The trade of the bike mechanic is a profession with few records. I came to realise bike mechanics today deserve far more kudos.
Indeed, I needed to do a fair amount of ground research to piece this article together. What was intended as a short excerpt on the importance of bike mechanics developed into a kind of homage. Bike mechanics have a great deal to do with the maintenance of bicycles, no doubt your bike included. But in the origins of the trade, bike mechanics are in fact responsible for the invention of the bicycle itself.
The blacksmith turned mechanic
Before the specialist services of bicycle mechanics, blacksmiths existed. You may also know blacksmiths as “smiths” or "smithies". Our name Chainsmith is actually a tribute to the history of the smith and their relation to the bicycle industry.
As we discovered, metal workers and blacksmiths had much to do with the design, engineering and building of the bicycle during its invention.
Of course, the term bicycle was not in the vocabulary during the 1800's, so a bike mechanics role was not defined. What we understand to involve the role today is what we use to investigate its beginnings and, as such, we look for the familiar jobs of repair, creation, design, installation of machines to find the roots.
With little background information on the trade beginnings of bicycle mechanics, we’ve logically deduced that riders of the earliest produced bicycles (during the 1800’s) commonly employed the services of blacksmiths to fix structural damage of their two wheeled machines.
The development of the “pedal velocipedes” offered little ability to steer or brake. Added to that were the original pedals that were restricted by the location on the front hub. All these new but as yet under developed additions lead to very few safety features. Actually there were reports of accidents in the early days involving both cyclists and pedestrians that had the bicycle banned from many City streets Worldwide. Of course, important to our discussion here, someone was required to fix the breakages.
Apart from the timber wheels rimmed with iron installed on original bicycle models, a large part of the bicycle after 1870 was made of steel. There are no easily found resources on blacksmithing and its involvement of the bicycle, but it’s an obvious consideration to think the community blacksmith was responsible for reinstalling parts, correcting dents in metal and restoring movable components to smooth working order.
These jobs were done in conjunction with other well recorded blacksmith projects, like repairing the grand predecessor of bicycle mobility - wagons and carriages, as well as farm equipment. Domestic utensils were also commonly forged and repaired making blacksmiths known as the “jack of all trades.”
Much like mechanics today, blacksmiths charged according to labor time but also the type of project or product being made. They also made specialist tools to complete jobs to the point of the equipment being unrecognisable by anyone but the user. Again, we continue to see the inventive mind of the mechanic creating or adjusting tools to suit a particular job, such as assisting the installation of internal cables.
What has changed is the regard a community has for the skillset of blacksmiths that transformed into a bike mechanic. A blacksmith was a very important profession during the industrial revolution and especially providing needed services for the surrounding community. Today however, the mechanic is often undervalued and in many cases underpaid for their work in the cycling industry.
To understand the comparison, we look back to when the trade of bike mechanics become a specialised profession and then to the age of mass bicycle production.
The bicycle inventors : blacksmiths and mechanic
Indeed recordings of metalworkers and blacksmiths inventing and building bikes are prolific in the history of the bike. Especially important to note and of interest to riders looking for the roots of the custom bicycle, are blacksmiths Pierre Michaux and son Ernest, as well as Pierre Lallement. These blacksmiths are each believed responsible for the invention and creation of the pedal assisted bicycle.
Then there is another blacksmith from Scotland also credited for inventing the pedal assisted cycle, named Kirkpatrick Macmillan. Much speculation surrounds this claim but more importantly, there is no question that smithies were responsible for the invention and creation of bicycles.
Another example of intervention in the creation of the bicycle is Alexandre Mercier, a mechanic from Amiens. Mercier is attributed for inventing the mechanical mount in 1843 whereby the front wheel was engineered to direct separately to the rear wheel which followed the direction. Todays bikes use the very same principles.
Further back still, we find the inventor and civil servant, Karl Drais who reportedly invented the very first practical bicycle. There remain arguments about the Italian engineer Giovanni Fontana who had created a bike of sorts 200 years prior. However Drais remains in many historic references as the first. The rudimentary bike mainly made of timber lacked pedals, gears or brakes but still had recognisable bicycle features. The “Laufmaschine”, alongside other inventions allowed Karl Drais appointment as professor of mechanics. This is a reference that marries the relation between bicycle invention and the evolving lineage of bicycle mechanics.
