Splendid Cycles

Gal by Bike: Dispatch from a bike maintenance class

Posted by on November 16th, 2016 at 2:20 pm

Tori Bortman holding court inside Western Bikeworks.
(Photos: Gabriel Amadeus)

This is the latest from our Gal By Bike columnist Kate Johnson (formerly Kate Laudermilk). See past articles here.

A few weeks ago, five determined gals, including myself, joined together at Western Bikeworks in northwest Portland to learn a thing or two about our beloved steeds. The general consensus between us was that we were all tired of needing someone else to do bike repairs for us.

We wanted to empower ourselves — and Tori Bortman was going to show us how.

Bortman is the frank, to the point, direct, and yet entirely approachable owner of Gracie’s Wrench, a business that helps people “get intimate” with their bicycle. She’s a real no nonsense gal. “If I can do this, anyone can. I am not mechanically inclined,” she assured us. I wasn’t at all surprised to find that she grew up in the Chicagoland area just like myself. We’re a unique and hearty bunch with can-do attitudes. The idea that becoming a master mechanic is within reach for anyone was very prominent in her workshop. Making mistakes was encouraged and celebrated and the needs of the those attending far outweighed any prior written syllabus.  

Soaking up the knowledge (I’m the one with the heart on my shirt).

While Bortman teaches a variety of workshops throughout the year for men, women, teens, children, and everyone in between, her series of workshops held at Western Bikeworks this fall were exclusively for women. Broken into three classes, she covered basic maintenance and flat repair, brake repair and replacement, and derailleur adjustment. Each class caps at five students to assure that enough time and attention could be given to each learner.

I attended the brake repair and replacement workshop where four of the five workshop attendees were daily bike commuters and one of the first things that we learned was that our bikes were absolutely, positively, filthy from our daily adventures. When Tori recommended that we get into the habit of cleaning our rims once a week we all collectively gasped. To put our shocked reactions into perspective she likened this process to flossing our teeth in saying “Ya just gotta do it!” That became a theme carried through the entirety of the workshop. If you want your bike to be a safe and lasting form of transportation, there are some things you’ve just gotta do!

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I naively walked into this workshop thinking that I knew a pretty good amount about my brakes. I’ve been riding my bike for thirteen years, commuting by bike for five years, and I know all sorts of mechanics. But, um, turns out I didn’t really know squat about my brakes. Nope. I was like a newborn babe taking in every ounce of information Tori had for me. It wasn’t the first time I had seen someone repair brakes, but it was the first time that someone looked at me and said “now you do it on your own.” I’ll be honest, I was really uncomfortable. I second-guessed every move I made. I am one of those learners that needs someone standing next to me giving me gold stars of approval every five seconds. With four other individuals, that wasn’t a luxury I was afforded, nor would it have been half as effective.

Tori would first do a portion of a repair while we watched and then she set us loose to replicate what we just saw on our own bikes. She came by every few minutes to check in and assure you that you’re doing great. I wasn’t always convinced; but she was.  

At the end of the class, after replacing my two back brake pads entirely on my own, and adjusting both my front and back derailleur, I took my bike for a spin. And you know what? It worked. I had done it. Thanks to Tori, I had fixed my own bike. A broad grin spread across my face. “What else can I do?” I thought. I made a mental list of other things I wanted to fix. There was that slight “drip, drip” sound coming from the toilet every minute of every day in my apartment. Could I fix that!? My bike’s headset was a little loose. Could I fix that?! My bathtub needed unclogging. A drain snake and my can-do attitude came to the rescue!

You see, that, I believe, is Tori Bortman’s point. She wants you to set your fears aside and start going for it — bikes and beyond. If a self-proclaimed individual with two left hands and two left feet can do it, anyone can. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Tori. And thanks to Western Bikeworks for hosting this class (and a lot of other cool stuff you can see on their calendar).

If you missed Bortman’s fall workshop series at Western Bikeworks, never fear. There’s another women’s beginner maintenance class on November 20th at the Gracie’s Wrench Studio in northeast Portland. Spots are still available! Learn more at GraciesWrench.com.

— Kate Johnson (formerly Laudermilk)

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13 Comments
  • Beaverton_Biker November 16, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Great article! I love the encouragement to just go for it with the right attitude. After years spent working on cars, I find bicycle maintenance both relaxing and easy but you can bet when my Dad and I first started wrenching on my old car we both had no idea what we were doing, made many mistakes, and learned quickly. Like you said, “set your fears aside and start going for it — bikes and beyond.” Bikes and BEYOND!

