Misadventures in mechanics: Mara Abbott’s ode to pro wrenches

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My job is to make the bike go fast. My job is not to make the bike run well.

Thank goodness.

Thank goodness that there are mechanics in the world whose skill and instinct as “bike whisperers” far exceeds mine. Though, as you will read, I can indeed offer some good McGyver tips on how to avoid self-inflicted disaster, this post must be in homage to those talented souls who ensure that the bicycles of the world don’t fall into utter disrepair. I don’t know if any of my mechanics over the years have admired my ability to speed up hills, but I certainly hold utmost reverence for their line of work. If my life depended on it, I couldn’t properly adjust a derailleur.

My first “race” bike was a lavender mountain bike (in fact, thirteen years later, I still have it!) A friend blithely advised me that the best way to learn about bike maintenance was to just “play around and figure it out yourself”, you know, rather than taking a class or learning from a book. The fancy hydraulic disc brakes on this gem had a tendency to drift left and rub the rotor, so I decided to “play around” and fix them myself. All I did was loosen ONE BOLT and hydraulic fluid started oozing all over my hands. Bad choice. It instantly should have been clear that any future with bicycles would involve riding them, not fixing them.

I didn’t give up right away. While living in Mexico for a semester during college, I made a point to learn every component name in Spanish, so that I could multi-lingually diagram and label a bicycle. Yet when I imitated the casual barrel adjuster tweaks of my friends, either nothing happened or things got worse. My tube patches still always leak, and when I try to tighten my brakes (rather than actually purchasing and installing new pads), I always lose my grip on the cable and end up with no brake at all. Once I didn’t screw in my pedal all the way after unpacking my bike and it fell straight out in the middle of a ride, stripping out the screw threads in my crank. Tom Danielson had to help push me back to town while I pedaled one-legged.

True story.

I have wised up, noted my limits, and realized that I had to cut my losses. For similar reasons, I had already been forced to give up make-up (the longer I work at it, the less attractive the situation becomes). I decided that rather than the daunting task of increasing my skills, I simply had to increase my tolerance.

Sure – not all of my gears work, but most of them do. And I mean, I won’t always be in the perfect gear in a race situation to counter an attack, so that’s probably good practice too! If I frame it as a comforting rhythm rather than an obnoxious refrain, that tick in my pedal is downright soothing. I sort of like the constant assurance that it is still attached to my bicycle.

In addition to practicing these positive thinking drills, one of two critical character traits can usually get you out of most sticky situations.

For instance, they tell you that if you don’t change your shifter cables for a year or two, they might just snap on you. That’s true. It might happen two hours from home toward the middle of nowhere, or it might happen on the start line of a hill climb time trial – but both are equally inconvenient times to be left astride a newly converted eleven-tooth two-speed. One case might find you hitch-hiking home in the first pickup that passes by while the other will leave you with a low back and quads that feel as if you spent the equivalent of a half an hour on the leg press. In either case, persistence can and will get you to the finish line.

Yet no amount of strength or determination would not have saved me a few months ago, when as I attempted to fix a mid-ride flat and my mini-pump broke in half in my hands. I had to use my head. Fortunately, a discerning look around showed that there was a large sporting goods store nearby. I casually walked in, “tested” a floor pump that was on display and walked out with 100psi. No one batted an eye. Sometimes you just have to think outside the box. In these situations, you must rely on ingenuity.

Overall, my tactic has to focus my clearly limited ability on a few critical skills. For those of you who find yourself in similar straits (no need to confess!) here is my personal list of priorities:

Lube your chain and pump your tyres.
My dad was recently gently reminded by a friend that to have a squeaky chain on a group ride is sort of like having BO in a crowd. You don’t want to be that guy.

Learn to fix a flat.
The consequences severe and self-explanatory, but perhaps more importantly if you haven’t even bothered to learn this skill, it is tougher to garner sympathy and help with whatever other disaster might befall you.

Some noises are not to be ignored.
If you hear a “whing!” rather than a tick from the rear end of your bike, and especially if the cadence of the noise increases as you go faster, it is worth looking if your derailleur hangar is bent. The noise is the derailleur itself hitting your spokes, and continuing on cavalierly in this manner might result in a ride-ending CRUNCH! should it be absorbed entirely. Not that I would know.

Hone a single “advanced” skill.
As a career-loyal SRM user, I do have one good mechanic party trick – I can deftly remove the cranks. One good trick will keep your self-esteem high and allow you to contribute without being totally worthless.

Learn the difference between “open” and “closed on the front brake release.
If you go to the bike shop claiming that your brakes don’t work and they smirk and just flip that little lever down, then everyone will laugh at you. Trust me on this one.

Mechanics who have helped me over the years, bless you. Without your work to balance me out, I might not have bicycles left to ride. And I sincerely hope that reading my tales of woe doesn’t give you nightmares – that would be a terrible way to repay my debt.


Mara was a swimmer before she was a cyclist. She swam competitively from the age of nine all the way through her senior year of college. A seasonal sport at Whiteman College, swimming left Mara with more time on her hands than she was accustomed to, so she turned to cycling. Her talent was immediately apparent. She won the collegiate national title (Division II) in the women’s road race at the end of her first season.

Mara turned pro with Webcor. She flourished on the States-based squad, winning the U.S Elite National Championships road title in her second year as a professional. The win, accompanied by consistent podiums achieved throughout the season, saw Mara move across to HTC-Highroad. Since then, she’s ridden for Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12, Diadora Pasta Zara, Exergy Twenty16 and UnitedHealthCare. She joins Wiggle Honda for the 2015 season.

She became the first American to win the Giro Donne (now called Giro Rosa), riding for the U.S National Team in 2010. She repeated the feat three years later.

Of course, Mara is much more than the bike. She’s an avid yoga practitioner and certified instructor. She a board member of both the City of Boulder Environmental Advisory Board and the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board. She’s a staunch proponent of bike commuting and a very proud new homeowner in the city of Boulder.

And now she’s an Ella columnist, too.

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