Thinking mechanically

Lessons are there for the learning in bicycle repair

It was not that long ago when ordinary people, men mostly, could assess the mechanical health of their vehicles as they motored down the road. Their senses, a few dashboard gauges and experience were enough. "Check engine" lights? They didn't need them.

The term shade-tree mechanic actually meant something. You could pick up mechanical understanding along the way, as this reporter did, and stop under a roadside tree to adjust the clutch or replace a gasket. With this skill came joy: the parts of your vehicle were once again collaborating thanks to your own understanding and efforts. You didn't design the machine, but you did get it back on the road.

While such experiences are not available with today's digitally enabled cars and trucks, they are available -- on bicycles. The necessary skills can be acquired at Woodside High School and at Redwood High School (in Redwood City) through the Bike Shed program, run by Woodside resident and cross-country cyclist Oliver Bock.

"It's a real feeling of pride when you're riding on the road," says Redwood High student Joseph Jacobo, 18 and an acolyte of Mr. Bock's. "If I hear a noise, I'm able to get off and immediately service it on the road. It's awesome. It's a feeling of independence. ... You can get from A to B, knowing you'll be able to fix it."

"This kind of education doesn't exist anymore," says Mr. Bock. It's needed for kids who find it hard to engage with a reading assignment, but not hard at all when working with their hands, he says.

Mr. Jacobo says he's learned to completely rebuild his bike. "I've touched every moving part," he says. "I've learned enough that I can actually teach the kids with Oliver."

"He loves to get in there," Mr. Bock says of Mr. Jacobo. "He's really enthusiastic and helpful."

The Bike Shed program is an on-campus bike shop and bike repair for students and faculty. At Woodside High, teachers drop off bikes at a rate of about one a week, Mr. Bock says. There's a charge, but only for parts.

Mr. Bock, who is 60, says he has been a house husband and has worked in orthopedic bracing. He learned bike mechanics informally. In 2010, he piloted an electric bike from Woodside to Washington, D.C., with his sister Catherine on her own electric bike.

Outside the shed at Woodside High, Christian Medina, 17, is working on a teacher's bike. "She's having derailleur problems on a significant level," he says. Asked for his take-away on the class, he says: "Experience, lots of experience. On the first day, I didn't know what I was doing. The second day, I had the whole gear system down. ... I learned from a good teacher. Oliver is a good teacher."

Woodside student Carlos Maciel: "I like using my hands, building things and giving them to other people." He built himself a single-speed black cruiser bike with coaster brakes. "He's a little bit of a higher skill level," Mr. Bock says.

Woodside's program, which evolved from a bike riding club, has become an institution and a community resource, says Marin Aldrich, a social studies and water resources teacher in Woodside's Green Academy, from which Bike Shed students are chosen. The program also aims to make cycling inviting in getting to and from school.

In 2014, Bike Shed received a $38,000 federal grant from the Safe Routes To School program and opened a branch at Redwood High. The grant money buys parts such as bike chains and cable housings, Mr. Bock says. Parents help with donations and the Redwood City Police Department provides used bikes that would otherwise be auctioned off. "That's the part that's fun, the re-using," Mr. Bock says.

Woodside students without bikes can usually get one from the Bike Shed, Ms. Aldrich says, adding that students who don't bike to school often have simple reasons: a flat tire, a mechanical problem, a parent who sees cycling as dangerous and who is unaware of the Safe Routes program.

The emphasis at the Green Academy is on removing barriers to alternative forms of transportation, she says. When she talks about urban planning in her classes, students are encouraged to re-envision cities built around such alternatives.

One true wheel

When a bike is properly set up, it runs like clockwork. But how to get there? A certain focus is needed.

Take wheel truing. Spin a bicycle wheel on its axle and the rim should maintain a constant distance, say a quarter-inch, from the brake calipers as it goes around. If it does, it's not an accident.

A typical wheel has 28 to 36 spokes radiating from the hub to either side of a somewhat flexible rim. It's an even number because spokes work in pairs. It's the mechanic's job to find the balance in tightening a pair of spokes to achieve the correct distance from the caliper for that small portion of the rim, then use that technique right around the wheel.

"It's a little bit of a dance," Mr. Bock says. "You kind of just mess around with it. ... The more I do it, the better I get at it."

Truing lessons have the benefit of immediate feedback, he says. You see the wobble, you work the spokes until it goes away. He recalls one student who fell hard for wheel truing. "He loved it," Mr. Bock says. "If you met him, he's more of an artist, not a super mechanic."

"It's an art form," Mr. Jacobo says. "If you get a get a feel for it, you can do it pretty easily."

"I'm not too good at it," says Jose Nunez, 16, of Woodside High. "You have to know what to do. It takes a lot of patience. A lot."

Jose also works at GoRide Bicycles in Redwood City, where he used to hang out as a volunteer. The Bike Shed has taught him to work with what tools he has, he says, adding: "It helps me get out of my comfort zone."

Woodside High Principal Diane Burbank accompanied the Almanac to the campus Bike Shed. Students learn something that's difficult, she says, then hear themselves saying, "I can do that," and that learning experience is available for the next challenge. "Competence leads to confidence, and it's transferable," she says.

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