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  • dan November 16, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    Loose headset!?! That sounds like it could be very bad. Please don’t put off taking a look at that, or getting someone else to do so!

    Totally love your can-do attitude. I’m on board as well – I would always rather buy a tool and fix it myself than pay someone to come fix it for me. The tool pretty much always costs less than the service call, and hey, more tools!

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  • Kyle Banerjee November 16, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    Great article! Anything that helps people understand their bikes makes riding both safer and more fun.

    Loose headset is a common but serious problem — definitely don’t ignore it.

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  • Tori Bortman November 16, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    It was such a pleasure to work with you and hear how your experience was. I do believe in you and am so glad that you rode away feeling great and empowered. It really does mean the world to me and makes my heart sing.

    Let me know if you need any advice on the headset (though I think you might be able to suss it out yourself)!

    Thanks again for being a top-notch student.

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  • resopmok November 17, 2016 at 7:37 am

    I think it’s true that fear of trying (and failing) is what prevents most of us from trying in the first place. We get good at the skills we have learned as we get older and don’t worry that we will be judged as inferior because our novice product doesn’t seem to match what might be expected for our age. Thank you for proving again how untrue this really is! We just need to be bold and willing to make mistakes or we stop learning. But learning is too fun and confidence building to give up.

    A real barrier to many people learning to maintain their own bikes is, though, lack of access to a space and tools to do it. I was lucky to learn wrenching more or less on my own when living in Seattle through a shop there called Wright Brothers. Their membership program allows access to a shop full of tools, and being able to go there and fix my own stuff while receiving free advice has led to having only a very rare need for paying for repairs. The last similar shop I knew of in portland, which was located on Belmont near 45th (name escapes me), closed a few years ago. I currently know of only one space (managed by the CCC?) in north portland that has infrequent hours with bike shop space open to the public.

    Buying tools and reserving space at home for doing one’s own repair may be cheaper in the long run, but it’s not possible for everyone, and for the novice, access to a mentor who can affirm you are doing it right is an important part of the learning process. Good maintenance and reliability can’t be underestimated as an element that encourages people to keep riding their bikes. What other tips do ya’ll have to share?

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    • Kyle Banerjee November 17, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      Simply understanding how your bike works is incredibly useful. Aside from the fact that many common maintenance and repair tasks can be done with tools that are so cheap they may pay for themselves on the very first use, being able to recognize issues and their relative importance can help you when you have others work on your bike.

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    • mh November 19, 2016 at 9:32 am

      Bike Repair Collective was the shop on Belmont, couple of opinionated guys whose opinions usually meshed well with my own. They were happy working on old bikes, and I forgave the owner (whose name I am ashamed to admit I forget) for dissing my old Bridgestone’s self centering brakes. When I first started bike commuting, I went in there for fenders, and wailed about my ignorance. The owner immediately recommended Tori.

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  • Dan A November 17, 2016 at 8:16 am

    #1 tool needed, and missing from most people’s garages?

    Repair stand.

    Makes a HUGE difference.

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty November 17, 2016 at 10:12 am

      I would have said “hammer”. You can fix almost any bike problem with one of those.

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      • Dan A November 17, 2016 at 10:57 am

        Weird, most people would have said “car”.

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  • Dick Button November 17, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    I am now emboldened to try and fix the problem I am having with my bike.

    I think padded pants should do it!

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  • Kevin Love November 17, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Clean my rims once per week? That’s definitely not happening. I have better things to do with my life. Which is why I bought a Dutch bike. The percentage of people in The Netherlands who clean their rims once per week is approximately zero.

    With factory standard internal hub gears, internal hub brakes, Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, full chaincase, dynamo hub lighting, etc., my bike is designed to be low maintenance. And it is. I’ve never got a flat with the Schwalbe tires.

    A good bicycle manufactured in The Netherlands by Batavus, Royal Dutch Gazelle, Azor

    My bike is my primary form of transportation. I ride it to work, shopping, church, visiting friends and most other places I go.

    My goal is to spend not one second more on my bike than taking it into a shop for its annual maintenance. And when I do, if the mechanic tells me that my tires are nearing the end of their life, I have them replaced. I do not wear them all the way down until they fail.

    I have a high level of mechanical aptitude, but do not want to use those skills on my bike. My bike is not my life, but a tool to help me live my life.

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    • mh November 19, 2016 at 9:40 am

      If you’ve got rim brakes and they’re wet and filthy when you get home, wipe ’em down while they’re still wet and filthy. Wipe off the brake pads, too. If you’ve got disk or hub brakes, good for you; if not, be good to yourself and your bike and wipe the crud off.

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