EVERYTHING I KNOW I LEARNED FROM TWO WHEELS AND A FRAME.
By Saul Griffith
IREMEMBER THE VERY FIRST MOMENT
I rode a bicycle. I was at Uncle Dave’s place out
“in the bush.” He wasn’t a real uncle, but rather
one of those family friends who becomes a default
uncle by giving freely of his time and lessons on life.
He lived a two- or three-hour drive from Sydney in
a small town, on a beautiful rustic property with
a shed full of the things that delight a 6-year-old,
and one of those things was a bicycle.
There were no luxurious training wheels, just two
tireless men — my father and Uncle Dave — who
would run behind me holding the underside of the
saddle and keeping me upright as I teetered and
tottered. It took an afternoon, a beautiful afternoon
of giggling and grazed knees, but I was anointed a
bicycle rider, and was then allowed to ride to the
edge of the property and back. It was probably only
a hundred yards, but the world suddenly seemed
larger. The love affair would never end.
Soon after, I received a purple chopper, with a
banana seat replete with metallic flake. (My sister’s
banana seat had flowers on it, something I derided
at the time, but now appreciate and even search for
in old bicycle shops. To my mind, a chopper isn’t
complete without one.) At age 7 or so, inspired by
the sublime acting of Nicole Kidman — I kid you
not — in BMX Bandits, I convinced my parents to
upgrade it and fulfill my dream of owning a black
and yellow Speedwell. (It had to be black and yellow.) Not long after that, E. T. came out at the movies,
and my fantasies of flying bicycles powered by
my own little alien were frequent.
What really came with bike ownership, though,
was bicycle maintenance, my first taste of hands-on engineering. When I got my first mountain bike,
44 Make: Volume 11
a coral pink Apollo brand, I would tear it down and
build it back up just for kicks. The bearings and
their hardened steel balls fascinated and perplexed
me as I cleaned, greased, and serviced them.
I learnt the difference between left- and right-handed
threaded screws by cross-threading them. I learnt
about galvanic corrosion by riding on the beach
with steel pedals and aluminum cranks. I learnt
about gears, chains, derailleurs, and broken teeth.
(The broken teeth — the gears’ and my own — were
the result of not correctly tensioning the chains.
Fortunately, mine were baby teeth and my engineering prowess improved in time for the onset
of adult teeth.)
For many of us, bicycles are the first taste of
responsibility. As soon as you start modifying
or repairing your own bike, you learn very tangibly
the results of your work. If you do sloppy work,
or make mistakes, the result is typically a bicycle
crash — blood, broken bones, and all.
But bicycles taught me more than just basic
building principles and simple mechanics; they
even introduced me to the magic of materials science. After I tired of my bike’s pink color (the only
one available), I decided that chrome would be far
more “manly.” I saved enough money to strip the
bike down and take it to a chrome plater.
I clearly remember going to the factory with my
tolerant father and being fascinated with the electroplating baths, although the whim turned out to
be disastrous. The process effectively annealed and
weakened the frame, and the fork gave out soon
after, bending slowly upward until it was unrideable.
The experience was probably influential in my eventual university study of metallurgy — the fatigue and