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All I wanted to be was a bike mechanic. In the bike industry, there are a lot of ways to make a living as a mechanic. They all essentially boil down to either being poor or being something else besides a bike mechanic.

I see guys that have stayed in the back of the bike shop, refusing higher positions to keep working on bikes. I was one of those guys for a while. I got sucked into managing a shop for a few years until I realized that I was only doing the least fun things in the bike shop. Let’s face it, if I wanted a career as a manager I could go do it for a big corporation for a lot more money. Managing is a skill and a career all its own and it’s almost always a mistake to make someone a manger simply because they were good at the job that they will be managing. After two years of manageable misery I asked to be transferred to a different store as a mechanic. Not a service manager, not a part time mechanic/part time sales guy, a mechanic, that’s it. In a lot of ways that was the best job I ever had.

Now that I’m on the industry side of things I see a lot of the same thing. The guys that want to be nothing but a mechanic give up the ability to pay rent. Guys that want to earn a living have to become something else. Mechanics on the road generally do make more than their counterparts in the shop. If not in their paycheck it’s in the reduction of living expenses because of so much time spent on the road. If one really wants to earn the money their skill is worth, though, they have to start taking on other things, or becoming different people, doing less of the skill that made them so valuable in the first place.

Some mechanics became engineers early on, realizing that they were smart enough to be an engineer but their skills as a mechanic would give them a distinct advantage over other train drivers. A lot of us could have gone that route, I still think about it. I feel like being a mechanic is somehow nobler though. Engineers make things and mechanics make things work. That’s the saying, right? On the other hand I try to think like an engineer whenever I can, it really is key to being a good mechanic. It gives you that right to call engineers out on their bullshit. A bolt that is supposed to stay tight without tension between the threads and the head? Come on, guy. Ten Newton meters on an M3 fastener? Seriously? Angular loads on a bearing that can only support loads in a vertical plane? Are you kidding? Using bearings in places that don’t rotate three hundred and sixty degrees? You’re killing me, Smalls. Engineers do make a shitload more money than any mechanic though, and some of them still get to play mechanic too. Must be nice.

Some mechanics became team managers. I’m really jealous of a few of those guys. Job security, a good paycheck, a year round paycheck, and still getting to hold onto the title of head team mechanic. Well done, sir.

There is a group, though, that found a way to keep things simple. The team mechanics, neutral service mechanics, tech reps and demo reps of the world. We don’t necessarily make any more money than we would have at the shop and for some the pay checks aren’t even a year round luxury. We make a living at it because we spend so much time on the road not spending cash. We make it work by giving up everything but being a bike mechanic. In a sense, we give our entire lives to our jobs. There is no clocking out at the end of the day and going home. When we go out to dinner we are still representing our company. When we go back to the hotel we are basically still at work. We are the only ones at the company who represent the company twenty four hours a day, besides the guys whose names are on the building. Yet we are consistently some of the lowest paid employees at our companies.

It’s obviously not a bad compromise or none of us would be doing it. The quality of life is without a doubt better on the road than it is at home. My hotel rooms have cable and air conditioning. My food budget is twice what I can afford at home. But it’s not just the quality of life; it’s the quality of work. Making bikes work like a dream in all kinds of situations and settings is still the best job I can think of. I may have given my life to my company but they gave me a pretty sweet life in return.

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