Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Bike Book Review

I did take pictures of my bike, as promised, but they turned out horribly. It was such crappy weather last weekend that I couldn't get out on the bike, and pictures in a basement storage room make for quite an inferior end product. So the next sunny-not-freezing day (which will hopefully be Saturday, if the weatherpeoples are right for once), I will take the bike out into a more flattering mise en scène and try again, then tell you all about it.

In the meantime, I have been huddled at home, wishing for more bike-friendly weather and reading up on bike maintenance. Or trying to. Which bring me to a wee book review I want to do, so you may want to tune out on this entry unless you are in the market for a book on bicycle maintenance or else just generally a book dork like myself.

The book in question is Bike Repair & Maintenance For Dummies and I consider it pretty much a total waste of money. Um, to be blunt. In fact, I am retroactively embarrassed by how many times I, as a bookstore employee many many many moons ago, frequently recommended the For Dummies series to customers - because what if they were all as unhelpful as this one? I shudder to think of how many innocent ignorants I sent astray.

Here are my major beefs with the book:

Like almost everything I encounter in the bike world, it's just not "dummy" enough. The book starts out saying that the only assumptions from which the authors are working are that the reader has a bike and would like to do some basic repair and maintenance on said bike despite not really knowing all the terms and tools. See, they say that, but really it feels more like they expect you to know or at least catch on to some shorthand pretty fast.

For instance, they (the authors - there are two of em) will refer to bike parts that I swear are never defined. Like this infamous "bottom bracket". I kept seeing them talking about the bottom bracket, and wondered what exactly that meant - the derailleur and the chain and the crank and pedals? Or maybe the bottom part of the frame where all those things are? Or does it refer to a specific set of things down in the general vicinity of the chain? So I flipped to the handy diagrams of bikes at the front of the book. There are two diagrams: one of a road bike and one of a mountain bike. I examined these at length and there is nothing indicated as the bottom bracket. I looked in the index and it said "bottom bracket: (see also crankset)". Oh, I thought - so are they the same thing? Let's turn to page 223 and see.

No, I have to infer that the bottom bracket and the crankset are not exactly the same thing, but the whole section cheerfully goes on to talk about the bottom bracket at length, without ever saying exactly what it is. It's really important, though, the bottom bracket. They manage to get that point across. So gee - thanks.

That's just one example, though admittedly the most frustrating. It was seriously like having a discussion with a gardener who constantly tells you how important photosynthesis is, and describes the pretty green leaves in detail but never freaking DEFINES photosynthesis. I'm just supposed to catch on that sunlight... leafiness... flowers... the end, figure it out yourself. Soooo frustrating.

Also symptomatic of the bike world as I have come to know it: If it's not road bike or mountain bike, it's like it barely exists except on some other planet. A planet where no one repairs their bike, apparently. There were only those two (incomplete, it turns out) bike diagrams, of the road bike and the mountain bike - and that would be fine, after all they can't diagram every kind of bike there is. But it's a consistent blind spot in the book. There's a little section on gears, and single-speed is never mentioned, nor three-speed. It's as though you'll either need 7-8 speeds, or more than that. And handlebars come in two main types: flat mountain bars or road bike drop bars. Never mind that the first bike that most of us ride as kids - and therefore the bikes that most of us "dummies" are sure to be familiar with - are the upright handlebars that are the most common ones around the world and are what a casual rider would likely have.

I mean, my bike has the flat bars, so it's fine for me. But to omit a third extremely common type of handlebars? Come on. It's just one more way that you're either a mountain biker, a road biker, or you're not reading this book. Cargo bikes, utility bikes, city commuter type bikes - those are all "fringe", you see, and only mentioned in passing, as a matter of courtesy. I suppose in a maintenance sense, bike parts are bike parts (seat, pedals, frame, wheels, etc), but it reveals a pervasive bias that conspired to make me feel rather left out unless I am one of those super-athletic cyclists in spandex. And frankly, it's a bias that is everywhere in the (U.S.) bike world and I'm bloody well sick of it.

Some basic stuff is left very vague in the book and you're referred to your local bike shop. Isn't the whole point of wanting to learn basic repair and maintenance that you maybe don't have a bike shop nearby? Or at least that you don't want to pop into the bike shop all the time? For really basic stuff, I'd want this book to replace my need for a local bike shop.

Don't get me wrong - so far, my local bike shop is pretty awesome and I don't want it to be replaced by a book! But one reason I default to thinking of bike repair as a DIY thing is because in the town where I grew up, there was no bike shop. At least not that I ever knew of. The little orange banana-seated wonder from Sears on which I tooled around for a few years in my long-gone youth was serviced entirely by my father and my brothers. They repaired flats and squirted grease in all the right places and adjusted seats and handlebars and put the chain back on when it fell off. I have always considered those to be things that any bike-rider should know how to do without the aid of a local bike shop.

Yet, a section that I eagerly flipped to was on quick-release wheels. My bike has them, front and back, and I figured something so basic and common would be laid out in helpful detail. And it kind of was - at least I understand how to theoretically get the wheel off and then back on. But then they mention a secondary retention system, which you should really learn how to manage if your bike has one (and it likely does, they say). Go to your local bike shop and have them explain it. Really? You can't give me even a sketchy outline? Grr.

A silly quibble, but here it is: this book should be pocket-sized, ideally. There's a whole helpful chapter on how to change a flat tire (at least it looks helpful, but I suppose there's no way to know until you use it when fixing a flat, right?) but when I get a flat tire, I will be out somewhere on the streets and this big bulky book will be gathering dust on a shelf in my home. It'd just be far easier to download videos of basic bike repairs to your phone or your ipod or whatever. I guess I'll probably do that.

So there you go. A really unhelpful book for dummies, I think. It might be a good bet for anyone looking to do some more advanced stuff - they go into how to set up your own bike workshop at home, and things like how to install derailleurs and stuff. So if you're already a bike "geek" (their word, not mine), then this may be a good buy. If that's the case, you can have my copy for the price of postage.

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