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The $1500 Crank

‘What kind of repairs do you do? Tune-ups? Rebuilds?” I’m talking to Kris Wells, 37, store manager at the UCSD Bike Shop.

“All that,” Wells says. “The big things are the headset [bearing assembly that connects the fork to the frame] and the bottom bracket [bearing system that cranks and pedals rotate around]. They need special tools.”

Wells is a Grossmont High and UCSD graduate, finished with a biology degree and a desire not to work in a lab. Since he raced bikes throughout school, he got a job in a bike shop. “Within a couple years I was managing the old Adams Avenue bike store.”

The store closed in 2000. Thereupon, Wells sold motorcycles, worked in the stock market, and traveled. “A friend of mine told me about a UCSD bike-shop job and I thought, Well, I can do that. I’ve been here eight years.”

All right, he’s a pro. I wonder, “Every job has a pain-in-the-ass part to it. Which part is it for a bike mechanic?”

“Wal-Mart–type bikes,” Wells says. “People think they can bring one in for a tune-up and it’s going to become a quality bike. We can do a little bit to it, but the brakes don’t work, and they’re never going to work. It’s never going to shift well.”

I ask, “What’s the difference between a good-quality cheap bike versus a poor-quality cheap bike?”

“Aluminum cranks and a good bottom bracket,” Wells says. “What you see on Wal-Mart–type bikes are one-piece steel cranks and bad bearings in the bottom bracket. You see welded frames that are stamped and pinned together. The frame is poorly manufactured. Brakes are steel, which makes them bendy and flexy. The nicer bikes have aluminum ones that are a bit stiffer and lighter. More responsive. Things feel better, stop better.”

I’ve been wanting to ask this: “What is the deal with bike shops? There is an attitude of preciousness. Annoyingly self-important. You’re treated as if it’s a favor for a sales clerk to talk to you. That’s what it’s like from the customer end. What’s it like from your end, looking out?”

“That’s a good question.” Wells actually stops talking and thinks. I am impressed. He says, “Without trying to sound like a snobby, elitist bike-mechanic guy, I don’t think people understand what goes into it. There is an expectation that a bike shouldn’t cost much to repair.

“People don’t want to pay for the work that it takes. Auto repairs, you expect the parts to be expensive. You expect the mechanic to take a long time on it. But, cars are very modular and it’s not as involved, maybe, as repairing some things on a bike. On a car, you unbolt something, slap on a new one. Whereas, making an old bike work is more of an art. I don’t think that’s appreciated. You don’t get a lot of respect from customers.”

“What do you mean, ‘It’s a work of art’?”

“The bike industry has gone modular, disposable, things are becoming more system-engineered,” Wells says. “So, when the system fails, you chuck it and get a new one. Older bikes are different.

“Here’s an example: the bottom bracket bearings on a bike. Twenty years ago you could replace individual bearings in the bottom bracket — you could replace the spindle. Little parts, totally replaceable, totally inexpensive. About 15 years ago they introduced this cartridge bottom bracket. Totally compatible with the cranks that you had, but the bottom bracket was a one-piece assembly. So, the spindles, the bearings, everything is one piece, and instead of being a $10 spindle, it’s a $35 bottom bracket.”

“One thing goes out, you have to toss everything?”

“Yeah,” Wells says. “So, that was fine for five years. Then they decided they were going to change the interface between the crank and the bottom bracket. Now, you had to replace the crank and the bottom bracket together. What we lost as consumers was the ability to replace and repair it cheaply by ourselves.

“The latest thing is the crank and the bottom bracket are integrated; it’s one piece. Now, instead of a crank set for $75, a bottom bracket for $50, you have a $250 set.

“Now, the wheel is designed as a unit so if a spoke fails, you have to replace the whole wheel versus replacing a spoke or a rim that didn’t cost much. Now, you have a $700 wheel set you’ve got to replace.

“The next step you’ll see is the crank, bottom bracket, and headset will be integrated into the frame. So, if your bearings fail on your crank or your bottom bracket, you’re not just replacing your crank or your bottom bracket, you’re replacing the whole bike.

