Perspective 17: How To Fix Your Bike

My first book

The first book I wrote – well, I almost finished one drawing – had the working title of How to Fix Your Bike. Never mind that I was ten with zero knowledge of anything mechanical. I’m not sure I could even spell mechanical, but imposter syndrome had clearly not yet set in. I’d never heard of reverse engineering, but that was my plan: I would tear down my five-dollar Huffy and then, when I put it back together, explain how to do so. Tearing the bike apart in my bedroom made for a fun afternoon, filled with hope and dreams. Putting it back together in working order…not so much. I think I threw the pieces away when I moved out of the house in my early twenties; the parts rusted now in the same buckets I originally tossed them into.


Grown and married, my wife and I bought bicycles – Kobes – to explore the Seattle countryside, and to spend quality time together. We learned quickly – I learned quickly – that her idea of spending quality time together didn’t include bicycles or tents or belays or cliffs. I’m kind of a genius in figuring things out a year after I should, and she gave up biking, but I kept at it, riding further and further and faster and faster and I started entering local races.

The light goes bright

In a few years, we moved to Georgia for work and I kept racing. I entered a local twenty-mile time trial, and by local, I mean out of the way, even in backwoods Georgia. Riders – real riders as I saw them – from Atlanta or Athens drove three hours by car just to find the race. I was riding several hundred miles a week now and won the race easily. In fact, officials accused me of cheating, and I had to prove that I actually rode the course.

A life lesson I still remember – that’s the definition of a life lesson – came to me at the race, sitting and watching other racers cross the line in second, third, or twentieth place.

I sat there on the side of the road at the finish line, holding on to my scrappy Japanese Kobe that I tore down to the bearings every Sunday after church so I could push it for another 400 miles again that week and I saw it: riders finishing up on their Biancis and Colnagos and I even saw a rider finish on my dream bike: a Guerciotti. I thought, “Man, if I could only afford one of those, I could be really good.”

As soon as I thought it, though, the light bulb went off: I had just beaten a dozen people riding those bikes. And soundly. No competition. It dawned on me in an instant that, at my level – a serious but novice rider and racer – it’s all guts and miles. Maybe when you are pushing up the Pyrenees in the Tour de France…then maybe then, that half ounce of titanium, or that tenth of a degree in frame geometry makes a difference, but in local racing for fat weekenders? For guys and gals who go out for a team ride on Saturday before stopping for a beer or three? No.

It’s lodged into my brain now as a way to help figure out where the greatest gains come from. Sometimes, I don’t care. I’m happy to run a 24-25 min 5k and get beaten by 17-year-old girls finishing in 19 minutes. I got emails after the races about how these shoes or this supplement will take me to new heights, but I know the secret. It’s easier but not as fun: put away the pie and toss the cookies to drop 15 pounds. It’s that easy and that hard.

Recommendation: Found My Fitness

I heard this put another way recently on Rhonda Patrick’s Found My Fitness podcast, this one talking with Stuart Phillips, a kinesiologist from McMaster University in Canada

The topic was protein, and they went back and forth about muscles, aging, and atrophy. He doesn’t think we eat enough protein, and she wondered about meal timing. Should you space protein evenly through the day or eat the most at night or in the morning?

He chuckled.

“I get these questions a lot,” he said, (I’m paraphrasing here, and maybe extending, too), “but here’s the truth of it: let’s say you have a soaked washcloth. I mean soaked. And that washcloth represents everything important about health. Wring the washcloth out as much as you can. Really reef of it until nothing comes out.”

Rhonda waits for the punchline.

“That?” he says. “That water you just wrung out? That’s quitting smoking, eating better, and losing weight. It’s 99.9% of the fitness.”

“Now take that washcloth again, it’s almost dry now, and give it to your beefiest buddy to wrench out any hint of water from the thing. That’s when to eat how much protein and what supplements to take. It’s the tiniest fraction of the whole.

“If you really want to get really granular (that’s really-squared, meaning really-really important), squeeze it again until a tiny drop collects. These are the most arcane questions about fitness. Maybe they make sense for an Olympic sprinter or swimmer, but for the great bulk of people listening, just quit smoking, eat less, and exercise. We get it all backward when we carry around an extra forty pounds and then spend a hundred bucks a month on turtle hormone to cut your race time by a hundredth of a percent.”

Listening to him, my mind drifted back to that finish line in Dublin, Georgia. I saw a sparkling blue Guerciotti cross the line sixteen minutes after me, and the words always hit me: after me. After me and my cheap bike. The thing I wanted, the thing I felt guaranteed that I would achieve my goals, wasn’t really needed. What was important, what was really-really, was miles on the bike and the chutzpah to gut it out.

Since then, and even more so now after being reminded by Stuart Phillips and Rhonda, I’m convinced that relative health is a simple thing for most people in most cases. Eat food, make your own meals, drop weight, eat less, drink lots of water, and walk around the block a few times. I’m convinced, too, that almost anything you buy that purports to increase health – whatever that means – is a ruse, meant to move monies you’ve earned into the pockets of others.

So, the takeaway: pump up the tires on your old Schwinn. Put the cigs away, drop a swig of water, and head outside. Walk around the block or weed a few beds and shove the barrel full of grass clipping to the dumpster. And keep it up. You won’t look like Arnold and you probably won’t grace the cover of Elle. And if that twenty-year-old Schwinn gives out, look for How to Fix Your Bike by Dennis Mitton. I hear it’s a classic. So good that’s impossible to find…

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