Fixing my (T)Rusty Steed

My bike is a decades old, famous-China-brand Flying Pigeon, which is the steel horse that clogged Beijing’s streets following World War 2. When you think of 9 Million Bicycles in Beijing, think of the Flying Pigeon. Mine used to be black but has faded in many places to rust or gray. It’s a massive bike, cruiser-style, so I sit straight up to ride it, sorta tilted back behind the far-protruding front wheel like a hog. I bought it at the only licensed used bike store in Beijing, near the Lama Temple a little more than an hour ride from my home. The flying pigeon reputation for sturdiness means bike weighs about 50 pounds so its tough to get moving. The brakes don’t often work well, I have to pump up the rear tire every other day, and I need to get my seat to stop moving around somehow. But I love it.

I love sitting straight up, dweeb-like, and cruising through the Beijing night, through the hutongs and past the gate towers .

Once in a while, the bike even gets me compliments from the locals. One day riding to work, I cut across on intersection more or less in front of a turning car. The driver pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. I expected to see an angry face. Instead, the middle-aged man had a toothy grin spread across his face.

“You are so good!” he yelled, giving me a thumbs up. “So good!”

He drove along side me for 10 seconds or so yelling, “You are so good!” over and over again, his thumb stuck up the whole time.

Anyway, I ride it pretty hard, and last week on the way to work, something finally broke. My pedals jammed up in the middle of the road. I could pedal backward a few turns, then forward again a few turns to keep moving, but once I got to work and took a look at it, I knew something was wrong. I really didn’t want to walk home from work and lose the time to go to the gym, so I set out on my dinner break to find a guy to fix me up.

There’s no Performance Bike Shop in Beijing. At least not one that I know of. In fact for the most part there isn’t any “shop” at which to get a bike repaired at all. Instead, you walk around with your bike until you find somebody with a cardboard sign — usually red lettering on white board — and a cart full of grease-covered tools. This is your shifu. He is usually balding. He is usually wearing a green, military surplus coat. He is usually sitting on a wooden, child-sized portable stool. He is usually smoking a cigarette. And he will try to fix your bike.

This particular fix took four shifus. It’s still not all the way fixed.

The first shifu, across from a nearby primary school, beat it with a wrench, tried to force the pedals around, then gave up and told me it was a problem with my crankshaft. As he was a variety shifu — key-making, shoe-improving, bike-fixing, and more — he didn’t have the parts to fix it. This cost me 2 yuan.

The second, a younger bike specialist down the road behind some apartments, told me it was a problem with my rear flywheel. He scrounged through his cart for a new one, then as the sun sank and we chatted about the NBA, he took apart the rear axle, beat some stuff with a hammer, scattered metal parts everywhere, replaced some stuff, and put it all back together. It didn’t fix the grinding sound, and before I got home, the whole thing was jammed up again and the chain fell off the gear. I nearly made it all the way home. This cost me 35 yuan. At least I got a brand new flywheel out of it.

The next day, the third shifu, this one totally bald with a shop at the bus station, took one look at the chain laying jammed inside the single-speed drivetrain and waved me off with a “can’t fix it”. This cost me 0 yuan.

Just around the corner, practically in the middle of the narrow street, the fourth shifu was a balding man with a tiny stool, a green coat. and a cigarette. He fiddled with the jammed bike chain for 20 minutes before he finally got it back on the gears. For a while, he chatted with another customer who was sprawled out in a reclining chair with a newspaper. Then he changed gears to complain about the state of my old bike while trying to sell me one of his newer used bikes. Eventually he gave up and decided the real problem was with my crankshaft and told me to come back at 5. I wasn’t off work till 6. We argued for a few minutes about whether this was an acceptable time.

“Just don’t be late,” he said, tugging at his coat. “I’m going home at six. Don’t be late.”

I came back at 4. He watched me stroll all the way down the street with a slight smile twisting the corner of his mouth. When I arrived, he didn’t say anything, he just held up his black, gunk-covered hands.

“My god. So dirty,” I said.

“Errrggg,” he said. “Old bikes are no good. Too hard to fix. You should buy a new one.”

“I like these old bikes,” I said. “Very Chinese.”

“Yes, very Chinese,” he grumbled. “Very Chinese.”

He gave me my bike. I gave him 40 yuan.

On the way home, the pedals started to wobble, then the crank went limp. I pedaled home with one foot as best I could. The next morning I saw that while the shifu had indeed fixed my crankshaft, he’d forgotten (or lost, given the way shifus are apt to throw parts all over the ground) the screw for the pin that holds the pedals together so they turn the gears in tandem. I pushed on the pin with my shoe, and it went back in.

All the way to work the next morning, the pedals would start to clunk, then go limp. I’d hold them parallel with one foot and push the pin back in with the other, ride a few dozen meters, then do it again. On the way home it was more of the same.

When I got home I beat the pin with a wrench until it seemed to stick. Then I put some tape on it.

That’s the shifu way. So far, so good.