Learning the craft of Bike mechanics

With the world of cycling, and associated businesses, seemingly on an upward and high growth projection over the next few years, the reliance of users to use bike servicing services is sure to be a focal point for many bike shops. High quality servicing and personalised bike fitting services seem to be a real focus for many shops at the moment - secondary to actual bike sales of course.

Many shops now offer some resemblance of a gold, silver and bronze type service offering which allows the user to pick and choose the level of servicing they can financially afford and/or require. The services themselves can be quite pricey but, much like car servicing, bike servicing is one of those facets of cycling that not many people have much knowledge about above and beyond changing a flat tyre or maybe a chain etc. This then creates a price point that people are willing to pay - especially if the mechanic is an absolute weapon, very thorough and knows your bike inside out.

I have the utmost respect for bike mechanics and admire their ability to diagnose and repair bikes. It’s a skill that I’d really like to develop. The question that I have is, where is the best place/resource/course to learn bike mechanic skills?

Has anyone gone out on a limb to perhaps quite there job and work in a bike shop for a few years to learn the craft of bike mechanics from a knowledgeable mechanic?

Do you just want to learn to fix your and maybe your friend’s bikes or are you saying you might want to start a career as a mechanic?

If its the former then I would just start with youtube (Parktools, GCN, etc.) and the most common things that might go wrong or need maintaining on your bike. If you have rim brakes then maybe replace a brake cable, then tune your derailleur, then change a shift cable, then change a bottom bracket (easier and cheaper tools if you have a threaded frame). And just keep going down the rabbit hole and slowly acquire the tools and knowledge.

Some bike shops will run clinic to teach people that sort of stuff also and some will go into more complicated things like wheel building.

But if you are looking to make it a sort of career then, unfortunately, I can’t help with that.

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I have some experience with this. And I struggle with what to do someday.

When I lived in Canada, I took a certification for bike mechanics through Winterbourne Bike Institute. It was awesome. As an engineer, I always wrenched on my own bikes and helped with friend’s small mech issues. The program I took just helped me fine tune and learn some structure to an existing interest and passion. I learned all the annoying nuances of cheap bikes, how to build wheels, and everything in between. It also was super fun to take the program when I had lost my job and had a year of severance to explore things that I enjoyed.

I explored options of working in a shop, or starting my own, but more than anything I could switch my career so dramatically, cutting my financial earnings in half or more. I couldn’t, nor could my wife, commit to this despite the passion. Fast forward a bit and we moved to Germany for my wife’s work, putting me in an opportunity to be Chief Transition Officer for a couple of years. After a year, I started getting antsy to work again (I know), I decided to work part-time and was pretty limited in my options as an expat spouse. The certificate from the program I had previously taken years before proved far more effective than my actual resume. I approached a local bike shop and took a part-time job as a mechanic. For one year I built more Specialized Levos than one can imagine and worked on countless MTBs (despite being the shop’s only “roadie”), practiced my German, learned way more than I imagined, and made some great friends. But it wasn’t a career. I was playing mechanic and my career was calling and I couldn’t commit, yet again.

I’m still in Germany and took on a “real job” at the very end of 2019. It’s great to earn real money again, but I constantly think of how I could do this mechanic thing some day. It’s definitely a tough gig making a career out of it. Maybe one day I’ll figure that out.

In the meantime, the experience and skills are not taken for granted. I have some good tools and still the same passion that lets me do things like buy vintage frames on eBay and transform them into awesomeness (See my singlespeed that I’m super proud of), or pick up some killer hubs and completely re-lace a set of rims to upgrade a set of wheels, or take calls from friends back home and help them fix a bike over WhatsApp, or provide advice on new bike shopping with other expats and local friends…I don’t regret it one bit and it’s by FAR the most interesting thing that I’m proud to have on my resume.

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My local bike shop just posted a mechanic job - no experience required. It can be as easy as that.

If you are self motivated, you can buy some tools, watch every park video, and read product manuals, etc. Or take some certification course as mentioned.

It’s probably never going to high paying gig unless you can carve out the right niche or own the right shop. If you lived in a bigger city that supports a lot of higher end bikes you could possibly carve out a niche as a meticulous bespoke mechanic/builder. The bread and butter though for most shops is kids bikes and family bikes not Pinarellos.

There are substantial online resources on YouTube and since the lack of capacity at local bike shops I took the opportunity to buy some tools and upskill.

Bleeding brakes and changing the bearings in my bottom bracket have all been successfully completed.

In the past I’ve always asked my LBS to sort my bike but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the therapeutic aspects of working with my hands on my own bike.

I’m gong to buy a wheel jig next to start learning the dark art of wheel building and next yeay I’ll have a look a electric bikes before trying to enter the trade as a cycle mechanic.

You are right!!!

I think we often think that being a bike mechanic would be as awesome as the YouTube build channels show it: GNC or DreamBuild etc. The reality is you might get to work on a great bike every so often but most of the time you will be just using high end tools on walmart bikes.

