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Bike Shop and Cowboy Junkies


The following is a think piece by Cory, the mechanic behind the Center for Bicycle Repair, that compares bike shop work to cowboy work. It was inspired in part by the book pictured above, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, by Larry McMurtry. Any comments or responses are welcome.


I spent May Day thinking about bike mechanic work. I realized it’s not difficult to describe what a bike mechanic does for work. Repair and restoration work are easily reduced to a series of gestures and actions: place such and such a part onto such and such a place on the frame; turn such and such a fastener until tight enough; move on to the next step. 


Describing how a bike mechanic knows what is not as simple. There is a common misconception about what the word “repair” means in the context of bicycles. Bike repair has little in common with garment repair, for example. A bicycle cannot be repaired in the same way as a tailor can repair a tear in a coat. A mechanic performs different types of operations: replacements, adjustments and tuning; in general, the goal is to make the bicycle run better, not restore it to its original form.


While the physical gestures associated with replacing, adjusting and tuning the equipment on a bicycle are simple and straightforward, they do not comprise a mechanic’s work. A mechanic at work uses discretion when deciding that an adjustment won’t do and replacement is needed. Another type of work occurs when the mechanic must decide what part will serve as an appropriate replacement. None of this work is visible and it is hardly straightforward.


Analogies can help define certain things that escape straightforward description. So I asked myself: what work is most analogous to bike mechanic work?  


Food prep is a possible analog. I always assumed chefs would make a competent bicycle mechanics. Chefs work in an assembly line environment. There are clear advantages to keeping work spaces clear and tools well organized. Chefs have camaraderie and culture as well as frequent and hard to manage spillover between their professional and personal lives. There are also professional and recreational cooks who share the same title yet their experiences are miles apart.


Preparing and mixing ingredients from scratch, however, is not a great analogy for the repair work. There’s more alchemy in cooking than there is in wrenching. Bike mechanic work also tends to be more isolating than work done in a kitchen.


Here’s another analog I’ve been thinking about: cowboy work. I hope you’ll hear me out. 


To start with, I’d like to tell you what I’ve been thinking about and how that relates to cowboys. Cowboys lived and worked during a very short period in what is known as the west. The land that counts as the west is not clearly delineated and cowboys like it like that. A cowboy will go wherever the grass is growing or the water is flowing. A cowboy hemmed in by fences is not exactly doing cowboy work. A fenced in cowboy is a rancher (although ranchers modeled themselves off cowboys). 


The west in question is definitely the American west. A cowboy, along with the immigrant and the gangster, represents something American. It’s not a question of correspondences only – both positive and negative – between cowboys and American culture. It’s how efficiently the cowboy represents some essential piece of information about America. No qualifiers are necessary. If you see an image of a cowboy juxtaposed with an American flag, the redundancy can be jarring. 


Cowboy work was hard. It was seasonal. It was dirty. It was dangerous and it was lonely. It was never well paid. Outside of other cowboys, it was work better understood by the cows under the cowboy’s supervision than the rare city dweller a cowboy might encounter. Cowboys were not particularly easygoing around city people. Cowboys in fact were likely quite shy and more content with their knowledge and experience of animals, places, plants and weather than with other people. 


In as much time as it took for the idea of the cowboy (and the west) to become synonymous with something American, the cowboy’s place in the west was diminished, then threatened, then became anachronistic. A similar fate would meet cyclists along the compacted and paved roads they inaugurated at the close of the 19th century. Cyclists would be overtaken by cars in nearly the same way and with the same speed as cowboys were overtaken by trains. More on that in a bit.


May First happened to be the jumping off point for a lot of wagon train emigrants who traveled on the Oregon Trail. This was back in the 1840s. A common starting point for trail emigrants was Saint Louis. For the early emigrants, Saint Louis was on the western border of the United States. What was west of it was an area not known or not considered to be immediately habitable by settlers. This was the west that would briefly form the backdrop of cowboy work, lasting roughly until 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed. 


Encouraging emigrants to advance west and facilitating their settlement was an economic goal of the United States government. This was unusual at the time. British companies preferred the west to remain separated from European civilization in order to facilitate unfettered commercial development, in particular, fur trading. French trappers had a tendency to intermarry with the goal of merging their population with the indigenous communities they encountered. The US government wanted settlers and starting in the 1840s, settlers began to move west in droves. The west that is the backdrop of the cowboy in many ways is the romanticized version of the landscape that these settlers moved into and reshaped according to their economic goals. 


The heyday of cowboys started a short while before the main bulk of emigrants took up the Oregon Trail and ended not long after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, in 1869. Cowboys accompanied a period of economic migration and were immediately doomed by it. The tradition of cowboys crisscrossing fenceless plains to find food and shelter for livestock became anachronistic in the span of a generation once it was found that cows could easily be raised on a ranch, or eventually, a feedlot, and transported by train to a slaughterhouse.


