This is another profile in our series on people who have helped us get ready for our ride across the country, departing June 18, 2017.
Kaia Maclaren is frowning at my bike derailleur. Actually, she’s frowning at a little metal piece below my rear gearing, called a hanger.
“Soft as butter,” she says.
Which doesn’t sound good.
Her fingers, black with grease, rub the hanger as she explains why butter is bad. No bigger than a thumb drive, a hanger holds the rear derailleur to the bike frame. Even a nitwit like me can understand it’s an important little piece, like a lot of other important little pieces on a bike.
Maclaren fixes bikes for a living, which entails getting her hands dirty, wrangling wrenches as long as her arm and smiling at customers who want to test ride bikes just before closing.
But really, her job is about giving people freedom — to go where they want when they want, to feel the wind in their faces, to have adventures — free of clicks, squeaks or rattles.
Today, Maclaren is working on my bike, getting it ready for our cross-country trip beginning in June. A smudge of grease streaks her cheek. Around her, banter rises and falls from repair stations at the back of the shop, where she has worked since 2014.
At 29, Maclaren has been working on bikes since college, but she is as comfortable talking about political parties in India as she is fitting ferrules and chaintugs.
She grew up a quiet, bookish kid in Ashland and graduated from Reed College with a major in political science in 2011. Her thesis explored Shiv Sena, a far-right group based on Hindu nationalism. And yes, she sees parallels with Donald Trump’s politics.
“I’ve always been interested in politics,” she says. “How groups interact with each other — the sociological, behavioral part of it, how politics is structural and strategic.”
But she raised eyebrows when she left academia for bikes, she says. “Some people assume I’m floundering in my career.”
Not true. She just needed a break.
“Life at Reed can be really lopsided. Being a bike mechanic was a good antidote.”
She liked it enough to stick with it, despite a steep learning curve.
“They were very patient,” she says of her first mechanic’s job in Ashland, where she worked between her freshman and sophomore years at Reed. Slowly, she picked up knowledge and skill, not only with bikes, but also with customers.
Which includes the sometimes unconscious bias toward a woman in a profession dominated by skinny, bearded bros.
“It’s subtle, depending on the week,” she says. “Usually, it’s at the very first moment of interaction.”
For example, a customer comes in and assumes she will relay information to a “real” mechanic. They will say “You can tell them…” or “Tell the boys…”
She responds with “Well, I’ll be doing the work,” and customers are fine with that, she says.
Bikes present an endless variety of problems and solutions and compatibility issues, she says. “How a drive train fits together, what shifter-pull will work with a derailleur. It’s a lot of work with odd parts. It’s a machine you interact with so intimately that you not only have to pay attention to how well it works, but also the feel of it. It’s a lot of compromise. A bike is a compromise between strength and weight and feel.”
Customers, even if they know little about bikes, can also help in diagnosing problems.
“It’s important to really listen to customers — the information, the clues — even if they don’t know they’re important.”
She typically asks them, “Where do you ride? Does it feel good to you? Is it working well?” If they answer, “Well, it feels rough,” that’s enough to narrow down the problem.
When not in the shop, Maclaren likes to ride trails, go birding and read. “I’m still bookish,” she says. As if to prove it, she reaches into her bike bag and pulls out “Americanah,” a novel about Nigerian and American life by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle fiction award.
Writing attracts her, too. “I’d really like to be in journalism. I’m obsessed with it, lately, getting behind the story. This Trump thing has made me think, what do you really mean? It makes me appreciate the professionalism of journalists.”
Maclaren isn’t the only mechanic who has worked on my bike this spring. Brandon Meinke has spent hours tweaking my gears and replacing cables, chain, cassette, handlebar tape and more. And when they hand the bike back to me, I pedal away in blissful silence, with nary a click, squeak or rattle.