Monday, February 29, 2016

The Mechanic

Throughout my entire life, with my fascination with automobiles and now bicycles, the question always lingered in the back of my head: Am I "the driver" or am I "the mechanic?" Automobile racing has existed ever since the second car was built, and as with any form of racing whatsoever, there is always the competitor on the front and the guy behind the scenes who keeps everything running. Nobody has time to be both at the same time, yet both are needed at all times. I have always loved riding, driving, and wrenching on my own vehicles and it has been unclear to me whether I was the driver or the mechanic.

That is, until now.

After a series of experiences, I discovered that I was the mechanic, not the driver. Driving (or competitive riding) takes a level of physical finesse that I am either unable or unwilling to achieve. Reflexes, quick thinking, strength, and endurance that one is either born with or gains through vigorous training. For one, I have always been a slower thinker, only able to react correctly if situations are anticipated and thought through beforehand. Stunt driving, downhill riding, and things along those lines always got my blood rushing but I knew there was no way I would be able to cope with the situation if it was presented to me. I am only able to partially experience actions like these at my own leisure, without the pressure of other people. 

Riding competitively also requires a level of attention to health that I have thus far been unable to muster. Sure, there really is nothing wrong with me, but I have merely stayed "in shape" enough to get from one end of the town to the other. Lugging my 40+ pound 3-speeds up and down hills every day sure helps, but I make up for that by nourishing myself with as much junk food as this college town can offer. Everything I need is luckily within a 5-mile radius. I thoroughly enjoy riding my bike to work, to school, to the store, or anywhere else within the comfortable radius any day of any week, through any sort of weather. That is what keeps me in shape and that is what I am in shape to do. Although the long rides are fun, especially when there is company, I realize that I currently do not enjoy taking time out of my usual routine to stay in shape. Cruising to and from different cities is something that I do somewhat often but never plan for. Just like a car mechanic who has a sweet ride in the garage, who takes it out on the weekend to hoon around but never competes in organized races. 50 miles was about the extent that I could handle at my peak of fitness last summer. Part of what made me so fit last summer was riding to and from work every day where I would then partake in hours of manual labor. After the summer, work decreased and classes were closer to home; therefore, I started to grow horizontally. I will sometimes go unnecessary distances to get food, but that is the extent of it.

I participated in a bike race last fall that was exhilarating but strengthened the sense that I was of the less-competitive type. This is not to say that I was discouraged by the outcome. Quite the opposite, actually: in a sea of racers with carbon frames and lycra suits, there I was on my ancient hi-ten steel bike with fenders, rack, and lock still attached, myself clad in jeans and a t-shirt. My plan was to play around and then head back to work. And I didn't come in last! There was the advantage of being on a short course - any longer would have been way out of my ability. 

Of course, we mechanics will always have those moments but will always prefer to lurk in the shadows and enjoy our craft in silence. When asked how many miles I cover in a year, I surprise myself and others with the number. My friends see me as a "hardcore rider" and ask why I do not participate in cycle clubs and the answer comes quickly to me: I build at my own leisure and enjoy my vehicles as I please. I will often build things for the sake of building but frown at the idea of exercising for the sake of exercise. I am not inclined to do something with the intention of being directly competitive with others. For me, being able to get on my bike and go where I need to go is enough.

Another difference between the driver and the mechanic is the interaction between man and machine. Competitors must push themselves and their machines to the maximum to ensure no ounce of potential is lost. The mechanic, being the one to assemble the machines, know just what they are capable of yet at the same time are unwilling to push them to the max. As an example, I was trying out a car belonging to a close friend of mine. Having done much previous research, I almost knew the ins and outs of the whole thing. From the passenger's seat, he suddenly suggested, "Floor it." "Floor it? but ... " "Yeah, floor it." So I did, nearly scared out of my wits. What if something broke? Of course, I knew that it was a relatively new car with relatively few miles past break-in and had the less-powerful of the engine options. Breaking something was very unlikely. My friend here was "the driver." This is not to say he was ignorant on the subject, because he most definitely was not, but his mind worked differently than mine. We had previously participated in long rides and car shenanigans together and he was the one who always had the quicker reflexes and handling skills, who enjoyed long, fast rides, and was always willing to gear up for a particular activity and go all-out. Here I sit now, surrounded by a sea of spare Sturmey-Archer parts, still unwilling to treat my machines any more harshly than I did before. In our earlier days, my buddy would be surging ahead his on road bike, me following on my crummy department-store bike suggesting we turn back right about now, He pushed himself to the max while I was content with arriving home comfortably. 

As a result of being "the mechanic," none of the machines in my possession are competitive in any way, by any stretch of mind. All of my bicycles exist because of my fondness of building and the desire for a comfortable ride to the local diner. In a way, they are all experiments to that end. I have the tools and the ability to piece together the fastest of racing machines but choose to point my potential to building yet another bike that is supposedly even better for squirting around town. In other words, I am more willing to sharpen my craft than I am to tone my body. Not that there's anything wrong with building to one's own taste, but maybe, with a bit of prodding from "the driver," the mechanic can build something truly impressive. As I hinted at earlier, both elements are needed in order for the team to reach its full potential. The driver needs the mechanic to provide a finely-tuned machine on which to test his limits, and the mechanic needs the driver in order to push the limits of what can be built from what exists.