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Within nano-seconds of returning from Turkey to Canada, I stumbled on an opportunity I knew I shouldn’t pass up: there was one spot left in the summer Winterborne Bike Mechanic course, out of Guelph, Ontario. The course far exceeded my expectations.

The Winterborne Bike Mechanic course, out of Conestoga College, is the only certification of its kind in all of North America. The whole four years I’ve been collecting bike stories, this course has repeatedly come up. Everyone considers it the ultimate of training. When I contacted Skylar Maracle, the owner and co-educator of the course, he surprised me with the news that not only is my sex considered advantageous to the training, but so is my age. If you’re an older man, take heed. Most bike shops have their own idiosyncratic ways of doing things, and they expect you to conform to little tweaks on methodology; they don’t take kindly to your being inflexible about that. Statistically, older men are programmed and habituated to prove themselves right, so they don’t change habits easily. Older women have less trouble with that. (I watched the perfect example in class once with a partner: he’d been building bikes at home for awhile and pooh-poohed a small step in a procedure Sky and Karen were teaching: we left the step out. The next day, Sky spotted the mistake on our discarded part, brought the part over and gently rebuilt it in front of us. I wanted to kick the guy in the shin and say, “See?!”)

The course is eighty-eight hours (two weeks, including one Saturday) of intensive study. We had an insane amount of homework every night to prepare us for the next day’s hands-on work. At first, I was certain I’d made a mistake. I’ve never done any hard-core wrenching and I’m not particularly mechanically inclined. Karen and Sky assured us all the first day that we were going to be fine, and ya know, we were.

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There were several bike types to work on, and every day we focussed on one element, tearing it apart, cleaning it and making adjustments as necessary, and then putting it back together. I particularly enjoyed the wheel build and truing day, taping the road bike handlebars, and installing V-brakes. With more experience, I’m excited about gaining the same confidence with all parts and many brands and styles of bicycle.

By the end of the course, I’d come to appreciate the need to attention to the finest minutia (even 2mm out can cause catastrophic failure), to the difference between oil and grease, when Loctite matters (and when it should be avoided), and how very important the phrase Torque to Spec will be to the rider. The number of tools I’ve used this month is astounding (and some of them intimidate the crap out of you just hanging on the wall!) I know that if I took the course three more times, I’d learn as much again as I have this month.

We had several evaluations on single elements, like building a wheel and installing V-brakes. On the final day, there was a multiple-choice, open-book test (never underestimate the ability of such tests to put fear into the most stolid heart: this thing lasted three hours). And then, we were partnered up one last time and presented with a boxed bike. Our task was to rebuild this puppy to spec.

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My partner and I successfully built a boxed bike that will now be donated to a Hamilton cause called Bike for Mike (http://bikeformike.org/) Just writing this makes me weepy: Ken and I enabled someone to get on a bicycle and feel the wind in their hair, without fear of the bike failing or needing major adjustments. And to think that two short weeks ago, I couldn’t confidently change a brake pad, true a wheel, swap out handlebars, rebuild a drivetrain …

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Over the period of the two weeks, I had many moments of doubt. However, the universe was gracious to me. Twice, I ran into people who’d bought the book. Once, I was having coffee and an interviewee from the book came over and hugged me. “You’re on the right path,” the universe seemed to be saying. “Keep going.”

On the Saturday after we completed the course, I stayed in Guelph to unwind for a day. I had booked an interview with my barista, who had shown so much interest in my studies whenever I came into the coffee shop, and whose stories intrigued me. I wanted to capture his enthusiasm for the radio programme, Totally Spoke’d.

Surprisingly, I captured two other stories on my tourist-y travels around town that day, both very appealing. One was about a family of four who travel around town on a pair of tandems (one is a semi-reclining bike). The family has taken longer tours for holidays, too. When the youngest was six, they travelled three hundred kilometres one long weekend.

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The other was from a group of young girls who were hauling an elderly dog in a trailer. They explained that the dog really enjoyed going on walks with them but was unable to now with its arthritic hips. The dog smiled throughout the interview. In the back of my mind was the unbridled relief that this dog could have been put down as an inconvenience, but instead continued to be a contributing, much-loved member of a family and a community.

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Later I was back at my coffee shop, wrapping things up. Someone there approached to tell me they’d seen my bike around town. Miss Jackson is already a recognized figure in Guelph.

Now, I’m heading back to Kingston temporarily and planning to do some serious work on my own bike (Miss Jackson was more excited than I about my taking this course, because she stood to gain a lot from my new skills). Meanwhile, I have resumes out to bike shops that are actively seeking junior wrenchers and who acknowledge their interest in women. A friend suggested I work toward starting a women’s only space that’s all about inclusivity and education. Works for me.

Tune in to Totally Spoke’d (CFRC, 101.9 FM in Kingston) in upcoming weeks to hear more about the three stories I collected while here. Guelph, I salute you.

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