Sunday, October 28, 2007

Lesson one: You can't do crap without money

A standard crank puller; better quality tools always make the job easier though
Boy, I have a lot on my plate to talk about. The problem is that even though it seems there is absolutely nothing getting accomplished, there are tons of incidents in and around the lack of activity which, in a perfect writer's world, would not only have a place to be written but enough energy and patience to write about them. Handling the scope of your stories is called perspective. I am not saying I am not good at handling perspective, I am just saying that accounting for some of the more interesting tidbits while staying within a reasonable word count is a chore. Because of the intricacies I have so many stories backed up that I don't even really know where to start. And worse, because I have had people ask me specifically to say something about several important themes (such as how my teaching job is coming along or what happened to put me off the Jewish community), this sort of distorts the perspective and shifts attention in ways that I don't always like. Not having written about these two things was a political choice I made, but now I find that having made the choice I have pissed off some readers who thought they had a right to know. On top of this the answers to these and other questions has the effect of exponentially adding to the mountain. Add to this the latest news from out here such as the president's anti-Semitic remarks and all of the potential ramifications and I am saying that this is all a pretty big pill to swallow. It's daunting, do you hear? It is simply daunting.

I thought though that I had a break from all of it this last Friday when I found a notice in the post box telling me that I had finally received my new bottom bracket from America. I have been waiting for this part for at least three months now, the red Schwinn simply sitting there in the corridor, looking pretty but not going anywhere during this time. The junkies who stole the bike back in May broke the bottom bracket (this is the axle and ball bearings that allow the peddles to turn) and because there is zero chance of finding a quality replacement without going to Minsk ($30 for the ride plus the part carries an inherent markup to account for the tax Belarus puts on European goods.) I thought I might be able to do better by writing to the states. I wrote to two friends and asked if they could help; one friend needed only to walk over to the local bike shop but the other had a connection to TREK bicycles. Probably I made a big mistake when I went with the latter because even though the cost would be much, much better for me, this friend also had a full plate of his own to deal with(changing jobs and moving to another state); he simply didn't have the time (or interest) to get the parts. If I had gone with the first guy, I would have had to pay a lot more money but I would have already been on the road six weeks already.

This money decision is of course the bottom line here in Belarus; because we don't have any money, we must always make decisions where the money is inherently a part of things. I guess in a sense this is true everywhere, but here we care not talking about disposable income, we are speaking of a situation where any penny spent is food off the table or money you don't have to pay for the light. It has always been bad here but it has actually been worse for me recently (see above reference to the teaching and the Jewish community) because as of the moment, I don't have any money or even any real way to get money. It is bad enough that we don't have the money for new trees or potatoes for the winter but when you place something such putting in a decent Shimano bottom bracket in, you can see how this could play with your head a little. Yes, yes, I know that this has always been one of the prime arguments against making a bike shop here in general, and yes, I know I need to talk about why I have almost zero income right now- and I will, but for the moment, I want to stay with the bicycles and this business of trying to get this new bottom bracket in there and go for my first real ride since last spring. I mean, you can see though that under such circumstances actually getting a real, legitimate bike part for my four times stolen/four times recovered bike might make me happy, right?

So this is what I did this weekend. There was only two problems: I don't have many decent tools to work with and I don't have the money to buy them.

That second part became apparent Friday night when, excited to be finally starting in on the project but trying not to wake up anybody in the house, I got started on the first step of the process: trying to take the crank-bolts off. I guess I had not opened my bottom bracket since I was at the bike school, so this would be three years of summer and winter riding. There is a lot of salt on the roads in the winter and for sure the junkies never greased anything; those crank bolts were rusted tight. I broke two of the three 14mm socket wrenches I own and probably broken all of them if Anya hadn't spirited away a very shiny but decent combination box and socket. You ever heard the phrase "a tough nut to crack"? The first tool I broke was my Park 14, one of two Park tools which are still with me from when I first came to Belarus. The quality of the steel in the box, though having been strong enough to handle anything New York ever had to offer, simply melted rather then turn the seized bolt. The same happened to the 14 on the crank-puller as well, though I did manage to get one bolt to give with it by using a length of metal pipe on one side and a crescent wrench for leverage on the other. The second bolt though both warped the hex and broke the handle. Fighting the crank bolts and breaking tools was basically what I was doing all Friday night.

