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How to know when your bike needs a tune-up

It doesn’t seem like anything should happen to a machine when it’s just been sitting around for a few months, but to this thought I would like to add one word: gravity.  And if that’s not enough, here are three more: moisture, heat, and fungus. I get an insecure feeling when it seems like I’m pedaling a noisy collection of bolts and cables whose slight acquaintance with each other might end at any moment when they decide to head for destinations other than my own.

My 3-speed was purchased at a flea market, so let’s just say it’s not a silent machine. But there’s noise and there’s noise.

Before getting on a bicycle that has been sitting around all winter, it’s a good idea to look it over carefully.

The most important things to look at are the tires, and the brakes.


Cables stretch with use, and they rust. If there’s any rust on cables, they should be replaced immediately. When brakes are fully engaged, the levers should be about an inch away from the handlebar.  It’s easy to tighten brake cables if they’re just a little bit loose.

caliper brakes

For brakes to grip the wheel efficiently, the rubber pads are adjusted so they toe in toward the front. This makes them wear down unevenly. When they start looking triangular, they should be replaced.

rotten tire

Rubber rots, especially when it’s not in use. If a tire has dry rot hgh human growth, it looks cracked. When it’s inflated, or beneath the weight of the rider, a rotted tire could pull off the rim, and the bike will just slide out from under the rider.

Tires wear out. When a tire is no longer looking round, but flattened on the part that comes in contact with the road, it should probably be replaced. If the casing cord, the backing that makes a rubber tire hold its shape, is visible, the tire needs to be replaced.

tire inflation

My bicycle was made in 1969. I found this out reading Sheldon Brown’s entertaining and encyclopedic site, where I learned that Sturmey-Archer hubs have the date of manufacture stamped on them. I think this bike must have sat in someone’s garage for 35 years or so because it was in such good condition, even its fine green paint hardly scratched. Alas, no longer!

Since I use it every day, one by one, its original parts are being replaced. I think the seat is going to be the next thing to go.

A couple weeks ago I noticed one of the brake shoes sliding out of its clip, not a good thing at all. When I put it back in I discovered “JOHN BULL” spelled out in molded raised rubber letters on the sides of the shoe.

It’s going to kill me to replace those.

john bull brake shoe



 Bicycle parts models courtesy of Red Lantern Bicycles


Running a red light

When the police officer finally got me to stop, about six blocks after running a red light, the first thing he said was, “You didn’t even slow down!”

His baleful look and intonation fully conveyed the unique mixture of injured pride, maternal exasperation and wonder tinged with admiration employed by officers of the NYPD in the execution of their duty.

Indeed, I had tried, and failed, to rip through the intersection at Flushing and Cumberland against the light, and right in front of one of those little 3-wheeled baby shoes the traffic police drive around in. Only a left-turning beige van had forced me to concede defeat in mid-intersection.

The policeman, not getting any acknowledgement at all as he drove alongside me for about a block, zoomed ahead and parked the three-wheeler diagonally athwart the bike lane.

This hadn’t registered at all.

Shouldn’t he know better than to block the bike lane like that? I thought.

And why is he stopped there, in front of those abandoned buildings in the Navy Yard? Following his gaze, I cast a glance over my right shoulder toward the tangle of trees and falling-down-buildings, curious to see if I could get a glimpse of whom he could be meeting in such a desolate spot, and expecting someone truly exotic.

fonda-dillinger mob

Nobody there.

Strange behavior, I said to myself, mentally tsk, tsk-ing as I neatly nipped past him through the unobstructed 14 inches between the vehicle’s front wheel and the sidewalk, pedaling along at a cheerful 15 miles an hour. Maybe he’s doing something he shouldn’t.

Beautiful day.

And it was.

Only a mild curiosity as to the appearance of a person exhibiting such bizarre behavior made me finally look in his direction as he drove up alongside me for the second time, only to discover the police officer delivering a hard stare and emphatically waving me toward the sidewalk.

The light dawned.

I was in trouble.


About, on average, $130 of it.


baby shoe


There is no excuse, but there is an explanation for my behavior. I believe that when traveling on two self-powered wheels, one should benefit from the advantages accorded to both pedestrians and automobilists, but held to the restrictions of neither. I am pedaling , after all.

Which of the two with whom one chooses alliance depends entirely on the circumstances of the moment.

For example, it has been my habit to cross in the crosswalk along with pedestrians (without dismounting, of course) while the cars wait at a red light, and then ride away, glad to be able to relax and enjoy the view for a few moments before the light changes and the street refills with aggressive and inattentive motorists, and my attention once again is entirely occupied with avoiding being the victim of a fascinating text or desperate left turn.

At other moments I expect pedestrians crossing the street against the light to make way for me, despite the modesty of my 26-inch wheels Tramadol and their utter lack of life-threatening speed or steel-clad avoirdupois.

There may be some other practices I would not admit to in public, but nothing that would be harmful to me or anyone else. Having frequented the occasional Klansman, génocidaire and other armed checkpoints, I’m against all health-endangering behavior on principle.

My reasoning is more of a philosophical position, a belief, if you will, that bicycles occupy something like a third way, represent a kind of fifth dimension, if you like, in the urban environment.

If that was ever true anywhere, in New York City it is no longer. From a policy that–and I believe rightly so–placed Visigoth-like  attitudes on the part of bicyclists rather low on the priority list of law enforcement, the last year has seen a reported increase in tickets for traffic violations  

Two tickets  that bicyclists have told me about recently are: turning right on a red light, starting to cross an intersection in anticipation of the red bicycle turning green, both arrests accomplished by patrol cars with flashing lights and bicyclists instructed to assume the position. 

The days of emulating bike messenger ballet are over.

In my own case, what I got was a lecture, and one of the best I’ve ever heard.

The policeman started with, “You didn’t even look behind you! And you scared the hell out of the guy driving that van.”

He paused, giving me a long look full of reproach, to let that one sink in.

scene of the crime

“These drivers aren’t as on top of things as you might think. You can’t count on them to be alert. They might be on drugs. They might be wanted. There might be a warrant out for them. Anything could be going on. You just don’t know.

“And you’re on a bicycle! You don’t want to go up against a car, do you? Who do you think is going to win that fight?”

He went on in this vein. As I listened to him, my self-pitying thoughts of how much those $130 were going to hurt were slowly replaced by frank admiration.

A young guy, sporting a Brooklyn accent whose integrity would merit a place of honor in a museum, if they had museums for things like that, and I’m not suggesting it.

“Well,” he said, after some time, “I guess you realize I’m not going to give you a ticket. I’m going to let you off with a warning this time.”

He paused again, and by this time I felt the dramatic effect he was going for was entirely his to claim.

“I’m not going to give you a 10-minute lecture and a ticket.

“That would be double punishment.”

Hearing this expression of a logic as pure as that of any Greek philosopher,  and as strictly limited to the City of New York as that amazing accent, a thought sprang to my mind, and not for the first time.

I can never leave this town.