Figuring Out How to Speak Bike

Recently Elly Blue put a question out to the Twitterverse, asking people about the things they found difficult when first taking up cycling. Her question took me back to 2003 or so when I began cycling around Washington, D.C., for transportation and fitness.

As I wrote about when describing my evolution as a transportation and recreational cyclist, I had a desire to explore the city on two wheels and get my blood pumping in the process, but I possessed little knowledge of the bicycle itself.

This inability to speak bike created a sense of frustration and vulnerability. Until I began riding as an adult (using a Ross mountain bike from my high school days), I had no need to know any of the proper words for bicycle parts.

Few of my friends shared my blossoming interest so my initial bicycle outings were solo affairs. I continued to put more  miles on my bike, and over time it dawned on me that my bike required regular TLC to keep it rolling smoothly. Naturally, I learned this through problems that manifested– flat tires, worn brakes, rusting chains, tires balding, and the like.

I couldn’t do this type of maintenance myself so I had no choice but to search for a bike shop. The whole idea of a bike shop was daunting.

Bicycle Letterpress Card from Larkpress
Bicycle Letterpress Card from Larkpress*

I knew little about bikes. I did not know how to talk about them. I imagined all the people working in the shop would be male and that they would all look down their noses at me, a struggling novice who couldn’t speak bike.

When presented with the choice of letting my bike fall into unusable disrepair or a visit to the bike shop, though, I mustered up my courage and went. As I feared, it was all men working in the bike shop, but they didn’t seem too horribly condescending or unapproachable so I started talking.

I hearkened back to my days living in Colombia, when I lived in a second language. I called all the parts and processes I did not understand by “thing,” and made full use of my pointing skills. “My chain and this thing…” “Using this thing while I change gears…” “This thing here doesn’t seem to be working correctly.”

Language is not learned in a vaccuum, although you can try. You can sit at home studying grammar and vocabulary, and it will certainly help you some. It’s through having occasion to use the words that they begin to lodge themselves into our heads.

Even though I speak bike more than I ever did, I still don’t speak it very well. Yeah, I learned the basics alright because my bike is generally my preferred transportation method, and it’s necessary for me to have a roadworthy steed at all times.

The finer points of bike speak are reluctant to stick, like a person whose name you know you should know, but you have a delayed ability to recall it. Seat stay, chain stay, skewer, cantilever vs. caliper. Bah.

My lack of good bike speak doesn’t hold me back from bike shops and caring for my bike these days. I now have the experience that comes with 11 years of daily riding. I also have a circle of friends, established relationships with bike shops, and a randonneur and real-life spouse who are fluent in the language of bike. If there is bike vocabulary I need to learn or a particular aspect I’m struggling with regarding my bike, I’m comfortable asking.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. I look back on that woman just starting out as a cyclist and I feel so much empathy for her. She did not have a support network to teach her the language of bike. I’m proud of her for reaching out and overcoming her fears. The bike rider I am today thanks her.

*The card featured in this post is from Larkpress. They make beautiful paper goods (perfect for Valentine’s day, hint hint) so check them out here.


  1. I have to remind myself now and again (especially with a winter riding child that comes home with a road salt-caked bicycle and refuses to clean it) that the beauty of cycling for fun or transportation is that it’s a relatively easy endeavor and does not require any special know-how other than balancing and pedaling. Just get on the bike and ride.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. i have a favourite bike shop where i NEVER feel intimidated or stupid, given my lack of knowledge. the owner and his assistant are always helpful and courteous, beyond what they should share for the sake of business. for this, i am grateful, because they keep me loving my bicycle.

    i never would have imagined you at a starting point, mary….just wanting to ride and pump your blood, with no knowledge of bikespeak.
    now i feel all the more honoured to follow you on your journey.

    ride on!!!!


  3. This makes me think … should those of who speak a little bike offer conversation lessons to beginners? Would they be offended or just think us weird if we offered to teach names for the parts? Maybe it’s less clumsy to offer help changing a flat or oiling a chain, and kind of slip the vocabulary lesson in subtly?


    • I think it’s easiest for people to use the vocabulary as it’s needed. At least, that is one of the main ways I have learned, from hearing others translate all my “things” into actual bike vocabulary.


  4. I love this post.
    Over the years I have become bikelingual through the process of osmosis. Legend has it that King Charlamagne never quite got the whole reading thing, so he slept with books under his pillow, hoping the words would magically flow into his head at night . I have employed the same process, slumbering with stacks of Rivendell Readers and issues of Bicycle Quarterly tucked under my pillow.
    The strategy has paid off splendidly. Every time I go to my LBS complaining that my thingy doesn’t play well with my whatchamacallit, the mechanics nod their heads politely, stick a repair tag on my bike and usher me out the door.


  5. When I started bike committing I bought a bike repair book, which helped me relearn all the names of bike parts. When I was a kid I helped my dad fix all kinds of things (cars, household stuff, bikes, etc). Now that I do all the bike maintenance I show my kids what I’m doing, and tell them the proper names of the parts on their bikes. I’m hoping some of it will stick.


  6. This is great. I ride a fair bit but I know the terms but not necessarily where they all fit together. This article really helps. I’ll always have to use a bike shop to fix problems however 🙂
    I do find that no all bike shops are created equal when it comes to repairs and service, I wont mention any names but its certainly daunting trying to find one you are comfortable with.


    • I agree with you. Repair and service is a distinct part of a bike shop from that of sales. It’s a good deal when you can find a shop that does both of them well.


  7. This is a great post! I’m glad I read all the way to the end. Thanks for writing your blog! Always something here to learn or relate to.
    Bike shops can be intimidating for women (and for men). It took me a long long time before I found one where I feel comfortable. Decades. They offer repair classes which I’ve attended, and that has helped me become more familiar with the inner workings of the vehicle I love best. But I still have them do the work for the complicated stuff.
    There is a DIY bike shop here in SF, the Bike Kitchen, that has a Women/LGBT-only night. When I heard about it, it made me realize how much more I could learn about bikes by removing the intimidating attitude expressed in a lot of bike shops. I also realized I don’t have to do business in those shops. Thankfully, I don’t have to…


  8. Yea! I quit going to a local bike shop for that reason too! Man if you want act like a snob then don’t open a shop and hope to sell many bikes. I was all set to spend my money on a brand new bike at this guys shop, I had the deposit in hand so that he would order the bike that I wanted. I ended up leaving with my money and went to another a shop and bought a different bike, that I now consider to be a better bike than the one I was going to buy from Mr. Jackass. Hmmm Maybe he did me a favor.


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