Bike Shop Dad: Mechanical Aptitude in the New Generation

Today we celebrate the anniversary of flight- where do we go from here? 

My boys are being raised around tools- will they learn how to use them?

Guys like me puff up on this day, remembering how history’s most accomplished bike shop guys- the Wright brothers- ushered in the era of powered flight. We’re pretty awesome for knowing how to adjust derailleurs (and spell the word!) not to mention all the other mechanical skills we possess, right? Heck yeah we are.

As a former helicopter and fixed wing mechanic, and current bicycle mechanic & father- I wonder what we’re doing for the generations ahead to teach these skills. We certainly don’t teach it in school, and our “throw away” culture does nothing to incubate even basic repair skills. But I wonder if one begets the other. A culture that can’t “fix stuff” doesn’t design consumer products able to be fixed.

The old days assumed mechanical aptitude.
The old days assumed mechanical aptitude.

From what I gather, basic mechanical skills were common in my grandfather’s generation. The 1959 Ford truck I used to own bore evidence of it, in the details. The hood springs had 3 detents to sit in, to adjust how much lifting pressure they could exert over time, as they wore out. Engine accessories were seemingly engineered in concert with mechanical service in mind- everything was easy to see, reach, and adjust.
This stands in contrast to my friend’s 2013 Kia, wherein the engine compartment looks like a freeform shape of molded plastics, with nothing overtly “mechanical” in view.

Among my contemporaries, I feel like a member of a special “club” of folks who know how to hold a wrench. Us guys in our late 30’s/ early 40’s stop just short of a secret handshake- but we certainly know one another when we meet. (and I do say “guys” because mechanical women of our generation are even more rare)

Generations younger than us- how are they learning to fix stuff? In school, shop class or any sort of Applied Mechanics is a rarity far less celebrated than even Art & Music. My own town of Idyllwild, for example, has literally dozens of volunteers giving time and energy to supplement the public school’s otherwise anemic art program. And what a wonderful thing that is! But few of the kids can hold a wrench. My concern is kids who can’t fix stuff grow up to be adults who throw away stuff. Let’s see if we can right that.

Today I’ll give my boys a concerted lesson in applied mechanics. They’re young still, so it’ll be simple, maybe we’ll change a tire.

The first powered flight was a product of bicycle mechanics' know-how.
The first powered flight was a product of bicycle mechanics’ know-how.


4 thoughts on “Bike Shop Dad: Mechanical Aptitude in the New Generation

  1. Good man, Brendan. Teach your boys how to wrench and become assets to their future communities. I was raised by the premise, “if man made it… I can fix it.”


  2. So true. My father had a civil engineering degree from Berkeley but was also a skilled carpenter who believes passionately in the dignity of the building trades and preferred a framing hammer to a drafting board. Yet in some circles people look down on these abilities these days. Your post is right on point.


  3. Yes, kids that have taken things apart are very rare today. Especially in the city. When we do the Kids Bike Day I have a degreased bike and a bunch of sockets and wrenches. I tell the kids they can take the bike apart and they have no idea what I’m talking about! When I show them how the pedals, nuts and bearing hubs come off they are so excited to see the bearings inside! I tell them to take it apart and put it back together themselves and they are thrilled but mystified. Most of them have been told not to touch the tools or that “we don’t have time to fix things, just throw them away and get new ones”. When I put the tools in their hands and tell them to have at it they get so excited. Some of them will sit there for hours playing with the tools and parts.


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