22 April 2013

Overhauling a Bicycle

A priceless excerpt from Jerome K Jerome's 1900 novel Three Men on the Bummel:

He said: "Have you overhauled it?"

I said: "I have not, nor is anyone else going to overhaul it. The
thing is now in working order, and it is going to remain in working
order till we start."

I have had experience of this "overhauling." There was a man at
Folkestone; I used to meet him on the Lees. He proposed one
evening we should go for a long bicycle ride together on the
following day, and I agreed. I got up early, for me; I made an
effort, and was pleased with myself. He came half an hour late: I
was waiting for him in the garden.
It was a lovely day. He said:-

"That's a good-looking machine of yours. How does it run?"

"Oh, like most of them!" I answered; "easily enough in the morning;
goes a little stiffly after lunch."

He caught hold of it by the front wheel and the fork and shook it

I said: "Don't do that; you'll hurt it."

I did not see why he should shake it; it had not done anything to
him. Besides, if it wanted shaking, I was the proper person to
shake it. I felt much as I should had he started whacking my dog.

He said: "This front wheel wobbles."

I said: "It doesn't if you don't wobble it." It didn't wobble, as
a matter of fact--nothing worth calling a wobble.

He said: "This is dangerous; have you got a screw-hammer?"

I ought to have been firm, but I thought that perhaps he really did
know something about the business. I went to the tool shed to see
what I could find. When I came back he was sitting on the ground
with the front wheel between his legs. He was playing with it,
twiddling it round between his fingers; the remnant of the machine
was lying on the gravel path beside him.

He said: "Something has happened to this front wheel of yours."

"It looks like it, doesn't it?" I answered. But he was the sort of
man that never understands satire.

He said: "It looks to me as if the bearings were all wrong."

I said: "Don't you trouble about it any more; you will make
yourself tired. Let us put it back and get off."

He said: "We may as well see what is the matter with it, now it is
out." He talked as though it had dropped out by accident.

Before I could stop him he had unscrewed something somewhere, and
out rolled all over the path some dozen or so little balls.

"Catch 'em!" he shouted; "catch 'em! We mustn't lose any of them."
He was quite excited about them.

We grovelled round for half an hour, and found sixteen. He said he
hoped we had got them all, because, if not, it would make a serious
difference to the machine. He said there was nothing you should be
more careful about in taking a bicycle to pieces than seeing you
did not lose any of the balls. He explained that you ought to
count them as you took them out, and see that exactly the same
number went back in each place. I promised, if ever I took a
bicycle to pieces I would remember his advice.

I put the balls for safety in my hat, and I put my hat upon the
doorstep. It was not a sensible thing to do, I admit. As a matter
of fact, it was a silly thing to do. I am not as a rule addle-
headed; his influence must have affected me.

He then said that while he was about it he would see to the chain
for me, and at once began taking off the gear-case. I did try to
persuade him from that. I told him what an experienced friend of
mine once said to me solemnly:-

"If anything goes wrong with your gear-case, sell the machine and
buy a new one; it comes cheaper."

He said: "People talk like that who understand nothing about
machines. Nothing is easier than taking off a gear-case."

I had to confess he was right. In less than five minutes he had
the gear-case in two pieces, lying on the path, and was grovelling
for screws. He said it was always a mystery to him the way screws

We were still looking for the screws when Ethelbertha came out.
She seemed surprised to find us there; she said she thought we had
started hours ago.

He said: "We shan't be long now. I'm just helping your husband to
overhaul this machine of his. It's a good machine; but they all
want going over occasionally."

Ethelbertha said: "If you want to wash yourselves when you have
done you might go into the back kitchen, if you don't mind; the
girls have just finished the bedrooms."

She told me that if she met Kate they would probably go for a sail;
but that in any case she would be back to lunch. I would have
given a sovereign to be going with her. I was getting heartily
sick of standing about watching this fool breaking up my bicycle.

Common sense continued to whisper to me: "Stop him, before he does
any more mischief. You have a right to protect your own property
from the ravages of a lunatic. Take him by the scruff of the neck,
and kick him out of the gate!"

But I am weak when it comes to hurting other people's feelings, and
I let him muddle on.

He gave up looking for the rest of the screws. He said screws had
a knack of turning up when you least expected them; and that now he
would see to the chain. He tightened it till it would not move;
next he loosened it until it was twice as loose as it was before.
Then he said we had better think about getting the front wheel back
into its place again.

I held the fork open, and he worried with the wheel. At the end of
ten minutes I suggested he should hold the forks, and that I should
handle the wheel; and we changed places. At the end of his first
minute he dropped the machine, and took a short walk round the
croquet lawn, with his hands pressed together between his thighs.
He explained as he walked that the thing to be careful about was to
avoid getting your fingers pinched between the forks and the spokes
of the wheel. I replied I was convinced, from my own experience,
that there was much truth in what he said. He wrapped himself up
in a couple of dusters, and we commenced again. At length we did
get the thing into position; and the moment it was in position he
burst out laughing.

I said: "What's the joke?"

He said: "Well, I am an ass!"

It was the first thing he had said that made me respect him. I
asked him what had led him to the discovery.

