By Stan Purdum
When it comes to fixing problems on the bicycle — or in life, in general, for that matter — starting the fix at the right point is a great benefit, but that seems to be a lesson I have to relearn from time to time.
My bicycle saddle is a recent case in point. It’s a Brooks B-17, a classic leather model that’s been in production in England since the 1890s. It’s been virtually unchanged over that time, and for good reason: Many riders find that, like a good pair of leather shoes, the saddle is among the most comfortable available once broken in.
Many long-distance riders swear by their Brooks, but these seats are not routinely provided on new bikes because 1) they’re more expensive than the usual production saddles, 2) they weigh slightly more, which is a drawback for competitive cycling, 3) they require a certain amount of care, especially because, being leather, it does them no good to get them repeatedly wet, and 4) the break-in period can be as long as 200 miles of riding or more.
Still, Brooks fans consider the comfort worth the hassle. I brought mine precisely because none of the other saddles I’d tried provided lasting comfort over a long ride. Once I got the B-17 set to the proper height, tilt, and fore-aft position, it’s been a comfortable seat for the more than 26,000 miles I’ve ridden on it.
Until it wasn’t, that is.
Roadside Repairs Not Quite Cutting It
On a recent ride, I realized that I was squirming on the saddle, and judging from where I felt the pressure, it seemed as if the nose of the saddle needed to go down a bit. Without much thought, I stopped at the roadside, got out my handy multi-tool and used it to adjust the tilt mechanism at the top of the seat post. That changed the saddle slant and seemed to provide the relief I sought, so I finished my ride with the Brooks at the new angle.
Never mind that the original setting had been right for thousands of miles. …
Two days later, when I next rode, I discovered within minutes that I was now less comfortable on the seat than before the adjustment, so I road-side fiddled with the mechanism again, trying the nose a little farther up than before. As things turned out, this was only the first of five more tilt adjustments over three rides, none of which resulted in a position I could stay at ease in for more than a few miles. And, of course, discomfort in the saddle meant that I didn’t enjoy the rides very much.
Frustrated, I began to wonder if, despite appearances to the contrary, the saddle had worn out — or even if my anatomy had somehow changed. I am, after all, getting to the age where I occasionally have aches and pains for no apparent reason. And in my gloomier thoughts, I considered whether my days as a long-distance cyclist were drawing to an end.
But Wasn’t There Another Fix I’d Done Before?
Not willing to go there, I finally remembered that unlike almost all other saddles, the Brooks has a tensioning nut and bolt built into the structure under the nose (which is part of the reason for its higher weight). The idea is that as the leather stretches over time under the heft of the rider, it very occasionally needs to have that bolt tightened by perhaps as much as a full turn to restore the seat to its proper profile.
I had, in fact, performed that operation twice before, but those times, there had been no great discomfort calling attention to the need; I’d tightened the tension simply because I’d noticed the saddle nose was slightly loose when I wasn’t on the bike. The procedure is needed so seldom that I had since forgotten about it.
Recalling it now, I examined the tension of the leather and determined it was slack, meaning that it sagged under me when I was mounted and was likely the source of the new discomfort. Having let it go so long, it took a couple of turns on the nut to get the profile right and then some more trial-and-error to get the saddle slant back to where it was before I’d started my willy-nilly tilt adjustments.
In my better thinking moments, I know that whether talking about repairing a bike, a leaky faucet, a failing plan, or even a damaged relationship, starting the fix at the right point is wise, but it requires picturing the presenting symptom as part of a system rather than an isolated problem.
You Have to Consider the ‘System’
The saddle “system,” for example, includes the apparatus at the top of the seat post into which the seat is clipped and which permits adjusting its fore-and-aft placement and tilt. The seat post itself is also an essential part of the adjustment system because it can be moved up and down to determine the height of the saddle above the pedals and swiveled side-to-side to set the alignment of the saddle with the bike itself (some riders find it helpful to have the nose of the seat a few degrees left or right of pointing straight ahead).
Also part of the system is the collar and bolt at the top of the seat tube that’s tightened to hold the seat post at the desired height. And, in the case of the Brooks, the assembly that enables adjusting the saddle profile is part of the system as well. With all of that to consider, starting the fix at the right point saves a lot of frustration.
Relationships, too, have system aspects. When, for example, my wife snaps at me because I forgot to take out the trash, my apology for that slip-up may not cool her annoyance if it was initially sparked by my forgetting of something more significant, like a wedding anniversary. Her exasperation may have been expressed over the trash, but repairing the bond requires me to address the greater offense, because the two are connected. And it takes some thought on my part to decide what the real offense was. Starting the fix in the right place is important.
The disconcerting thing about my saddle fiasco, however, is that I’ve already had experience with approaching bicycle problems in a systematic way. Back when I first took up cycling as an adult and had a mechanical problem, I’d attempt to fix it without considering why the particular problem was occurring and what might be contributing to it. Instead, I’d look for what seemed to be the offending part and tinker with it or replace it, often without solving the problem.
…She Teaches Most Effectively Through Relearning
For example, I once found that my front derailleur wasn’t moving the chain properly from chain ring to chain ring, meaning that I wasn’t able to shift gears properly. I knew there were adjusting screws on the derailleur that set the limits of how far the derailleur can travel when moving the chain, so I grabbed a screwdriver and started turning the screws one way and then the other, but no matter what I did, the problem persisted. And not only that, but the chain now jumped off the chain rings when I pedaled.
Frustrated, I was at the point of thinking the whole derailleur was no good. But when I finally took the bike to a shop, the mechanic pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the derailleur. Rather, the cable connecting the shift lever to the derailleur was loose, something I’d have seen if I had taken the time to study the problem. In 30 seconds, he tightened it, and the problem was eliminated. (There’s a reason that bicycle repair manuals like Park Tool’s Big Blue Book and Zinn’s Art of Road Bike Maintenance discuss derailleurs in chapters titled, respectively, “Derailleur System” and “The Shifting System.”)
There’s certainly nothing wrong with attempting repairs even when you don’t have all the knowledge you’d like, for even the attempt is likely to be a learning experience. But an important piece of learning for me is that there is a logical order for checking things on a bike, and if I start at the right place and patiently make sure the related functions are working properly, I often save myself time and frustration later on. In short, I’ve gradually learned to be more patient when working on bikes, so that now I’m reasonably competent at fixing them.
Except, of course, when I don’t transfer that knowledge to new problems.
Experience is a great teacher, but sometimes I think that she teaches most effectively through the process of relearning.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.