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‘What kind of repairs do you do? Tune-ups? Rebuilds?” I’m talking to Kris Wells, 37, store manager at the UCSD Bike Shop.

“All that,” Wells says. “The big things are the headset [bearing assembly that connects the fork to the frame] and the bottom bracket [bearing system that cranks and pedals rotate around]. They need special tools.”

Wells is a Grossmont High and UCSD graduate, finished with a biology degree and a desire not to work in a lab. Since he raced bikes throughout school, he got a job in a bike shop. “Within a couple years I was managing the old Adams Avenue bike store.”

The store closed in 2000. Thereupon, Wells sold motorcycles, worked in the stock market, and traveled. “A friend of mine told me about a UCSD bike-shop job and I thought, Well, I can do that. I’ve been here eight years.”

All right, he’s a pro. I wonder, “Every job has a pain-in-the-ass part to it. Which part is it for a bike mechanic?”

“Wal-Mart–type bikes,” Wells says. “People think they can bring one in for a tune-up and it’s going to become a quality bike. We can do a little bit to it, but the brakes don’t work, and they’re never going to work. It’s never going to shift well.”

I ask, “What’s the difference between a good-quality cheap bike versus a poor-quality cheap bike?”

“Aluminum cranks and a good bottom bracket,” Wells says. “What you see on Wal-Mart–type bikes are one-piece steel cranks and bad bearings in the bottom bracket. You see welded frames that are stamped and pinned together. The frame is poorly manufactured. Brakes are steel, which makes them bendy and flexy. The nicer bikes have aluminum ones that are a bit stiffer and lighter. More responsive. Things feel better, stop better.”

I’ve been wanting to ask this: “What is the deal with bike shops? There is an attitude of preciousness. Annoyingly self-important. You’re treated as if it’s a favor for a sales clerk to talk to you. That’s what it’s like from the customer end. What’s it like from your end, looking out?”

“That’s a good question.” Wells actually stops talking and thinks. I am impressed. He says, “Without trying to sound like a snobby, elitist bike-mechanic guy, I don’t think people understand what goes into it. There is an expectation that a bike shouldn’t cost much to repair.

“People don’t want to pay for the work that it takes. Auto repairs, you expect the parts to be expensive. You expect the mechanic to take a long time on it. But, cars are very modular and it’s not as involved, maybe, as repairing some things on a bike. On a car, you unbolt something, slap on a new one. Whereas, making an old bike work is more of an art. I don’t think that’s appreciated. You don’t get a lot of respect from customers.”

“What do you mean, ‘It’s a work of art’?”

“The bike industry has gone modular, disposable, things are becoming more system-engineered,” Wells says. “So, when the system fails, you chuck it and get a new one. Older bikes are different.

“Here’s an example: the bottom bracket bearings on a bike. Twenty years ago you could replace individual bearings in the bottom bracket — you could replace the spindle. Little parts, totally replaceable, totally inexpensive. About 15 years ago they introduced this cartridge bottom bracket. Totally compatible with the cranks that you had, but the bottom bracket was a one-piece assembly. So, the spindles, the bearings, everything is one piece, and instead of being a $10 spindle, it’s a $35 bottom bracket.”

“One thing goes out, you have to toss everything?”

“Yeah,” Wells says. “So, that was fine for five years. Then they decided they were going to change the interface between the crank and the bottom bracket. Now, you had to replace the crank and the bottom bracket together. What we lost as consumers was the ability to replace and repair it cheaply by ourselves.

“The latest thing is the crank and the bottom bracket are integrated; it’s one piece. Now, instead of a crank set for $75, a bottom bracket for $50, you have a $250 set.

“Now, the wheel is designed as a unit so if a spoke fails, you have to replace the whole wheel versus replacing a spoke or a rim that didn’t cost much. Now, you have a $700 wheel set you’ve got to replace.

“The next step you’ll see is the crank, bottom bracket, and headset will be integrated into the frame. So, if your bearings fail on your crank or your bottom bracket, you’re not just replacing your crank or your bottom bracket, you’re replacing the whole bike.

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