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 V.25 No.36 | September 8 - 14, 2016 


Bicycle = Freedom

The liberating art of bike construction and mechanics

Mike McNeese
Mike McNeese
Mike McNeese cleared his tools and spare parts off the metallic surface of his work table at BikeLab, his small shop across the street from the iconic Lucky Boy on Constitution and Carlisle. “This used to be an autopsy table … a used autopsy table,” McNeese explained as he used a brush to push oil through its drain. I shuddered to think about the other liquids that have been funneled toward that drain in the past. Despite such a morbid fixture, BikeLab—soon to celebrate its first anniversary—is cozy and welcoming. Run solely by the incredibly kind and knowledgable McNeese, the shop specializes in forks, shocks, hydraulics, brakes, suspensions and occasionally other specialty services like dropper post seats and nitro-charging shocks (he is the only person in the state providing this particular service). “Anything to do with pneumatics and hydraulics … or brakes,” McNeese summed it up. All this work is essential “for a smoother ride—you have much more control of your bike.”

McNeese was born in Los Alamos—in fact, even his parents were raised on those high mesas. He learned to balance on two wheels at the age of four and had his first trip to the hospital for a bike-related injury at the age of six. By his teenage years he was doing triathalons and road biking, and later turned to mountain biking—“It really lured me in.” He hasn't looked back since, primarily sticking to the single track these days. After hearing about his very first bike accident, suffered at the hands of a home-engineered jump, I asked him about his most recent one. Three weeks ago. “What happened?” I asked. McNeese shrugged and humbly offered, “I was just going too fast.”

Mike McNeese finishing a bike
Mike McNeese finishing a bike

With consistent riding after work and on the weekends and a growing appetite for mountain bike racing came the basics of bike repair, and soon that was supplemented with training at Barnett Bicycle Institute. McNeese secured his first mechanic job at Sports Bag and Trail Bound Sports in Los Alamos. “My first day on the job they had me build a fork,” he told me, gesturing to the many forks now lining the floor of the shop. Even if he was intimidated that first day on the job, he later found that the labor intensive work on shocks, forks, and similar time-consuming and concentrated jobs to be what he enjoyed most. “It's very satisfying,” he said, resting a shock on the counter and after showing me its intricacies, almost without pause, pulling down a bike to show me how a dropper post seat works.

“For technical descents you usually drop your seat,” he explained, setting the bike on the ground in front of me. This, for many mountain bikers, involves clambering off the bike and dropping the seat in the familiar way, from the post. On this bike, however, the rider can drop the seat with a button on the handlebars—adding speed and ease to a descent.

McNeese was born in Los Alamos—in fact, even his parents were raised on those high mesas. He learned to balance on two wheels at the age of four and had his first trip to the hospital for a bike-related injury at the age of six.

No matter what angle you're approaching from the saddle of your bike, McNeese's essential advice is straightforward: “Preventative maintenance is key.” Beyond that, his suggestions are all about where to ride—he points local cyclists in the direction of the East Mountains, lauding Cedro Peak in particular, and for beginner's, Pine and Oak Flat, both moderate trails of single track that are “a little more forgiving than the foothills [of the Sandias].”

My conversation with McNeese soon led me to the South Valley and the home of another craftsman named Dave Salinas. Salinas—a graduate of the CNM welding program—went on to work on welding race car chassis and aerospace components, but for the last 13 years has largely focused his talent on building custom bike frames. “I had different ideas of what a bike should be. I knew what I wanted and it didn't exist,” he explained as we sat across from one another in his workshop, cluttered with tubes and tools, doors open to the late afternoon light. “I was riding steep, aggressive, dumb things. I knew there was a way to make it handle better,” he explained. “I knew that if I could change the geometry of the bike, I could do more.”

Dave Salinas
Dave Salinas

Salinas has ridden the frames he's crafted for himself all over the world—his first foray into touring was in Guatemala, and since then he's put two wheels on the ground in Europe, Asia, Australia and all over North America. He explained that as a kid his bicycle equaled freedom, and it seems that that equation hasn't diminished with age for Salinas. “I was the last one on my street to get a bike. And the only one who still rides a bike.”

“The bikes available on the market fit 90 percent of people,” Salinas explained. “My chunk of the picture comes down to one of two things: [Someone] has a fit issue, their body proportions aren't like everybody else's or they’re under 5'2”, or maybe they want something different—they're bike geeks, and they want to be part of the process.” At that point he got up and walked into a room off his main work space where dozens of bikes and frames are kept; he pulled a small mountain bike from its hook. It's the bike he built for his wife—whose stature made it hard for her to find a perfect fit, and when you're riding challenging trails, having a bike suited to the map of your body is essential for effectively responding to obstacles. Salinas also mentions the market's bend toward designing bikes for men's physiologies as opposed to women's, whereas custom designs can create a bike that's more potent for a woman on the trail—not that every woman should have to buy a custom frame, the market should really evolve their designs—but there are people out there like Salinas who are sensibly ahead of the curve. “I'm interested in geometry—women are riding the same terrain, with the same obstacles, a bike can be adjusted for those differences.”

Parts ready for assembly
Parts ready for assembly

Before I left Salinas told a story about designing a bike for a hand surgeon—the doctor had had a lot of fit issues with bikes in the past, and, understandably, didn't want much pressure in his hands. So, Salinas went for a ride with him. With his skilled eye, and the keen detail inserted into his work, one can only imagine the sort of nuance he took in on that ride. In the end, he created a bicycle that made riding fun and comfortable for the man, maybe for the first time ever. It's the focused attention to structure and particularities that can make a bike so liberating to ride—when it feels like a joyful extension of your own body. The excitement and affection with which Salinas approaches not just his creations, but his own rides, distinguish his work and seem to instills it with energy. I considered the many things McNeese and Salinas told me, and their eagerness to share it, as I rode my own bike up Bridge and over the Rio Grande on the way home. It occurred to me that both, working steadfastly in their particular fields, have designed their livelihoods around one of the things they enjoy most. In their own ways, they engineer the freedom and happiness that comes with riding a bike for everyone who walks through their doors.

Tomorrow's Events

Jack-O'-Lantern Fest at Sandia Speedway

Enjoy food, live music, a stage show, familiar princesses, face painters, s'mores, balloon artists and more.

Fright Night at New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

Reviva • reggae, rock • Concepto Tambor • Afro-Latin at Launchpad

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