I love working on my bike but it is hard working on my neighbors kid bikes (specially when they dont buy new components).

Worked a couple summers in a shop. Still have nightmares about rusty, greasy, dirty, 3-speed hub rebuilds.

When it’s a job, you need to be accurate, methodical, good and fast.

When it’s fun (your stuff) you don’t need speed. There is a huge difference between wrenching on high end, clean, stuff when you have lots of time and doing this as a job at an hourly rate.

If I were to go into this professionally (not going to), would do a mobile high end service and specialize in mountain bike suspension rebuilds and set-ups, TT bike builds and bike fits. Those are jobs which folks are not usually comfortable doing and which add value to the rider because they can immediately feel a difference so they ascribe high value to the service.

More generally, a couple friends are doing the mobile service business strategy (either at your home out of a van or pick up and drop off). Seem to be doing well and seem to enjoy it. Good mechanics who you can trust with good gear and who do a good job are not that common so if you are one kudos and if you have one, keep them happy.

$0.02

This is great. Thanks @mwglow15. When I get a spare 5 over the Christmas break I will definitely hit up the GCN and ParkTool videos to get some basic info on replacing brake cables and tuning etc. Just had a quick look and the ParkTool videos look fantastic. Definitely a huge plug for their tools but also very helpful and easy to follow along with.

Thanks for sharing your story @Oblewis. Gave a good insight into the ‘desire’ to make it a full time gig but the ‘reality’ of that can be/is quite difficult. I don’t think it would be one of those careers where you’d pay off your mortgage in 5 years and be on exceptionally good coin however, it does sound like that if bikes are your passion, it could be one of those jobs that pays you loads in happiness - whether that equates to keeping the power and water on in your house is another story.

Pretty much what I have written above. I think the money to be made in the gig would be to carve out a specific niche and just become an absolute weapon at that niche and be well known for it. That said, if it is for ‘the love of the game’ per-say, then perhaps sitting in a shop and building family bikes and kids bikes, and occasionally working on high end bikes, might be rewarding.

I think the drive is there to learn something new and to become good at something new. I also find working with my hands therapeutic and if you couple that with chucking on some tunes in the background, the time just flies. You enter this ‘flow’ like state.

But perhaps this wouldn’t always and necessarily be the case if you are in a shop and on a deadline/expected load limit of working on a set number of bikes per shift. It is like professional sport in a way - when does passion for sport, music or the arts blur the line with work when it becomes your sole method of earning a living.

Bike fitting is a huuuuuuuuuge market these days. I have noticed how many shops are now using that service as a major way to generate shop income. There is a lot of fancy software out there that can generate even fancier ride fit reports. I am pretty sure there is no set regulation around qualifying for a bike fitter too - seems to be just experience in the industry and/or perhaps a physio, osteo background that brings in a lot of work through a certain level of ‘expertise’ in fitting.

There are schools that will teach you most everything you need to know. Depending on where you are from, United Bicycle Institute and Barnett bicycle Institute and Appalachian Bicycle Institute come to mind for US schools. There might be others too.

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Which is why my LBS loves it when I come in with a full gruppo upgrade, or something similar
“yay, finally something fancy to work with”
Last time, the mechanic spent the bones of an hour explaining to me how he did, well, what I asked him to do.
It’s great to see how proud he was of the work he had done :smiley: and one can always gleam more details for the future.

A friend is a bike mechanic and his trade might be categorised as being of three types:

  1. Standard work on decent road bikes where the owner has little mechanical skills.
  2. Cheap Bike Shaped Objects
  3. Specialised jobs on MTBs and road bikes

While the first item is what most think of when being a bike mechanic, much of his work is the other two.

The last item tends to need specialised tools and given the number of “standards” that means a lot of kit. There’s no way for him to know if a new type of component is going to last so if one comes in then he needs the tools to handle it. So no back of van business but a 15m x 8m industrial unit with tools ranging from Allen Keys to an air compressor and lathe.

BSOs: these are the jobs where the bike when new cost about as much as a decent set of tyres and the owner can’t understand why fixing it is going to cost so much.

Then it comes to parts. Like most mechanic businesses these days he carries very little stock, not even brake pads, since there’s so much variety that if he did it would likely be the wrong one. So stuff gets ordered on next day delivery meaning even a relatively straightforward job can “take” a couple of days. With lockdown he’s having to order some stuff from Wiggle/CRC since the national importer where he’d normally go for wholesale, B2B, items has run out of stock.

On the subject of parts, I took a bike in for a new headset bearing (one of the few jobs I don’t have the tools for) and it was a case of measuring it to find out which one of the two versions of that model of headset that differed in one dimension by just 0.1mm it was.

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Overheard a guy with a £150 “full sus” muddyfox bike complain that the “rip off bike shop wanted to charge me £20 for a whole new chain, when it only needs a couple of links!” That’s when I remembered why I don’t want to work in a bike shop.

