I'm nowhere near the mechanic that blj is -- my tenure was only six years, intermittently spread among four shops -- but I still feel that pang. I can dribble a wheel,too, and my favorite shop apron (a long denim one with Schwinn embroidery) still hangs in the garage near my Park stand, crusted with the same nostalgic stains and smells blj describes. Mine was sent to me as a gift (along with some other shop memorabilia, including the annoying disco CD we used to play all the time) by my boss after he decided to close the last shop where I'd worked, and when I pulled it from the box, I was overcome by the same sadness. I'd long since become a "grown up" with a "real job" (whatever those things mean), but I missed being a mechanic. And now, 12 years later, some part of me still does.
Still, I've moved on for the most part (only took 12 years!), so in the spirit of helping blj do the same, here's my Advice for Former Grease Monkeys:
- GET GOOD TOOLS: If you're still a cyclist (and good luck getting THAT monkey off your back), then you're still going to have bikes to fix, and you should stock your workshop right. You may think that a cheap pedal wrench is "good enough for a home shop" and that the heft of a real PW-3 is overkill that will only make you sad. Wrong. Having the right tool in your hand will put you in mechanic autopilot mode where the tool is just an extension of your hand, while having a flimsy piece of crap will only remind you that you aren't a "real" mechanic any more.
- THAT MEANS A WORKSTAND, TOO: This is a corollary to the previous point, but it's worth a stand-alone (no pun intended). If you've never known any better, you can get away with shelf brackets, hooks slung from the rafters, or any number of other mono-buttocked wrenching solutions. But if you've done time on a real stand with a real clamp, there's no going back. Maybe you don't need a stand on a 120-pound steel base, but find something that will give you that "shop experience" while you work.
- GIVE YOUR BIKES A BREAK: At some point, you will find yourself swapping shifters, brakes, cranks, bar tape, spoke nipples, and pretty much everything else on your own bike because a) you're bored, and b) you have the parts. Fight the urge. Your own bikes will eventually bore you. The fun of shop wrenching is the variety of things you get to work on. Endless mechanical onanism won't scratch that itch. When you find yourself saying, "I could equalize the wear on my pedal bearings if I rebuilt the left pedal with the balls from the right pedal and vice versa," put the wrenches down and go for a walk.
- BECOME THE NEIGHBORHOOD BIKE FIXER: This is how you scratch that "variety" itch. Get known among friends and neighbors as the person who can fix bikes. You'll have a great time, your friends will have happy bikes, everybody wins. I have a hard time convincing my friends that they don't have to pay me to work on their bikes -- I really, honestly, no-foolin' LOVE to do it. An evening in the garage, chatting with pals, getting greasy, perhaps consuming an adult beverage or two... what's better than that? If people insist on paying you back, bike-fixer-uppering is a great skill to barter. I can go through most of the Spring without paying for coffee or those adult beverages mentioned above thanks to preseason tune-ups.