Interview with a ...
What is your job?
I do bicycle suspension repair and rebuilding. I also do bike repair; you don’t get into the suspension side without doing other bike repairs as well. I’ve worked in many bike shops, and I used to own one, but I’m an employee of a bike shop now.
I also do all the ordering, check inventory, stock parts, schedule all the repairs, and whatever else needs to be done on the retail end. But suspension repair is how I brand myself.
What does suspension repair involve?
Most mountain bikes come with shock absorbers on the fork in front and often in the rear. Those shocks require maintenance, if not rebuilding, at least once a year. They might need a nitrogen charge, for example, or the seals may need maintenance every 6 months or so. It depends on use: how many hours you’re on the bike, how hard you ride, how much dirt or other stuff is in the area you ride, that sort of thing.
I got into suspension work when a local distributor, which had a suspension service center, shut down. There was nobody around who really provided that service, so customers were having to send their suspension back to the manufacturer if they needed work on it. I learned what I could, and I had or got the tools I needed, and it took off from there. It just makes things easier for the customer to have service done locally.
How knowledgeable are bicycle owners about maintenance?
I have pro racers who know exactly what they want done and will tell me how they want their bike set up. I also have customers who will bring in a bike and say, “I’m not sure if it needs anything done, but I’ve had it for 5 years, so….”
A good part of my job is educating the customer. I use the analogy of an oil change on a car: You don’t technically have to change the oil, but the car will run better and will be less expensive in the long run if you keep up with regular maintenance. I keep spare shocks and forks on hand to use as examples, so I can show a customer how they work.
It sounds like you interact with customers quite a bit.
You have to be able to talk to people. You have to be able to explain things clearly and in a way they will understand. If done right, bicycle repair is a very social job.
I always say working in retail is kind of like having training in psychology: You see so many types of people, and you have to be able to deal with anyone who comes through the door. You have to make customers feel like they’re heard, pick up cues, and tailor your responses to what they’re saying. Communication is important for being able to help customers better.
What other skills do bicycle repairers need?
You use math skills a lot: You have to understand very, very specific measurements. I have to understand fluid volumes and viscosity, and I have to understand and apply a basic knowledge of gas pressure—I’m always having to calculate measurements when information is unavailable.
You also need manual dexterity, mechanical aptitude, and attention to detail. And you have to keep good records and know how to use spreadsheets and a computer.
Is bicycling included in your job description?
I don’t get to go cycling as much as I’d like. I know I work in a bike shop, but…I work in a bike shop. It’s retail. The shop is open daily, plus weekends and evenings, although I schedule my 40 hours for Sunday through Thursday.
I’m standing almost all the time. There’s also some walking and the occasional test ride. But I’d say I spend 90 percent of my time standing.
What draws people to this occupation?
I think it’s people who just really love bikes, and they get into repair. Some people open their own shop, and then maybe the shop fails—but they still love bikes, so they find someplace to work as a mechanic.
For a lot of bike-shop people, it’s not so much that we consciously chose to do this; it’s that we never chose to do anything else. Nobody I know ever planned to be a professional bike mechanic. Most of them are overeducated and overqualified for what they do.
Tell me about your background.
I rode my bike pretty regularly starting in about middle school, and I got into mountain biking. Bikes fall apart, so I messed around with putting them back together. Then, after I graduated from high school, I got a job in a bike shop. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, but I kept learning more and more as my responsibilities increased.
I went to community college and eventually got a 2-year degree in woodworking. But I’ve been a bike mechanic for 24 years now. In the beginning, it was just some job I had when I was 19. Then I was 24, then 34, then 40. I gave woodworking a try, twice, but I came back to bikes. And at the level I am now, it pays better to be a bike mechanic than a woodworker.
Is certification required for bicycle repairers?
I have several certifications, either for specific brands or on specific components, like disc brakes. But I don’t think those certifications are what make me a professional. At a certain point, I’m going to have seen everything they can show me in a seminar or training because I’ve worked on everything that comes through the door.
You have to have practical knowledge, which you get from working with good mentors at different shops and on different kinds of bikes. Everything I need to know, I learned on the job.
What are the biggest challenges for bicycle repairers?
There’s a lot that’s great about the Internet, but it presents two major challenges for us. First, it makes everyone an expert. I specialize in a niche service, but I get a lot of customers who are 100 percent sure they’ve done everything right because they watched some video online. And a subset of that group is customers who assume I know exactly what the problem is the minute they walk in, and they don’t think they should have to give the so-called expert 5 minutes to take a look and see what’s going on.
Second, it’s changing the industry. People don’t have to physically come into a bike shop anymore; they can find everything they need online. I’ll always have my skill set, but if there are no shops left for people to take their bikes to, what does that mean for the future of repair?
What do you like best about your job?
I like problem-solving and that frustrating, awesome feeling that comes from learning something new. I like working with tools and learning about new ones; you can never have enough tools.
But the best thing on the job happened about 8 years ago. Some company reps from Japan and Malaysia came to the shop and walked around. Then, one of the reps, an engineer, came over to me—I was the only mechanic at the time, because the shop had recently opened—and said, “We’ve been throughout the United States, and this is the first shop we’ve visited where all of the brakes on all of the bikes are set up correctly, with perfect smoothness.” That’s about the highest praise I could ever hope to get!
What advice do you have for aspiring bicycle repairers?
Always know that you will never know everything. If you don’t know the answer, never lie to customers and say that you do. That’s the No. 1 thing people appreciate. You can always find the answer and get back to them later.
There’s not much money in bike repair, and there’s definitely no glamour. But for a small group of people who do it well, it can be a lot of fun.
Kathleen Green, "Bicycle repairer," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018.