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Hell is other people - Sartre

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Also in Germany :slight_smile: best place i’ve ever lived for cyclists - going on a cumulative nine years.

Just to add to this that it’s not a ‘dark art’ - it’s physics :smiley:

I know the dark art thing is often repeated, but it’s simple once you understand the forces involved. I feel making it seem complex and magical sounds strange for a fairly straightforward design, just as an engineer designing a suspension bridge would think talking about it in mystical terms was a bit odd. Having worked in a paid capacity on both bikes and the human body (massage/physio type work), I know which is more like magic! Very rarely do you find you turn a spoke nipple on the rear wheel and it corrects the rear but makes the front go out of true, these type of weird compensations happen all the time in the body.

‘Pro’ tip* for wheel building, bite the bullet and buy a tension meter sooner rather than later, and use something like the Park Tool wheel building app a few times. It makes visualising what’s going on and what you need to do a lot easier. Although I often do still work with just pinging a spoke with a tyre lever to get an idea of which needs to be turned, a full map of spoke tensions tells/teaches you a lot more.

*I’d not consider myself a pro wheel builder, but I’m likely nearing 100 wheels built from scratch and in the multiple hundreds of wheels trued, spokes corrected etc

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:raised_hand:

Yep, I left my longish career in food service to take an entry level mechanics position at a small shop about 13 years ago. What I tell people is that it’s everything people say it is, a labor of love.

The industry lacks any sort of universally accepted technical credential like auto mechanics enjoy. This is a major hurdle for bridging the gap between the skill and knowledge that master mechanics bring versus the average pay.

Some key things I learned along the way:

  • Working on bikes is often challenging and not always fun
  • Learn the correct way every time, there’s almost always a right and wrong way
  • Take a class from some type of school but balance that knowledge heavily with experience
  • If you’re going to make a career out of it, find a path outside of retail as soon as possible
  • Learn to build wheels, work on suspension, and possibly any kind of electronics - get to the parts of the trade that most home mechanics can’t do themselves; anyone can learn to install a chain or adjust shifting. Make yourself as valuable as possible as quickly as possible - specialize immediately.
  • Learn to wrap bars correctly, finishing tape on the wrap itself, never the h-bars themselves.
  • Fake it til you make it, but learn to use a torque wrench on day one.
  • Test ride your own work, every time. Double check high liability areas.
  • Stay in school and choose a different career. :wink:
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I would love to go this path also. I’ve threatened my wife in jest to do just this lol.

However, the impression I have gotten, is that this is something that really needs to be done as something other than a means of income (long term anyway…). Bike mechanics, heck ownership even…is not really a realistic path to earn money. Obviously it IS a paid service…along the same lines that baristas at a coffee shop. Nothing wrong with the work…but I think one needs to go in with the attitude from the beginning (right or wrong…) that they will not be reasonably or fairly compensated.

So for me…if I ever do go down this path…it will likely be as an old retired kook who shows up at the local bike shop to build wheels/bikes for a few hours a day and drink too much free coffee…telling stories about how the hills were so much steeper during my day, and yelling nonsense at customers…

One thing I see about the bike repair industry is that it’s getting harder and more technical though I doubt that is translating into higher salaries.

I mean that now a mechanic is supposed to know about dozens of variations of bottom brackets which all have different installation methods with some requiring adhesives to be installed correctly. Often manufacturers don’t even provide correct installation instructions or instructions change over time. For example, one manufacturer says to use grease, one says dry fit, the other says to use retaining compound.

A very good mechanic these days is going to be someone with a high attention to detail.

As someone who does most of his own wrenching, the lack of clear instructions by manufacturers is MADDENING. Shimano gives a massive sheet that’s almost indecipherable on most components. SRAM doesn’t even bother with that. If it’s not a brand-new AXS part (which might have a video) you probably have to look through dozens of .pdfs to find the right catalog with the component you’re looking at. If it’s an AXS part it’ll have a video that glosses right over something very tricky.

That said, if you’re willing to try and fail, you can just youtube everything and learn as you go. There might also be classes depending on your area (maybe have to wait out covid). Bicycle Habitat in NYC used to have classes you could sign up for, like 10 week courses, not just the basics everyone should know.

I have learned everything through doing and would encourage others to do the same. Instead of paying the shop to do something, spend the money on the tool and try it. Park tool videos are ok, same goes for GCN and various other resources online. The thing is most bike jobs you are likely to need to do are actually pretty straightforward. Run a modern bike in this way through 10k miles and you will end up doing the majority of basic maintenance jobs and have a lovely tool kit for a pretty small outlay. Build/rebuild a few bikes and you’ll learn the majority of possible jobs and have most of the tools you will ever need.

Where it gets tricky to learn beyond theory is things like facing or machining, where the tools start getting too expensive for a home mechanic, but they are typically one off if you are unlucky.