You may remember shortly before Christmas I went to the Volunteers’ Night at The Bristol Bike Project and had a massive disaster with an uncooperative Raleigh.
I’m ashamed to say that until last night, I hadn’t actually been back, through fear of having another stressful evening and walking away whilst fighting back the tears. Volunteers’ Night is supposed to be fun – a space to go and tinker with bikes, share skills, and give something back to the community. I’d completely forgotten that, and despite committing to going yesterday, I almost chickened out.
Thankfully my conscience stepped in. The moment I said I wouldn’t go, I instantly felt guilty. I should go, I hadn’t volunteered for three weeks. I know I’m a really flaky person and I have an awful tendency to cancel plans and chicken out of things in favour of a night in my PJs playing my PS4. I’m a hermit at heart, but I also care deeply about giving my time to local community projects to help make the world a little nicer for those who need it.
So I went. I teamed up with my pal Erin who is more experienced with bikes than me, but not by too much. It’s a good dynamic; she knows a bit more than me but also gets stuck sometimes and we work together to try to figure things out. It’s a great way for me to learn from someone without feeling like I’m being taught.
Despite it only being three weeks since I’d been, I immediately felt lost when we started. It’s amazing how quickly everything I think I know can fly out the window. A guy asked me where a tool was – a tool I’ve used many times – and I couldn’t tell him. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to sort out a pair of V-Brakes – a task that should be quick.
Thankfully I wasn’t the only one. Erin hadn’t been for a while either, and we both muddled through, making silly mistakes and laughing at ourselves.
Lesson Learned: Don’t believe everything you read
I arrived early and had my pick of the bikes to work on, and I chose to work on one that had already been started. I figured it would be a good way to get a bike finished – something I’ve not done before. According to the paperwork, the previous two volunteers had made their way through half the checklist, checking the frame and seat post, servicing the wheels and bottom bracket, and checking the brake arms were made of metal.
Trusting that they knew what they were doing, Erin and I embarked on the first task for the night: adjusting the brakes. Nice and simple, it shouldn’t have taken us long. Unfortunately we were landed with a couple of really crappy pairs of calipers, which meant we spent significantly longer trying to figure out why they were so spongey, why the lever was reaching all the way to the handlebar despite braking much sooner, why one arm just wouldn’t spring back, no matter how much tightening and loosening we did.
Perhaps we should have figured it out sooner, but as I said, we were both feeling a bit rusty last night. We spent a while trying to figure out why the rear wheel was off-centre, attempting to realign it in the dropouts. I took the arms off, looked at the springs, put them back on again. Then took them off again, greased them, put them on again. Took them off again, realigned the pivots, put them on one final time.
About an hour and two brake cables later, they were sorted, and in theory we were ready to continue down the list. That’s when one of the coordinators pointed out that the wheel hubs had a lot of play, as did the bottom bracket.
We hadn’t bothered to check these things because we’d assumed that the tick in the box meant they were good to go. Of course, that was wrong. All the volunteers come from various walks of life, with a diverse range of experience with bikes. There are many noobs like myself who go along to learn, and perhaps many of them are also averse to asking for help in favour of figuring out a solution themselves – just like me.
So, we started working backwards on the list. I re-serviced the hubs, tightening them properly (a skill that took me a long time to master, and thankfully didn’t go away), while Erin cracked on with the bottom bracket, only to find out that the one they’d fitted was too short for the frame.
Long story short, we never made it any further down the checklist than the brakes, and we didn’t sign off the bike. What I’d figured would be a quick job and a bike ready for a new owner, turned out to be a learning curve for both of us.
We learned many lessons last night:
- Don’t assume that everyone knows what they’re doing, even though that seems mean.
- Give everything a quick check before moving down the list.
- Ideally, start a bike from scratch.
- Don’t expect to sign it off.
- It’s better to start a bike well, and leave it for someone else to finish, than to try to finish a bike that’s been started badly.
The other lesson we both learned was probably the most important one of all: when you don’t volunteer for several weeks, you forget things. Therefore, get your bum down there every week!