He said: "We've forgotten the balls!"

I looked for my hat; it was lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the
path, and Ethelbertha's favourite hound was swallowing the balls as
fast as he could pick them up.

"He will kill himself," said Ebbson--I have never met him since
that day, thank the Lord; but I think his name was Ebbson--"they
are solid steel."

I said: "I am not troubling about the dog. He has had a bootlace
and a packet of needles already this week. Nature's the best
guide; puppies seem to require this kind of stimulant. What I am
thinking about is my bicycle."

He was of a cheerful disposition. He said: "Well, we must put
back all we can find, and trust to Providence."

We found eleven. We fixed six on one side and five on the other,
and half an hour later the wheel was in its place again. It need
hardly be added that it really did wobble now; a child might have
noticed it. Ebbson said it would do for the present. He appeared
to be getting a bit tired himself. If I had let him, he would, I
believe, at this point have gone home. I was determined now,
however, that he should stop and finish; I had abandoned all
thoughts of a ride. My pride in the machine he had killed. My
only interest lay now in seeing him scratch and bump and pinch
himself. I revived his drooping spirits with a glass of beer and
some judicious praise. I said:

"Watching you do this is of real use to me. It is not only your
skill and dexterity that fascinates me, it is your cheery
confidence in yourself, your inexplicable hopefulness, that does me

Thus encouraged, he set to work to refix the gear-case. He stood
the bicycle against the house, and worked from the off side. Then
he stood it against a tree, and worked from the near side. Then I
held it for him, while he lay on the ground with his head between
the wheels, and worked at it from below, and dropped oil upon
himself. Then he took it away from me, and doubled himself across
it like a pack-saddle, till he lost his balance and slid over on to
his head. Three times he said:

"Thank Heaven, that's right at last!"

And twice he said:

"No, I'm damned if it is after all!"

What he said the third time I try to forget.

Then he lost his temper and tried bullying the thing. The bicycle,
I was glad to see, showed spirit; and the subsequent proceedings
degenerated into little else than a rough-and-tumble fight between
him and the machine. One moment the bicycle would be on the gravel
path, and he on top of it; the next, the position would be
reversed--he on the gravel path, the bicycle on him. Now he would
be standing flushed with victory, the bicycle firmly fixed between
his legs. But his triumph would be short-lived. By a sudden,
quick movement it would free itself, and, turning upon him, hit him
sharply over the head with one of its handles.

At a quarter to one, dirty and dishevelled, cut and breeding, he
said: "I think that will do;" and rose and wiped his brow.

The bicycle looked as if it also had had enough of it. Which had
received most punishment it would have been difficult to say. I
took him into the back kitchen, where, so far as was possible
without soda and proper tools, he cleaned himself, and sent him

The bicycle I put into a cab and took round to the nearest
repairing shop. The foreman of the works came up and looked at it.

"What do you want me to do with that?" said he.

"I want you," I said, "so far as is possible, to restore it."

"It's a bit far gone," said he; "but I'll do my best."

He did his best, which came to two pounds ten. But it was never
the same machine again; and at the end of the season I left it in
an agent's hands to sell. I wished to deceive nobody; I instructed
the man to advertise it as a last year's machine. The agent
advised me not to mention any date. He said:

"In this business it isn't a question of what is true and what
isn't; it's a question of what you can get people to believe. Now,
between you and me, it don't look like a last year's machine; so
far as looks are concerned, it might be a ten-year old. We'll say
nothing about date; we'll just get what we can."

I left the matter to him, and he got me five pounds, which he said
was more than he had expected.

There are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can
"overhaul" it, or you can ride it. On the whole, I am not sure
that a man who takes his pleasure overhauling does not have the
best of the bargain. He is independent of the weather and the
wind; the state of the roads troubles him not. Give him a screw-
hammer, a bundle of rags, an oil-can, and something to sit down
upon, and he is happy for the day. He has to put up with certain
disadvantages, of course; there is no joy without alloy. He
himself always looks like a tinker, and his machine always suggests
the idea that, having stolen it, he has tried to disguise it; but
as he rarely gets beyond the first milestone with it, this,
perhaps, does not much matter. The mistake some people make is in
thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine.
This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain. You
must make up your mind whether you are going to be an "overhauler"
or a rider. Personally, I prefer to ride, therefore I take care to
have near me nothing that can tempt me to overhaul. When anything
happens to my machine I wheel it to the nearest repairing shop. If
I am too far from the town or village to walk, I sit by the
roadside and wait till a cart comes along. My chief danger, I
always find, is from the wandering overhauler. The sight of a
broken-down machine is to the overhauler as a wayside corpse to a
crow; he swoops down upon it with a friendly yell of triumph. At
first I used to try politeness. I would say:

"It is nothing; don't you trouble. You ride on, and enjoy
yourself, I beg it of you as a favour; please go away."

Experience has taught me, however, that courtesy is of no use in
such an extremity. Now I say:

"You go away and leave the thing alone, or I will knock your silly
head off."

And if you look determined, and have a good stout cudgel in your
hand, you can generally drive him off.

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