Is it Time to Go to School?

Bike school: The term is definitely foreign to most people, even some of the most avid cyclists. Bike School is formal education in the function, maintenance and construction of bicycles, as well as related services. I recently spent three weeks at the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) in Portland. These three weeks were informative, exciting and at times intense. To make the most of your time in school, we’ve put together a list of considerations to ponder before registering for classes.

Why Attend?

An increasing number of people are realizing bicycle mechanics can be a career path, not just something kids do in high school or college to make a little extra cash. At the same time, the number of Independent Bicycle Dealers in the United States is decreasing. Whether the cause for closing shops is the increase in online sales, poor business practice, liability or something else, the job market is becoming more competitive. Bike school is one way prospective hires can increase their chances in landing the position they want, moving up and ensuring that seasonal lulls in business won’t cost them their source of income.

While the majority of students in attendance during my time at UBI fit this description, there were also students who simply wanted to be better home mechanics and a couple who had bicycle industry objectives outside of the shop setting. You can choose from a variety of classes based on your level of expertise and interest.

What Classes to Take

Bike schools offer a range of classes from introductory to highly advanced. If you like riding and are looking for some basic knowledge to help you keep your bike safe and in good shape, an introductory course would be the best place to start. You’ll leave class feeling more confident in your understanding of how your bike works and how to keep it working. A class like that can also be taken through a bike maintenance instructor, like Gracie’s Wrench in Portland.

Students can earn certifications in advanced mechanics such as wheel building and suspension repair. Specialized seminars provide additional knowledge beyond that of the typical mechanic. This education has potential to further distinguish the aspiring bike mechanic, making her or him more qualified to take on all sorts of repair work.

Bike schools also offer frame-building courses where students learn to cut, grind and weld metal into a custom frame. While this is beyond the capabilities of almost any shop, there is a growing demand for hand-fabricated bicycles that a number of Oregon-based companies are looking to fill.

The key is to read course descriptions carefully and not under or overestimate your abilities. It is also important to understand the commitments required for attending, and how realistic it is that you will have the home set up or work potential necessary to support the skills you’ve learned.

Making It Happen

Only two organizations in the U.S. offer formal bicycle mechanics courses, the United Bicycle Institute and Barnett Bicycle Institute. The UBI offers classes out of Portland and Ashland, Oregon while Barnett offers classes out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Course specifics and naming differ slightly for the majority of classes. UBI offers a few additional seminars while Barnett offers additional classes in shop management.

The classes themselves can range from a few hundred dollars up to a few thousand, so ensure you’re signing up for the right course for your skill level, objectives and resources.

Beyond the classes themselves, if you are going to learn how to perform a task, you should make sure that you have the tools or access to tools required for that task. For mechanics, this means working for a shop that will invest in the tools needed for specific work.

Bike school can demand a lot. If you have the desire though, and the ability and willingness to make it happen, what you get out will be well worth what you put in.

A Few Remarks

Whether you end up deciding to take classes or not, it is important to understand that while a bicycle is fairly simple, it does require maintenance. When some parts wear and fail, they may just cause inconvenience; others can get us killed. If you are able to properly maintain and repair a bike yourself, great, but if not, routine maintenance and trips to your local bike shop are well worth the cost.

At ORbike, we believe bike mechanics are chronically underpaid, and their advanced, details skill set is undervalued. It’s completely reasonable to tip your local bike mechanic. We even wrote up some guidelines on what’s appropriate.

Robert Underhill is a recent graduate of United Bicycle Institute in Portland.

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