An ode to the humble hex key
I was nine years old the first time I ever “fixed” a bike. I wondered how the handlebar stayed in place on my Repco Hotfoot BMX and so I undid the quill stem bolt. The wedge came undone and fell deep inside the cro-mo steerer. I’d broken it, or so I thought.
It was years later that I’d again find myself “fixing” a bike. This time, I wanted to learn how to use the chain breaker that came in my dad’s Topeak miniature toolbox. I didn’t want to mess up my own bike, and so instead, I used it on my dad’s beloved Trek 970. Needless to say, like that BMX stem wedge, I was soon back at the bike store, admitting my failure and handing over my limited funds.
By the time I was 14, I was already drawn to the technical side of the sport. The more I rode, the more I wanted to tinker. Being a kid with his own after-school job wages, I soon figured out doing things myself left more money for the bike bling I so desperately craved.
I asked my dad to get me a “real” set of hex keys from the local hardware store. The cheap Chinese ones I’d bought at an electronics outlet store were no good to this teenager. I’d outgrown them. Or perhaps I was already a tool snob, I just didn’t know it.
I vaguely remember requesting something along the lines of “something that looks good but not the most expensive”. He came back with a set of Bondhus L keys.
These US-made tools are used by professionals around the world, but there was a problem with my set. It stopped at 5mm and was tiny. I was deflated. But it was my very first ‘good’ tool, and I refused to take it back. Immediately I started “fixing” my own bike, wherever the stunted keys would fit.
Months would pass, and slowly a garage that was once a dumping ground for house crap started to transform. A snap-lock $50 workbench appeared, a tiny rusted vice was WD40’d back to life and a piece of MDF was hung on the wall to house my prized purchases. Before my parents knew it, their junk was someone else’s and I had my happy place.
Following the cute set of hex keys, I quickly acquired more dedicated tools. A Lifu toolkit, (similar to what CRC or Wiggle sell under their X-Tools brand) made me feel like a real mechanic. After all, I had all the tools.
But that didn’t last.
Soon Park Tool hex keys were on the MDF board, followed by a matching crank puller that didn’t strip on first use. And after watching a shop mechanic straighten my rear derailleur hanger, I bought such a tool too. I felt like I had my own shop.
My parents thought this, and my riding, was just another brief obsession, like my attempts to become a cricketer, a soccer player, or a golfer. But still, they let me at it.
It was nearly three years later that I’d land my first job in a bike shop. I was wide-eyed, super green and an absolute know-it-all. A customer looking to remove their wheel from a Campy-equipped bike had me stumped — where’s the release? Or a Mavic wheel with no clear sign of being able to enter the hub — what sorcery was this?
Working in those shops were some of my best years, and every day I learned a trick or two. That shop work became wholesale, and then media. All along I was learning from those with more experience than me.
It was many years ago that I lost control, buying tools with hyper-specific purposes.
I recently turned 30 and my tool collection has grown from a way of saving money on repairs to one of passion, obsession and profession. I now get a strange joy in holding a pro-grade tool and using it for its intended purpose. There’s a feel to something like a PB Swiss hex key or an Abbey Crombie wrench that just makes the task at hand more enjoyable, more pure.
It’s not dissimilar to a budget car versus one of luxury. Both will get you from A to B, but the luxury car makes the drive easier, more comfortable and provides a sense of greater security (or precision). And if you want, it’ll get you there faster, too. Though unlike a car, a quality tool will far outlast the budget version.
It’s that last point that matters to me most. In our society of such disposable things, I know the item in my hands will perform its duty well past my time. It will be passed down, and hopefully with that, carry a continued passion for cycling, problem-solving and working with one’s hands to whomever wields it next.
With age, I’ve found using these tools to be therapeutic, too. Much like the meditative experience you get from riding, I get a similar release and clarity from bringing a well-pedalled machine back to (or beyond) its state of intended efficiency.
For me, bike mechanics is the adult equivalent to playing with Lego. My mind becomes focused on a single task of creating or fixing something. And occasionally, pulling it apart is the only way to understand the problem at hand. Frustrations sometimes take over, but most of the time, the process results in a euphoric sense of achievement. It’s really not too different to summiting an endless climb, besting a personal record, or beating a buddy to that stop sign.
Every time I open my hex key drawer (yes, I have one), I see that little set of Bondhus hex keys that started me on this path. In a funny way, without those, I’d never have worked in shops or cycling wholesale, never spent my days writing and photographing bike stuff, and perhaps, wouldn’t have found a way to disconnect, even if for a brief moment. And after all these years, I still find (occasional) use in that very set.
The idea that a good tool will be with you for life is certainly true, but be warned, such longevity makes for an expensive excuse.