Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Free Spirit

"I found a bike! Free! Can you look it over for me?"
Hoo boy. Now I'm worried. Generally, those "set by the curb" finds are a get-what-you-pay-for proposition. Nobody throws out a vintage Paramount, at least not in my neighborhood. But it's my obligation as "office bike guy" to encourage other people to ride... no matter what they happen to ride. So there it hangs, one 70s-vintage Sears Free Spirit. Do I detect a sneer from my workstand, as if it's trying to hold this abomination further away than usual? I start the old checklist, a throwback to my pre-corporate days as a shop wrench. Bottom bracket: Loose. Headset: Loose. Hubs: Loose. Derailleurs: Spanning six of ten speeds at best. Brakes: Laughable. Rims: See Brakes. This is not going to be fun.

Any shop mechanic will tell you, when you tune up a Free Spirit (or Huffy, or Magna, or any other bicycle-shaped object), you're a paramedic, not a plastic surgeon. Stop the major bleeding as fast as possible, and don't worry about making it pretty. So I reach for the appropriate tool: Crescent wrench, large. That knocks out the headset, and with the help of its pal Screwdriver, large (for precise bearing adjustments), the bottom bracket goes next. For hubs, I choose Crescent wrench, small. Just like that, all bearings are turning as smoothly as can possibly be expected.

The derailleurs are a head-scratcher. Nothing looks wrong with them, yet they refuse to complete the most basic of tasks. I tick through the usual limit screw and cable tension adjustments on rote memory, and for no apparent reason, they start to behave. Ten gears, all accessible with surprising smoothness from the stem-mounted retrofriction shifters. Almost like I knew what I was doing.

At this point, it stops looking like a bicycle-shaped object and more like a bicycle in my mind's eye. Would I add it to my collection? No. But it's a bike, and a bike is a good thing. I'm a little more tender as I try (in vain) to bring the steel rims and galvanized spokes back to some semblance of trueness and roundness. The centerpull brakes howl like angry cats no matter what I do, but they'll stop forward progress. By the time I've swapped the torturous original saddle for something more tolerable and carefully applied fresh handlebar tape, I'm a little attached to this old roller. And by the time I give it a spin down the driveway and back, I almost like it.

My coworker-pal paid for the parts and covered the labor with a good six-pack of beer. And while I'm certainly not one to turn down a good six-pack of beer, I confess, I would have done it just because.