technology and then it hit me that the ol information superhighway, the very one making it possible for you to read this column, is the game-changer. Obviously there was no internet when I was a kid. If you wanted to learn how to fix something, there were basically two schools of thought: You either tinkered with it yourself until you fixed it (or made matters worse) or you had someone show you how to do it. Sure there were libraries around then and books but who was really riding around with a bicycle repair manual when you'd snap a chain three miles from home?
These days you have Youtube tutorials that can break down the process of even the most intensive procedures into easy-to-follow manageable steps. There are countless sites devoted to mountain bike repair and maintenance. Nearly everyone carries an insanely fast wireless computer in the form of a smartphone in their pocket or pack. Truly there is no excuse for being in the dark when it comes to at least a rudimentary understanding of how the systems on our bikes function. This knowledge can be used even if not to repair a malfunction properly, but to rig something up on the fly in the grand tradition of MacGyver to limp the bike home.
I found myself in precisely such a situation a couple years back when I snapped a derailleur hanger miles from the trail-head. A small stick broken off flush in the original bolt hole was good enough to ride the bike back to the truck, so long as I didn't shift beyond 1-3, rather than have to carry it all that way. If I'd thought about it at the time, I probably should have taken out my own phone and documented the whole thing on video to put onto Youtube myself. I suppose the cycle of Youtube wisdom is a give and take after all and when it comes to knowledge like that, it's usually better to give than to receive.