On (not) truing the wheel

by Stephanie Yorke

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In the summer of 2009, I was not a student or an employee. I felt great. I joined an all-ages cycle team to take a trip across Canada, from Victoria to Newfoundland, on the hope of recovering my cardiovascular fitness following my master’s degree. I suspected I wouldn’t be getting any exercise ever again once I’d begun my doctorate, and wanted to be able to lay claim to having been in really good shape at least once. I’d later learn that cycling really only gets you in form from the knees down, as, after the trip, I found myself with herculean calves, a clerk’s posture, and arms too wimpy to get the lid off a jar of mayonnaise. At least the scenery was good.

I had great fun setting up camp with the team each night, and enjoyed the bad skillet-fire food and the ill-advised post-workout gin very much. But there was one team ritual I could never get the swing of: when I’d kicked back with my iPod in the evenings, the others would be out on the grass working over their bikes. Renee-Lise cleaned hers till the whole thing shone like a polished fingernail, and Ryan would spend the better part of an hour just watching his chain shift smoothly from gear to gear, the mechanics giving him such bliss his pupils would dilate wide as a moon.

My bliss was in the ignoring-it-will-make-it-go-away approach to bicycle maintenance. Around kilometre two thousand, my chain was so caked with grot that I had to prise it off with a stick and soak it in acid overnight; the lurch in my gears had almost sent me off the bike. My grimy cycle earned a bit of tisk-tisking from the others, and tears of horror from Renee-Lise, who wanted the RSPCB to take my bike away from its negligent owner and keep it safe until a new owner could be found. But there is no governmental authority for intervening on behalf of abused bicycles, so I kept on: I rode the tires through their tread, let the brakes sing vibrato, and left my cycle fender at the roadside when the weight of accumulated mud dragged it off.

I also let both of my wheel rims get completely warped.  You can own a bike for years and never see the circles of your tires turn into ellipses and then egg-shapes, but if you ride them hard enough and far enough, they will. Truing the wheel – bringing it back to a circle – demands a combination of learned skill and mechanical intuition akin to that of the best card-house builders. You either must have that ability (I didn’t) or else be willing to pay for it (I wasn’t), or you’re going to be stuck with a clown bike.

By the time we’d reached Quebec, you’d have described me as ‘bopping’ rather than ‘rolling’ along. My peers had moved through hinting to insisting to opining that I should see a mechanic. One night at camp, Ryan flipped my bike upwards to show me how the tire looked when spun: like a map of Pluto’s orbit, like a distressed octagon. Ryan invoked his authority as an engineer when he told me that, between my clown tires and the grot on every working piece, I was losing energy on each revolution of the wheels. He appealed to my evident laziness, explaining that I could go faster, further, easier, on a clean machine.

But where he saw increasing absurdity, I saw diminishing returns: the further I went on the clown-tire bike, the closer I was to finishing the ride, so each day I had less reason to bother with repairs. This mode of thinking carried me the remaining thousand kilometres, right to Cape Spear in Newfoundland.

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