The initial development of the bicycle occurred during roughly the same period as when the west was settled and cowboys roamed the plains. The world saw Karl Drais’s running machine in 1817. A number of eccentric offspring would follow, notably the high-wheel Ordinaries in the 1870s. By 1885, the Rover, also known as the safety bicycle, made all previous models seem anachronistic. John Kemp’s safety featured two equal sized wheels, the rear wheel driven by a roller chain. Very little about its basic design has changed. That is at least in part due to the fact that the safety bicycle was easy to produce at an industrial scale, which occurred during the bicycle boom of the early 1890s. It was around the same time that contemporary slaughterhouses became commonplace in the United States. Upton Sinclair collected his source material for The Jungle in 1904. 


It is in juxtaposition to the urban slaughterhouse, an emblem of impersonal efficiency, that the cowboy’s economic irrelevance is revealed in its most stark terms. As it turns out, the slaughterhouse would also foreshadow the end of the bicycle’s initial popularity: Henry Ford’s Model T production line is said to have been inspired by observing butchers working on cow carcasses in an industrial scale slaughterhouse.   


Economic irrelevance however has not erased our curiosity in cowboys. The cowboy hangs on in our imaginations and in our culture because plenty of us like the idea of a lone figure who possesses strange knowledge about animals and the land. There may seem to be something good and right, or perhaps simple and direct, about a cowboy, even if the cowboy has no direct claim to economic pertinence in our contemporary world.


Economic irrelevance offers an initial point of correspondence between cowboys and bike mechanics for us to explore. After watching several bicycle shops close in Seattle in the past few years, the economic pertinence of the bicycle mechanic has become a nagging concern of mine, since my shop claims to “train bicycle mechanics”. 


We can see how cowboys and mechanics relate to one another economically less in terms of the forces that contribute to their irrelevance and more in terms of their relationships to the primary source of revenue: the cow and the bicycle. 


Right away, there’s this coincidence: the longhorn cows associated with American cowboying turn out to be European imports. They were in fact ill suited to living on the plains, especially in comparison to bison. These deficiencies became irrelevant once ranchers and feedlot operators discovered how to economically raise cattle for the primary purpose of slaughtering them for meat. The bicycles that provided the template for the first bicycles produced on an industrial scale were also European imports. Albert Pope, who oversaw one of the earliest examples of mass production of bicycles, first saw the machine in the United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, in Philadelphia. The bicycle was ill suited to thoroughfares in the United States when it was initially introduced. Horse and wagon travel were predominant. There was no need to keep the surface of thoroughfares compacted or uniform. There was also little need to map roads since most of the people driving on them (“teamsters,” for example, who drove teams of draft animals pulling wagons) were professionals. These deficiencies were overcome by reshaping the streetscape to the needs of the cyclist, literally paving the way for the automobile and the bursting of the first bicycle boom.


The coincidence above risks overstating the connection between bicycle mechanics and the United States. In the United States even, there’s a perhaps outdated impression that mechanics are somewhat European, especially when contrasted with auto mechanics.  


What is no coincidence, however, is how efficiently the idea of a bike mechanic stirs up something powerful but altogether hard to define in the minds of non-mechanics. What cowboys are to America and the west, bike mechanics are to the life and culture of a bicycle shop. The shop is like the landscape a cowboy inhabits. It is a space that is idealized and romanticized as well as quite hostile to the economic pertinence of the mechanic. Economic decisions shape the appearance of a shop and the role of the mechanic in it. Yet mechanics, by choice or by force, must commit to presenting their work as escaping the ironclad laws of supply and demand. Any shop whose appearance mirrors too closely its economic pursuits almost immediately ceases to appear like a bicycle shop. It instead becomes a retail space wherein the bicycle is a pretext for making money. A bicycle mechanic may find work in such an operation while also finding that a true shop attitude stands out as anachronistic. 


As for the bicycles within a bicycle shop: a mechanic is less concerned with repairing them than caring for them. The reason the fundamental design and operational elements of bicycles have hardly changed since 1885 is because bicycles are fundamentally very stable. They seem to take care of themselves, in a way that’s analogous to how a moving bicycle is able to hold itself upright. Cowboys see their livestock in the same way. Cows on the plains, for the most part, are able to raise and protect themselves. The cowboy’s pertinence to their development is mostly relative to economic demands that require an individual to oversee the development of groups of cattle. In much the same way, the mechanic has value primarily in being able to manage bicycles in groups.  


Knowledge of the land and knowing how to read the land tend to be the most valuable types of knowledge that cowboys and bike mechanics possess. For the former, the knowledge is related to reading the land and knowing how to lead cows to water, food or safety. For the latter, this knowledge is related to reading the era when a bicycle was produced in order to foresee what parts will be compatible with an existing set up. It’s also related to being able to spot dangerous hazards, such as a bent derailleur hanger, before a rider encounters them. For both cowboys and mechanics, the source of the knowledge plays into the romanticized image they mirror. It is knowledge typically gained through either experience or transferred from elders. It also tends to be holistic, such that the various skills cannot be easily separated; cowboys and mechanics tend to contain in them knowledge related to all the work involving cows and bicycles. 


I’ll be curious to hear from you about any additional correspondences that come to mind. I’ll tease one more out that seems particular pertinent. 


