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Tales from the workshop: tooled up (part one)

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Photographs: Jon Denham

One of the most popular services I offer to my clients is called an “hors catégorie tutorial day”, which is, in effect, an opportunity for anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of how one, or in some cases several, of their bikes work, and to get a full strip-down service into the bargain.
During the day, which is tailored to the individual’s personal requirements, we get to drink coffee, talk about bikes (and often lots of other stuff, too) and if everything goes to plan, by end of play said client goes home, hopefully a bit wiser and with a perfectly working machine.
The other day I was helping a client with a ‘new build’ and I opened a drawer in one of my tool chests to produce a device I use for bending metal mudguard stays. He seemed amazed that I had such a thing and said: “It really is all about having the right tool for the job isn’t it?” I considered his comment. To some degree he was right. In order to assemble or service a bike correctly there is arguably a need for some skill, aptitude, or just an element of mechanical nous; call it what you like, but you won’t get far without the right tools…

If I cast my mind back over 35 years, I can remember a time when I lived in a household that had no bicycle-related tools, save the classic 10-in-one dumbbell spanner and, of course, the ubiquitous pressed steel thing that shipped with every Raleigh bike at the time. As I became interested/tasked with keeping my brother’s old tracker bike on the road, it was inevitable that I would acquire specific tools as and when they were needed, the first being a Rivoli chain breaker. I don’t know exactly where it came from but what I can say with certainty is that it came without instructions.
Now, I don’t know how many people reading this remember life before the internet, where knowledge was passed directly from one person to another, or gleaned from books, but trust me, it made learning how to do something much more difficult than it is today: no online resources such as YouTube instructional videos to fast-track your technical skills, for instance. I was the only one in our family that was the least bit practical and I had no mentor figure, so I had to work things out for myself, which may well have set me up for the challenges ahead.
I’ll never forget the three or four days I spent in our garage trying to get my brother’s bike back together, and I certainly won’t forget the trauma of trying to rejoin his derailleur chain once I’d pushed the rivet all the way out. How was I to know you were only meant to partially push it through, allowing you to join it back together easily? Needless to say knuckle skin was lost, nails were blackened, grease was ingrained and my repertoire of expletives exhausted before it finally dawned on me how to join a chain correctly.

A chance meeting some time later with a seasoned cyclist on our estate introduced me to the iconic Campagnolo brand and, of course, to their tools. As nut-type fixings on bikes at the time gave way to Allen key sockets as the quality of bikes in our household improved, I needed to add Allen keys to my shopping list. The first Campagnolo tool I bought was their legendary “T-bar spanner”, which combined a 6mm key with an 8mm socket. This was followed by their special 5mm Allen key with knurled barrel for easier operation and the now sought after 15mm crank bolt spanner and complimentary cotterless crank extractor – my first specialist cycle tools.
As time passed and my love affair with bicycle technology grew stronger, I inadvertently ended up with a Saturday job in my local bike shop. It was here that I was introduced to the VAR catalogue which was the French, paper equivalent of today’s Park Tool website: page after page of specialist tools to solve problems I didn’t even know existed. A tool for this and a tool for that. I was amazed at the variety, not to mention the cost. Good tools, it was clear, did not come cheap.
The shop I worked in was not a lightweight specialist when I arrived, although once I went full-time, I managed to persuade my manager to let me have my own little section of the store to see if we could generate a slightly more discerning clientele. It took a while, but as the standard of machinery we got to work on improved, so did the quality of the tools in our workshop.

A copy of the now legendary Holdsworth Bike Riders’ Aids fell into my hands one lunchtime and I’ll never forget lusting over page after page of Campagnolo equipment and the related tools for set-up and adjustment, but when I set eyes on their ‘Full Race Mechanics Tool Kit’ I knew I had to have one. It cost a bomb, a king’s ransom, an arm and a leg, especially when you consider I only earned a fiver a day back then.
It took me nearly nine years to get round to ordering one, but despite a 15-year period without it (a story for another time) I still have it to this day and it is one of my most cherished possessions. Sure, many of the items in that beautiful case are legacy  tools that don’t get used too often on today’s bikes, but when I get a retro build for a client there’s little to rival the joy of clicking open the chrome latches and lifting the lid before selecting the appropriate tool.
There is something great about having the right tool for the job, even if its intended purpose has nothing to do with bicycles. The talcum powder bottle holds almost equal place with the chain splitter in the tool box of any serious mechanic. But this is a tale for another day…

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