The innovation of the bike is of huge interest, but this is not a report on the history of two wheeled human driven transport. Its the history of the bike mechanic as we know it today, either a sole trader or a specialist employee. So lets move from the interesting specifics of invention to instead consider what drove the need for independent bike mechanics.
Two things were required to create a profession of the bike mechanic : popularity and complexity of the bike.
Popularity of Cycling
The singular focused trade of bicycle mechanics depended on the popularity of cycling to gain the required numbers of clients to make a profitable business.
In the mid 1890’s significant alterations and additions to the popular penny-fathing and “bone shaker,” to the high wheeler and then finally the “safety bicycle” meant that cycling grew in popularity as a method of transport for all classes. In fact the improved innovations and increasing demand meant hundreds of manufacturers started producing bicycles across America, England, France and Italy.
This growth spurt of cycling came about as horse and wagon, cart or carriage were being phased out of operation. In the early 1900’s specialists were required and bike shops as we know them know began to spring to life. Hence, the bike developments coincided with a growing number of bicycle mechanic specialists; the same blacksmiths who’d been responsible for creating and repairing carriages.
Growing complexity of bike operations
As well as growing activity of riding bikes, the profession of bike mechanic also became specialised due to increasingly intricate and movable parts. These operational components included the addition of brakes as well as the introduction of cranks that attached to pedals from where we now understand to be the bottom bracket. Inflatable tyres as well as chain driven sprockets and gears added complexities to the machine. Working on these components was beyond the skills of the everyday user who wouldn’t have had the necessary tools.
The growing complexity of the cycling machine meant specific skills were required to fix the variety of problems we still see today. Of course the details ensuring a rider is safe and the bike is maintained has since advanced. An infinite amount of specialist tools are required and the skillset to use them has intensified. Learning is constant and any mechanic wishing to excel in the profession must be flexible, enjoy learning and challenge themselves both physically and mentally.
There are likely a few reasons for the public and cycling industry to no longer hold the same regard for the inventors of the bicycle. A mistrust of mechanics is I think, in part due to the complexity of their job and a corresponding lack of knowledge on part of the rider. Alongside this is the fact few mechanics develop businesses of their own and are beholden to work for others while borrowing tools and labouring in conditions particular to a manager’s vision and not their own. The importance of the mechanic is then lost amongst the more important issues at hand, namely selling bikes and products. Celebrating mechanics is not as attractive as advertising shiny sleek bicycles on instagram and facebook. Whatever the reasons, mechanics are certainly not held in the same light that blacksmiths had been, which is a great shame.
This is going to be too brief, but I've omitted the largest reason for the downfall of respect for mechanics. Its everything to do with mass production of bicycles, the employment of stationary factory aids and the replacement of human skills with machines. Bikes, like many modern consumables, have become so cheap in terms of production and labour that the payment for maintenance by humans is often resented. Wages mean that prices of servicing is not up for debate. Then there is the fact bicycles like cars can have several failings at the same time, which may be overlooked during a visit to a mechanic. Add the potential for human error (in comparison to the perceived accuracy of machines) and we can make many arguments as to why a built lacking respect for trades involving mechanics exists.
Changes to todays Bike Mechanic : Jack of all trades
In a strange turn of events it seems the bike mechanic today must again be a”jack of all trades.”
If researching online to find information on what makes a bike mechanic, you’ll find a good proportion involves building bikes and repairs, but a sizeable assumption is that mechanics be knowledgable on all products and services. They must often sell bikes and provide good customer communication alongside sales, completing transactions and ordering stock.
The expanding expectations of the bike mechanic certainly changed over the years mainly as a result of the trades dependancy on bike shops. There are of course Pro Tour Mechanics, but these are not a majority. They do incredible work to assist manufacturers better their equipment which is an extension of our inventive blacksmith.
Important for this discussion is that there still exists little in the way of a professional history in bike mechanics. Of course, the mechanic today is rarely an operator/owner. He or she is more likely bound by the wage conditions of a traditional bike shop philosophy. What’s more, the lacking knowledge of bike mechanics history means the respect owed for inventing the bicycles is also missing, even by mechanics themselves. This is an extraordinary shame.
Inventors are often heralded as hero’s for creating products to enhance our lives. Of all the inventions, surely the bicycle which continues to actively contribute to our health, to the betterment of the environmental, to our freedom in travel, as an efficient and economic form of transportation, as a vehicle that helped direct Womens rights, and as a tool to enhance mental health makes this a most extraordinary invention. We rightfully should respect the work of bike mechanics and the changes that have occurred to their profession over the years.