Choosing the Right Wrench

BluesCatBluesCat is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging ( and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.

Sooner or later, you’re going to need a Wrench.

No, not the piece of metal with the funny end that allows you to loosen parts on your bike which should really stay tightened. This type of Wrench is a guy or gal who has the knowledge to repair and maintain your bike; a bike mechanic.

Today’s bicycles are pretty high tech, and even though almost anyone can handle fixing a flat or lubing a chain, there are parts of your bike which are best left to experts. The bike shops which hire good, expert Wrenches also invest tens of thousands of dollars in training and special tools to do the job right.

Choosing the Right WrenchGood Wrenches are usually not specialists. Bike shops can rarely afford to hire somebody who is only a mechanic, they need someone who also knows the line of products the shop sells and who can run the cash register. The same guy who is rebuilding the bottom bracket on a professional racer’s $10,000 carbon-framed beauty one minute may be tasked — the very next minute — with answering a question about a noisy wheel bearing on the recumbent belonging to an old guy who looks like he just escaped from a nursing home.

And there’s the rub. What if that Wrench is really, really interested in working on that high-priced two-wheeled goddess, and not at all in fielding questions from that weird old dude with the pirate-cat pennant on his cycle?

I guess we really can’t blame the mechanic. But how do we find out if he understands that very few of us who ride will ever own a bike which could win a stage in the Tour de France, but we depend on our commuter bikes just as much as every rider in the peloton? A professional racer is surrounded by a squadron of people who can tune and repair his bike the moment he even thinks there is something wrong with it. When a bike commuter takes his cycle out on the road he’s all on his own, totally at the mercy of the skills and work ethic of the person who tightened down all those bolts and nuts.

How do you go about identifying the mechanic who will give your cycle the attention it deserves?

How do you choose the right Wrench?

The challenge is finding the right shop: a shop which caters to transportation cyclists. I’ve visited bike shops all over the Phoenix metropolitan area. There are about eight of them within an ten mile radius of my home; probably more than twice that if I extend the distance to twenty miles. In addition, I use the telephone all the time to qualify vendors wanting to sell my company information technology gear. Telephone cold callers, and telephone support specialists, have a script they go by to speed things along, and I’ve developed a system I use (sort of a pencil-enhanced-mental-script) to handle how I qualify vendors to figure out if I want to do business with them. Maybe it isn’t perfect, but it has served me pretty well for a long time and I think it will be a good tool (pardon the pun) to use in the quest for a bike mechanic. It boils down to a four step process:

1.       Location, Location, Location

This mantra of the real estate agent applies pretty well to bike shop service techs. Go to Google Maps and search for “bicycle,” “shops,” and add your home town to the search criteria. Zoom into your home address and look for shops that are within a five-mile radius of it. Any shops you find are the first ones we want to check out, because they are within easy riding distance. Any shops you find within a mile-and-a-half of your house move to the top of the list because, in a pinch, you can walk to them. Pick the two closest shops to your house, get out your pencil and put down the information for those shops (address, phone number, hours, web site address, etc.), in a little notebook you can carry with you while you ride your bike, and move on to step  2.

2.       The Virtual Visit

Everybody can have a Website, even kids, so if a bike shop doesn’t have a Website they may have closed or have limited resources. Whatever the reason, I’d delete that shop from my list, return to step  1 and pick the next bike shop closest to your house.

When you have two bike shop Websites, visit them and start a running score in your notebook for each shop. If the shop has any mention of National Bike Month on the home page, give the shop one point. If the shop has the word “commuter” or “commute” anywhere on the home page, give the shop another point. If there are pictures of cruiser bikes or recumbent bikes on the home page, give the shop one more point — the shop is promoting non-sporting bicycles, and will be more open to fixing and repairing your utility bike.

Most bike web shops will have links to pictures and information on the types of bikes they sell; here again, if there is any information on cruisers, give them one point; if there is also information on any sort of cargo bike or recumbent bikes give them another point. If you see any “Dutch-style bikes” (such as the Electra Amsterdam or Trek Cocoa) or any bike by Pashley (technically a Dutch-style bike to everybody but passionate Pashley owners) give the shop two points — the shop is firmly into transportation cycling.

When you’re finished, tally up the points for each shop and move on to step

3.       Telephone Reconnaissance

A word of warning: We are about to enter a competition. We’re going to call each one of these shops and talk to them. The nature of the contest is that the goal of the shop is to get you to come down to the store (after all, they can sell you a lot more stuff if they can expose you to all the shiny goodies they have on display), while your goal is to figure out whether making the trip is worth it.

We need a hook, a subject for the conversation which involves bicycles. The best hook is a bike consumable of some sort; something which either wears out or will periodically need replacing. Bicycle tires are perfect for this purpose, and not just because they wear out. Bike tires are made in all sorts of sizes and all sorts of tread designs for all sorts of uses, from skinny road-racing things to fat donuts suitable for toting enormous loads on a cargo bike. By asking about a specific size of tire, we can determine a lot about the shop.