Cowboys are boys in at least as far as their mythical representation is concerned. At home on the range, cowboy culture embraces the wholesale erasure or women figures or values. Mechanics and bicycle shops, until quite recently, witnessed a similar form of erasure. This is no comment on the problems that arise within bicycle shops due to the erasure of women. It is to say that cowboy values and cultures are often expected to align with male values and culture and much the same can be said about bicycle mechanics. 


I want to close with another glaring inconsistency: the fact that cowboys disappeared while bike mechanics, despite being under threat to direct-to-consumer sales models and big-box retailers, remain a steadfast component of the economic landscape of many cities. This inconsistency is made more significant by the fact that bicycle mechanics have likely been practicing their trade for as long as bicycles have been sold as a retail item, likely since the 1840s. 


Why the bike mechanic has survived and cowboys have not seems to depend on how bicycles tie us to many of the same values that makes the mythologized cowboy so alluring. It’s almost as if cowboying, sensing its imminent demise at the end of the 19th century, aligned its heritage along two general paths. The first is cultural, and the cowboy certainly survives in music, in film, in visual art and in literature. The second is bicycle riding. 


Riding alone, somewhere far from convenience, being alert to the environment and its risks while also comfortable and confident in one’s mode of transportation: the description applies equally to a bicycle rider as a cowboy. Both have vagabonding in their nature. Yet while fences and settlement restricted the experience of cowboying to a select, wealthy few, cycling remains not only accessible but exciting even within an urban setting, depending on how many risks one decides to take when pedaling through the city.


The mechanic and the bicycle shop accentuate the sense riders have of being cowboys. The care and respect a mechanic brings to bicycle work reflect the special relationship a rider has with a bicycle. Offering increasingly personalized service to repeat customers gives the rider the sense that their bicycle is a member of a mechanic’s special herd. The mechanic is apt to share hints and tips for maintaining the bicycle. This imbues riders with the feeling they are being given access to the special knowledge a mechanic possesses. The rider may eventually feel at home in the shop, making the romanticized world of the shop that much more of a tangible reality, complete with a socially awkward mechanic who is not sure how to both retain friends and share highly specialized knowledge about bicycles. 


None of this is to say that bicycle mechanic work is easy. It is at the very least poorly paid. It’s seasonal. It’s dirty. A mechanic’s immediate concern is making a bicycle operate well. Making sure the bike’s owner is happy may prove more challenging. A bike mechanic may spend years becoming proficient in repair work and not ever feel entirely accomplished. Technology evolves. Tastes change. One day everyone wants to hear you talk about gravel; a year later, you’re considered to be a grouch. Most mechanics work in spaces they do not own. Most find themselves out of work when the person who owns the space closes. It’s easy to develop a bond with bikes you love and love to work on. But share too much of your love and you come to find out, you’re a bit of a bike ‘splainer.  


The “bike’splainer” is in fact a surprisingly corollary with cowboy culture. The ’splainer’s vocation is to demystify the bicycle by sharing information. The ’splainer’s unpopularity in bicycle culture shows how difficult it is to demystify the bicycle. Instead of accepting the ’splainer as someone who has bought too far into bicycle culture, bicycle culture finds it easier to excise the ’splainer and turn them into an emblem of someone who does not get it. Something similar has happened with the culture of gravel riding. The more gravel proponents publicly promoted the correspondences between gravel riding and what’s generally attractive about cycling, the more they started to come across as corporate shills. 


What the mechanic sells is not exactly the possibility for a rider to avoid these varied obstacles related to bicycle maintenance and repair. A mechanic’s job and worth is in large part tied up in helping riders maintain the illusion that they are as self-reliant, as savvy and as free to wander as a cowboy. In a way, that is the same job as the variants of cowboys we encounter in our culture today. Cowboys offer enthusiasts all the benefits of being a cowboy without any of the drawbacks: the lonesomeness, the hard living, the constant reminder of irrelevance offered by competitors who share none of your profession’s traditions.


Mechanics however offer more than an illusory connection to the actual life of cowboys in the old west. They are themselves an increasingly anachronistic presence in the contemporary world of retail and transportation. How little a mechanic’s job has changed since 1885 can be measured by how little the bicycle itself has changed since then. In the same amount of time, nearly everything consumable, as well as most of how Americans relate to work, has changed. The bicycle has not. Nor has the bulk of the mechanic’s work: attaching a component to such and such a place, installing a fastener until it’s snug, moving on to the next step. 


The fact that mechanics repeat the same gestures with very little variance, in shop spaces that themselves have changed little in appearance, provides more than an illusion of a time and place different than the one we occupy day to day. The mechanic exists and works in a functioning replica of spaces that are much older and hold out the possibility that time does not necessarily erase or deform all forms of work. The mechanic is like an antidote to anachronism and an argument against the idea that our world must become more complex as it ages. 


2 Comments


Cory, gotta drop a comment in here to let you know that this think piece was a joy to read. 10/10, no notes. Brings to mind the great Bon Jovi song: "I'm a cowboy / On a steel horse I ride / I'm wanted dead or alive" -- looking forward to galloping through the streets of Seattle.

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Hey Nick, thanks! Appreciate you taking the time to read the post and to send the Jon Bovi tip

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