A self-confessed hopeless case in the workshop, Matt Wragg was forced to learn one end of an allen key from the other... and with it inner peace
I’m not a natural mechanic. Bike parts break in my hands, bolts strip, threads rip and tools shatter. Many an evening I’d sheepishly besiege my mechanically-minded neighbour’s house, nursing the latest casualty of my heavy handedness like a wounded bird, hoping he could fix the mess I had made.
That all changed when I moved to Southern France. When your helpful neighbour is a continent away and a trip to a bike shop is at least an hour each way, self-sufficiency becomes important.
Tools came first, because tools are a good substitute for talent when you’re starting out. Having the right tool means that you are not improvising, and there are usually instructions to follow.
A workstand, good allen keys and adjustable wrenches were added to my toolbox. Soon specialist tools followed, bearing presses, EZ-outs, and a high pressure airline, finally a homemade work bench with a heavy duty vice.
My £9.99 tool box could no longer contain it all and a workshop began to take shape. Today it’s one of my favourite parts of the house, and installing some locking metal cupboards is my goal for this winter, possibly a heater too.
By having the right tools to hand, fewer bolts were being stripped and my bikes were ready to ride more of the time.
The final step was to look inwards.
The more time I spent working on bikes, the more I started to recognise my patterns.
Much of the time, the breakages came when I was being impatient, distracted or frustrated. My natural instinct is to pull hard on each and every tool, but as I slowed down I could pay more attention to how much force I used, to make sure things were lined up before I applied pressure.
The big breakthrough was learning how to be methodical. It may sound obvious, but realising that if I take a deep breath and plan my attack, I have a pretty good chance of fixing whatever is broken. Paying attention to my stress levels, and walking away when I start to get annoyed is another huge step.
Finally, I recognise the limits of my abilities – I could certainly open a fork damper, but the chance of me getting it back together in working condition are slim, so I recognise the point where I need to stop and take it to a professional.
In the past, I would spiral. When the first thing went wrong, I would panic. Appalled at my own incompetence I would blunder forwards, hoping to set it right and prove myself worthy. Throw in my difficulty at judging my own strength and soon I’d have that small, but critical shard of broken bike lying accusingly on the floor.
Today, other than the internals of my suspension, I build my own bikes from the ground up. I have even got over my hatred for bleeding brakes. While I may never make it as a race mechanic, I do something that I think is even more remarkable and unexpected for me: I enjoy it.
Rather than a source of anxiety, time in the workshop has become an escape. When the world is fast and confusing, I can tune it all out and focus on getting just one small detail right.
What I did not expect when I started to become a better mechanic was how much it would affect the rest of my life too. That process of learning how to take a step back from the problem is useful in so many places – whether it’s a kitchen tap leaking water into the cupboard, a dry stone wall collapsing in the garden or changing brake pads on the car.
Today, when things go wrong, I know what to do. Maybe not specifically, but I know I can break the problem down into its component stages and plan a strategy for fixing it, and stop to get help when I am in over my head.
It may sound like an empty cliche, but learning to be a better bike mechanic has changed my life. Now if only people were as logical to figure out…
Who is Matt Wragg?
Matt is a freelance photographer and writer based near Nice, France. He has been a prominent voice in mountain bike journalism and photography for more than a decade, his passion is telling stories about the bicycles we ride and the people that ride them.
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