Mountain bikes, comfort bikes and cruisers typically have 26-inch tires, while hybrids, Dutch-style bikes, road bikes and sporting bikes usually have 700c tires. The problem with asking about 700c tires is that since sporting bikes use them, we’ll have to immediately go to work steering the conversation in a direction away from sporting bikes. If we start out talking about 26-inch tires, we’ll speed up our qualifying of the shop.

When we call the shops, it would be good to have a visualization tool right in front of us: a bike with 26-inch tires. If you do not have one, talk to your friends and neighbors to see if you can borrow one. If you come up empty, use whatever bike you have, and if it has 700c tires you’ll have to modify your approach somewhat. Look closely at the sidewall of the tire for the size, it will look something like “26 x 2.1”. Write that number down. Also on the sidewall will be the name of the manufacturer of the tire and the model name. Write those down, too.

With the bike in front of you, and your notepad open, call one of the bike shops on your Top Two List. The typical greeting is just the name of the shop, if the greeter also says their name, give the shop a point. (Do not, however, give them your name; we want to get as much information as we can and volunteer as little as possible to begin with). Respond by saying you’re looking for tires of the size on your visualization bike: “Hi. I’m looking for tires? Size 26 by two-point-one.” If you have a bike with 700c tires, add a little statement to the effect that, “This isn’t a racing bike, but is used for other things.” That’s all you say.

We’re not trying to be devious or tricky here, we’re trying to gauge the interest of this person in providing products and services for utility cyclists. People who are interested in something ask lots of questions, people who are disinterested emit terse, monosyllabic responses with no question mark on the end. (Parents of teenagers will know exactly what I’m talking about).

We’ve given the phone greeter the size of the tire, and it happens to be the size used on a lot of utility cycles. If he or she is interested at all there should be lots of questions. Answer their questions with your own brief answers, but don’t add anything. If they ask “What kind of bike?” simply say the manufacturer’s name but don’t add what model it is, If they ask “What kind of riding do you do?” simply say something like “commuting” but don’t add how far you commute.

For each question they ask, give the shop one point. When the conversation seems to lag, and there isn’t a question hanging over it, ask about the make of the tire on your visualization bike: “The tires on this bike are <insert manufacturer name here>, do you   carry that brand?” This should lead to some more questions, scored at one point each. And when the conversation flags one last time, mention the model name of your tire if it hasn’t been mentioned: “These are <insert model name here>, do you carry those?”

When phone greeter knows the tire size, brand name and model name, it’s time to end the conversation. If, at any time during the conversation, and after their initial greeting, the person has given you their name without prompting, give them a point and immediately give them your first name.

End the conversation by thanking them, asking them about when they are in the shop, assuring them you will be in to see them, and confirming the shop address: “Gosh, thanks for your time, <insert their name here>, I guess I need to visit your shop. What days are you in the shop so I can meet you in person? … And the address is … ?” You’ve gone from an anonymous voice on the telephone to talking to an Acquaintance, and that will be important when you move on to step  4.

4.       Into the Breach: The Shop Visit

You can’t take your notepad into the bike shop and scribble hash marks in it for scoring. Use a simple, five-star system and head down to the shop on a day your Acquaintance said they would be there.

As you walk through the front door, you’ll usually have a few seconds to look around before anyone notices you and approaches you. Like all retail businesses, bike shops will typically have their best moving product right inside the front door, they don’t hide their best seller way in the back. If the first bikes you see are cruisers or Dutch-bikes, give the shop one star. If you also immediately see commuter products like trailers, panniers, racks and rack bags, etc., give the shop another star.

Move to the counter, introduce yourself by your first name, and tell them you’re looking for the Acquaintance. When that person comes out, repeat your name and say “Remember me? I called asking about tires.” If the shop person remembers you, give the shop one more star. If not remind him or her of your phone conversation and say “I’m not sure these are the best tires for me, so I’m just kind of looking.”

Star ChartThere’s no script that will work from now on, so simply relax and have a conversation about bike tires.

Get information about what your Acquaintance thinks would be the best tire for you and what the alternatives are. Ask him or her about tread design and whether thorn proof tubes are worth it. Ask any other questions you can think of, like tire availability and pricing. When the time comes to end the conversation, you’ll know because the Acquaintance will stop talking and may look at you expectantly, waiting for you to say something like “I’ll take them.” Instead, say “Wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about, I’ll need to get back to you. Do you service all bikes, or just the ones you sell?”

I’d be surprised, at this point, if your Acquaintance said they couldn’t or wouldn’t service your bike. If they do say something like that, then it’s time to thank them, leave the shop, and start back at step  1 with another shop.

If, instead, your Acquaintance says they’ll service your bike and he or she invites you back to see their work benches and work stands, give the shop another star. If your Acquaintance introduces you to another person in the shop, by name, give the shop one last star.