Saturday morning I went over to Solnichna market and found a pair of 14mm sockets, one slightly better than the other. I also got a ratchet and a breaker bar. These things cost $10 to buy and don't think that this didn't hurt. Probably I should have borrowed the tool from a friend but I guess the lack of sleep mixed with my fantasies of actually being able to ride my bike had me living in another time and another place. The breaker bar did the trick on the second crank bolt and danced a jig in the corridor when it did. This was not the end of things though because I still had the second leg of my mission: getting the cranks off. Now I have a tool for this and it had worked without too many problems on Egor's bike. Egor's bike is the one I have been riding for the last half year, it is already on its second set of cranks. If you don't know, the principle of using a crank puller is easy; you screw the outer casing into the hole at the bottom of the crank where the bolt used to be and then screw in a smaller bolt which pushes the crank off of the spindle. Like I said I had never had any problems before, but my Schwinn simply ate this tool like an after-school bag of chips. First the threads on the right side (again, the material was not as strong and the strength of the bond I was trying to break) gave way rather than moving the crank, and then, though it did manage to get the gear side off, it got stuck so badly in the hole that I couldn't get it out after the crank was off.


Not wanting to quit, I went to our local market and asked my friend Egr who has a small bike kiosk there if he had any ideas. Egr's shop is very, very small and he doesn't have many bikes but he is a bike realist and understands a lot about the job. In fact, I usually go to him first even if I am pretty sure he doesn't have what I am looking for just because I like him so much. Yesterday he loaned me two different crank pullers, one a better quality version of what I not had stuck in the crank, and the other a smaller version of an automobile bolt puller.

This second one, which is called a syumnik, used three arms to grab the back of the crank itself rather than screwing into the hole. There was a metal collar which in theory was supposed to regulate location and hold in place the arms. The tool of course was very cheaply made and the collar didn't do a good job of keeping things still. After several failed attempted, I added in a couple of hose clamps to keep things in place. and this worked as far as holding the arms in place, the crank was too strong and eventually the syumnik twisted and broke. Thus out of tools, I had to go back to Solnichna.

This morning I went over by bus and brought the drive-side crank with me with the crank puller still stuck into it. I marched around from kiosk to kiosk looking for a pair of pliers which might do the job. After unsuccessfully experimenting with a set of vice grips and a plumbers wrench, there wasn't even enough metal left to grab onto. One guy suggested that run a bolt through it from the back side which would act like a left turn from the front; when the bold came to the end of the threads it would turn what remained of the crank puller out of the hole. After 15 minutes of cranking it hadn't worked I walked around a little and then came up with the idea that maybe there needed to be a nut on the other side locking the piece in place. After finding the nut, I used a vice to hold the bolt in place and cranking for all I was worth, I finally managed to get the thing out of there. I got a round of applause from the people who were watching me.

But even this didn't mean anything because I still had the problem of getting the other crank off. Because there was no longer any threads to use, this left me with either needing to build a new tool myself or try and find a better syumnik. Building a new tool would mean tapping out the hole on the crank and then fitting it with a proper sized bolt which had been drilled out and tapped for a new pushing pin. No problem. Luckily, Solnichna market has lots of stuff for cars and after looking for maybe 10 minutes I found several. The problem was, I didn't have enough money to buy anything decent. I am ashamed to say that I bought the smallest, cheapest and most fragile piece of crap just because it only cost 5000 rubles. There were better ones starting at 15,000 and several excellent models which cost from $12 to $25, but this little toy I chose was all I could afford. I simply didn't have enough money to buy anything else. The guy who sold it to me even laughed when I took this tool. I guess he had thought up until this moment that I might know what I was doing. Now he knew that I didn't. But there was nothing I could do. I just simply didn't have the money.

I fell asleep on the bus thinking about this issue of being broke and being here and being in the middle of this mess I am in at the moment. I know that living in Belarus means being without money I guess but you can still dream, right? After I got back I went to talk to Egr again. He was ok with his syumnik getting broken. He agreed that the part was cheap but it had been all he could afford one day and he only wanted to help. I don't know why, but I started talking to him about what it would take to set up a real bike shop here in Pinsk. How much would it cost to take 100 square meters over on Lenin street and sell some real bikes and bike parts and do some real service? How much money would be necessary to open a real shop here? The conversation made him happy for a moment and his happiness made me happy. He really likes bikes too. But then suddenly he just stopped being happy. I said a few more things about how having real tools available to do some good work would make all the difference and how parts and service is really the backbone of any real bike shop. He started looking at me as if I was completely crazy. There just isn't enough money in Pinsk to support a real bike shop. I knew this, didn't I? And then I realized that I had said all of this before a long, long time ago. At that time the thought also made people happy but in the years since then they have come to learn that there are absolutely no dreams to be had.

The cheap syumnik of course failed and Solnichna is closed on Mondays which means if I can find the money I can go back Tuesday and try and buy a better syumnik. After that of course, and assuming what I can afford actually gets te crank off the bike, I will finally get to start in on the last leg of the mission: digging out the old broken bottom bracket and cleaning and greasing the cup for the new cassette. That will be a glorious moment when I get there. And I will. It just takes time and money, time and money. And thanks to my friend, if and when I ever get that far, I do have a brand new Park tool just for that.

More soon...


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