Adapted from Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels
It’s not an especially trendy word, but spiritual habits require discipline. Practical cyclists, those of us who ride daily as our primary means of transit, have something any pastor would give her right arm for in her congregation: a discipline and a dedication to the implicit Rule of Life—in this case, Always by Bike. Our bicycles orient our daily life. Our discipline just happens to be on two wheels. We could live another way, but day after day, we make the decision to go by bike, again and again. Around and around, the wheels turn.
A bicycle wheel is actually at least three different components: hub, spokes, and rim. Moving from the inside outward, the hub of the wheel is at the center. The hub is formed by three main parts: an axle around which the whole wheel rotates, internal hub bearings that allow the hub shell to rotate, and an exterior hub shell to which the spokes attach. Spokes are the metal wires connecting the hub to the rim, the metal hoop around the outside. Finally, the tire and the tube are connected to the rim.
Around and around it goes. A good bicycle wheel should be consistent all around so the rim is perfectly concentric, a “true” wheel. When a wheel ceases to be consistent, it has become “out of true.”
Unlike racing wheels designed to be light, my commuter bike wheels are designed to endure some wear. Bike wheels are fairly sturdy. I rode my first commuter bike pretty hard, the bike and I both banging around. Riding home one night, post-winter, I was breezing past the pothole repair crew that had jammed up the cars on Columbus Avenue. In theory, there’s a painted bike lane between the parked cars on the right and the moving cars on the left. But the cars on the left weren’t moving that day. In theory, by bike I had a clear path forward, despite the stalled traffic. I was smugly moving past them at a fairly good pace when one of the parked cars on the right pulled out into the bike lane to wedge his way into the stalled traffic on the left. To avoid ramming my bike into his driver-side door, I swerved left—and smack into one of the unrepaired potholes.
I threw on my brakes and put my feet down on the uneven pavement.
My front wheel had hit the pothole edge pretty hard—but better that than hitting the car. After a few choice words inviting “You idiot” to “look at the bike lane before you pull out,” directed at a closed window and a driver uninterested in my transit tutorial, I walked my bike around the front of the offending car and back into the bike lane.
There appeared to be nothing wrong with my bike or with me. My heart was racing a bit, and I was angry about coming so close to being hit, but I detected no physical damage. Because I was a novice and dusk was falling, I didn’t take too long to examine the bike. I was less than three miles from home. So I rode on.
But something felt a bit off. Not horrible, just off. I could pedal and keep moving, but it felt like I was fighting the bike to stay straight. Still, I rode home. And honestly, I rode my bike for the next two days until I could get someone more experienced than I to look it over (not good for the long-term health of your bike). I knew enough to know that something was wrong, but not enough to know what the problem was.
My neighborhood boasts a number of bike shops, each catering to a different community of cyclists: a shop for the young families and
old-guy orthodox cyclists, a shop primarily for the bike messengers, and my preferred shop, the one for the commuter class. Bikes Not Bombs is a for-profit shop that funds their non-profit mission. They take donated bikes and rehab them for sale, in the process teaching city kids how to do the repairs. I find them the least intimidating bike shop and the one most oriented towards teaching me what actually is wrong.
With my bike up on the repair stand, the young mechanic spun the front wheel. She stood directly in front of it, her eyes fixed on the space below the fork (which holds the front wheel) where the brake pads hover above the rim. Intently watching from behind her glasses, she said, “Come, look.” I bent over to bring my face near hers. “I think your wheel is out of true,” she diagnosed.
“See how it wobbles?” she asked. “Let’s take it off and check.” She flipped open the lever near the caliper on the brake, then flipped open the quick-release lever on the axle and removed the front wheel. We walked to the workbench and placed the wheel on a truing stand, where she started “truing the wheel.” An inconsistency on the sides of the rim will result in the brake pad rubbing unintentionally at a point in the rotation, and will make the bike’s ride uneven. Many things can cause the inconsistency: hitting the wheel against something like a pothole, an unseen hit like another bike banging into your locked bike, regular wear and tear, a poorly built wheel, spokes that are too tight or too loose, human or mechanical error. To “true” the wheel, the mechanic spun it slowly, her eyes again fixed as she watched for the places of inconsistency. And then, where possible, she made the appropriate adjustments.
This isn’t a bad process for humans, either. At its most basic, “truing” is intentionally looking for what’s off. We all get out of sorts for our own reasons. Am I over-tired? Have I been around too many people? Am I hungry? Did someone cut me off today so I hit an emotional pothole? What’s actually going on here? Am I really angry at this person, or at something else entirely? For me, first I notice that I’m wobbling, then I wonder, Why am I out of alignment?