Now it should be a matter of tallying up points and stars to figure out where to take your bike. If a shop doesn’t have at least one star, you should probably eliminate it from consideration and go back to step  1 with another shop. If a shop has only two stars, and there is another shop in your area almost as close to your home as it is, you might want to add that shop to your list and start the four step process with them; if that other shop scores higher stars, put it on your list in place of the other one. If two shops have the same number of stars, pick the shop with the higher number of points.

Now, take your bike down to the shop and have them perform a routine tune-up. It will cost around $35 to $75 and is important to do at this time. You need to make sure you solidify your relationship with your Chosen Wrench in case you really need them.

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11 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Wrench”

  1. Very thorough. In the past I’ve just given up at the first sign of disinterest/elitism/confusion and decided to never return again. I’ll have to employ this method in the future.

  2. Graham says:

    I found this very amusing, BluesCat. The only places that sell bicycles within easy distance of my home are actually “sporting goods” stores and employ wrenches that either don’t know what they’re doing or only work 4 hours a day centered around lunch time.

    So I’m left with two choices, both 10 miles from my house. A retired hippie who likes to fix up old bikes and sell west coast beach cruisers and a ready-to-retire hippie who has a nicer shop but disdains everything excepting the cruisers and hybrids he sells. (which aren’t impressive)

    All in all, it’s a lose/lose situation for me, but I’ve got my “bicycle repair for dummies” manual and I’m making the best of it. Who knows, maybe someone will offer me a million bucks to open up my own shop one day!

  3. BluesCat says:

    Graham – I sympathize with you, and it sounds like somebody is missing a bet: a QUALITY, full service bike shop in your might just make a FORTUNE!

    Oh, and be careful about bad-mouthing those bicycling hippies, one of the CbB editors is sort of an “underground hippie.”

    … ?? …

    “In the dictionary under redundant it says see redundant.” – Robin Williams

  4. JonO says:

    I’ve found that checking out the clientele of a bike shop is a good indicator of the quality of wrenches. The shop where I bought my hybrid is always full of families and people who seem to be casual riders. The store itself is impressive and the service area looks great too but the wrenches there could never seem to get the job done right.

    After not being satisfied with a couple of repair jobs at the above bike store, I looked around and found another place close by. The store itself looks unassuming but the clientele always seems to be serious bike types. This place (The Path Bike Shop in Orange County) has a phenomenal wrench and the guy has no problem letting you stand there and watch while he’s doing his work. He’s even happy to take the time to explain what he’s doing and why you do or do not need various types of equipment.

  5. Graham says:

    Oh no, don’t misunderstand. I’m using the word “hippie” as an identifier, not as a slur. My apologies if it came across incorrectly!

  6. BluesCat says:

    Graham – (He, he) I think we all understood. The BluesCat is a cantankerous old coot, who can’t resist pulling the (bike) chain of even his BEST friends!

    JonO – Excellent points! My favorite shop has the two work stands right behind the cash register, so they don’t have to even invite “you back to see their work benches and work stands.” They’re working right there, in front of you, and that earns them a star in my book.

  7. Steven says:

    This is great advice…but for someone like me in the mid-west, the closest bike shop is over an hour away. And I have found 4 within 2 hours, but they all seem to deal with “recreation” racers. I would kill to live near a shop, esp one that had heard of commuting 🙂

  8. Joel says:

    I have been tearing apart bicycles since I was 8 years old. Many years later, I am amazed how hard it can be to find a good shop. That is the reason I do everything myself. The friends of my daughter and son are always commenting on how well their bicycles ride. My children ride their bicycles because they are trouble free and dependable.

    A good “Wrench”, wherever you find one, is invaluable. Maybe that is why my wife keeps me around.

  9. Jeff Gardner says:

    Quite the coincidence, Blues. Norman Kibble there in Tucson is a mechanic the likes of which I’ve never seen. That is, he caters to the high-dollar cyclists in town. Someone pretty darned literally need an appointment and letters of reference to have him take them on as clients. It says alot for Tucson, unsurprisingly. Wouldn’t it be great if there were such demand everywhere??! There will be…probably coinciding with seven FRNs a gallon!

  10. BluesCat says:

    Jeff Gardner – And can you imagine asking Kibble to work on Ted’s Motiv?? It’d be like asking Picasso to do Thomas Kinkade paintings!!

    Your comment about demand, and those of Graham and Steven, got me to thinking how royally spoiled I am to have bike shops flourishing in MY urban environment, and wondering what it takes to justify opening a quality bike shop somewhere. Stay tuned, I feel another article coming on!

  11. Jeff Gardner says:

    Royally spoiled, perhaps. Still, you chose to put yourself in that good situation and that deserved some credit. Here, in the next large town east of you, we have all of the natural assets that you do in Tucson, but have not seized upon it.

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