Sunday, January 13, 2013

Brown M&M's

AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Wade Brooks
I like to think of details as brown M&M's. If you aren't familiar with the story of brown M&M's, it goes back to the 1980's and the heyday of Van Halen. The story goes that Van Halen had it in their concert contracts that there could be no brown M&M's in their dressing rooms. It was always told as a way to illustrate the crazy excesses of rock stars, but that isn't the real story.

According to Diamond Dave himself, the brown M&M clause in the contract was real, but it wasn't some nitpicky excess of rock stardom. It was a way of ensuring that the contract had been read thoroughly and that all of the important details that it incorporated were truly met. This made it possible for Van Halen to go into small market venues with a full blown rock show and trust that the stage would hold the weight and the electrical system wouldn't short out or electrocute anybody. The brown M&M's were the canary in the coal mine so to speak. Walk into the dressing room and see brown M&M's, then you'd better start checking and worrying about everything because obviously, the venue hadn't read the contract thoroughly.

There are a lot of little details involved in bike mechanics. The knowledge of and attention to these little details are the difference between an okay mechanic and a trustworthy, high quality mechanic. When you start training a mechanic, you immediately begin teaching them a very precise way of doing things that includes these subtle details. Things like where the label of a tire goes when installing a tire (readable from the right side of the bike, label centered over the valve stem), the proper direction for wrapping handlebar tape (from where the bar plug goes, wrapping to the outside and finishing two inches from the stem), and eventually how a hub is properly oriented to the rim when building wheels. These and a host of other small details can have little effect on how the bike rides (except the handlebar tape wrapping - do it wrong and it'll unravel after a few rides!), but what they really are are the calling cards of an attentive, detail oriented mechanic. It is the shorthand by which mechanics can judge the quality of each other's work.

So all of this blog post preamble was actually written in my head as part of my inner monologue on Friday as I crawled around on all fours, small bike headlight in hand for illumination, looking for a set screw a 1/4 the size of a grain of rice that had fallen off the work bench as I was working on a wheel. As I crawled around finding ball bearings, presta valve nuts, and a lot of other stuff for 20 minutes, muttering curse words at myself and contemplating the utter futility of my quest, I just reminded myself what I always tell my students, "Being good is what you do when no one is looking."

I could have easily given up and carried on, the customer none the wiser to the missing miniscule set screw. But that isn't the detail oriented standard that we set for ourselves, so I pressed on. Miraculously, I found it just a few moments later, grasped it, cursed it for good measure and carried on with the job.
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