ETCETERA / Other People's: No 6 The Bicycle Mechanic

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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL, the bicycle mechanic, is 'making up' a new bike on a stand. The frame is gripped between two rubber-lined jaws and he's threading a glistening rear brake cable through its plastic sheath. A smallpale blue vein snakes across his temple as he concentrates. I ask: 'Would it be reasonable to think of the bike as a human body, with the frame its skeletal structure, the cables as sinews, the levers as muscle groups . . . ?'

'And the tyres as feet?'

'Well, if you like, I suppose.'

'No, I don't think it would be reasonable at all. The bicycle is a finely constructed man-made machine; God knows what the human body is.' His snaky vein pulses as he taps in a brake block with a rubber mallet.

On the wall behind him is a poster of a bicycle similar to the one he's building. But the one displayed is banana-coloured, and, for some reason, is leaning, meanly, against a Wild West wagon. A camp fire with billy cans rages in the foreground. 'That poster's a bit much isn't it?' No reply.

Michael has put the front wheel on and is encouraging it round with the palm of his hand. It drifts on its bearings, smooth as milk. When he stops it with a jerk of the brake lever I can see tiny filaments of virgin rubber bristling along the tyre; I lean my nose in to take a sniff. 'I like the smell.'

'Yes, it's not a bad smell is it?' I feel he's warming to me a bit. I try to nudge on our friendship: 'Did you see the Tour de France last year?' 'Bloody did,' and he shakes his slim cyclist's head from side to side very, very slowly and says: 'Incredible. Those blokes. Incredible.' He bounces his finger along the plush hard black tyres.

'Do you race yourself?'

'Yes. Do you want to hear about one?'

I nod. He gives the front tyre two more blasts of air and he's off: 'The bunch was active, the race was nervous. It was evil. Savage . . . '

'What was?'

'The race. It was evil. It was hard on paper.' He sprays lube on to the saddle stem and wigglingly eases it into the bike frame. 'We knew it was hard on paper. But let me tell you it was harder off paper.' He looks me straight in the eye. Straight through the eyes. 'I drove the bus] I gave them blip]'

'Bus? Blip?'

'Yes]'

'Oh . . . Go on.'

'Rode and rode and rode and rode. Sticky was the first to be dropped. Then, we had perfect rhythm. They can't throw us all out, I thought to myself.' He's bouncing the new bike along the floor on its hard tyres. 'Hunger knock at the finish. It was a battle royal, mate.'

'Yes, I can see that.'

'A spray of flowers for every competitor and a live brass band at the presentation.'

So not quite the Tour de France, I am careful to think without saying. 'Michael, what are the different types of people who are interested in bikes?' He drapes a slinky chain around the dull teeth of a back sprocket and around the shiny teeth of a front chain-wheel and makes the link with a rivet. He back-pedals gently. Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick.

'Types of people?' he asks. 'You mean apart from those with no idea at all?'

'No, let's have those as well.'

'Well, last week a bloke came in with a broken front fork. His front wheel was half hanging off and he'd tied together the broken metal with string and a piece of wood for a splint. I told him: 'Do you think I'm touching that mate?' Some people think a bicycle will live forever. 'Chuck it out and get a new one,' I told him.'

'And the other types?'

'Two main types. The Techno-Reds and the Gear-Freaks.'

'What's the difference between them?'

'Well, I'm a Gear-Freak myself. If anything new comes along and it's good I want it. See that there?' He points to a poster of a saddle with rock-concert lighting and dry ice playing around its edges. 'When that saddle came out I wanted one; so I got one. Very good. It has an automatically lowering front section so it doesn't rub against your privates when you lean forwards during a race.' I move forwards and read about this marvel. Apparently it has transformed the saddle from a passive component into an active and 'intelligent' element of your bicycle . . . a novelty which introduces a new way of interpreting its function.

'What about the Techno-Reds?'

'Now, a Techno-Red wants anything that is new whether it's good or not. See what I mean? A Techno-Red is an ignorant person. A Gear-Freak is not.'

He asks me: 'What do you think about this job then: bicycle mechanic?'

'Um. It seems interesting. I mean it must be very different from serving in the shop upstairs. But I suppose if you're doing it day in, day out . . . '

'It can be a bit of a bastard?'

'Um. I suppose so.'

'You're right.'-

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