En Español: Becoming fluent in bicycle anatomy at the Bike Library

The Iowa City Bike Library storage area. Friday, June 22, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

La anatomía de una bicicleta

La anatomía de las bicicletas tiene su propia lengua. El inglés no me es del todo extraño, pero el vocabulario de mecánica ciclística sí. No me veo utilizando palabras como “derailleur,” “crank arm,” “spoke” o “cassette” fuera de the Bike Library. Asumí que mi decisión de tomar un taller para arreglar una bicicleta implicaría ensuciarme de grasa las manos y aprender mecanismos. Se torna, a veces, en labor de memorización de vocabulario.

Movilizarse en bicicleta es una forma singular de relacionarse con la ciudad. En Washington DC, la ciudad donde vivía hasta hace cinco meses, suponía cuidarse de los conductores que abrían la puerta repentinamente, también mirar con aire de superioridad a los usuarios del deficiente sistema de transporte público. En Iowa City estoy en proceso de entenderlo. Por ahora, sé que montar en bicicleta acorta distancias de por sí muy cortas. También implica abstenerse de usarla durante un invierno ártico donde la nieve no se aburre de caer sobre otras capas de nieve.

Empecé el taller a principios de febrero. Para llegar a the Bike Library tuve que caminar sobre cuatro pulgadas de nieve, la escarcha fresca aún. La bicicleta que elegí para arreglar es una “road bike” de un naranja opaco y cautivador. Mientras más trabajo en ella, más misterios y obstáculos me revela. No sé si yo le agrade o si llegue a culminar mi labor. Asocié arreglarla con la esperanza de la primavera. Todavía, mientras giro una “star key” para ajustar el derailleur, pienso que cuando sea funcional y la conduzca por primera vez a mi casa, el sol brillará con tibieza y los árboles empezarán mágicamente a reverdecer.

Mientras hago ajustes a mi bicicleta, Audrey Wiedemeier, la directora de the Bike Library, trabaja en una propia, pero chequea ocasionalmente mi lento progreso. Yo siempre tengo preguntas, y ella responde con un paciente didactismo. No da la respuesta sino que me invita a observar las opciones; después de ajustar la pieza la desajusta para que yo repita el procedimiento. Con menos frecuencia me pone a prueba: “Para ajustar el derailleur ¿queremos que el tornillo vaya para afuera o para adentro?” Las preguntas de opción múltiple con dos alternativas son mis favoritas: el chance de acertar es de un cincuenta por ciento. Sin tiempo para lanzar una moneda al aire, elijo “para afuera.” Veo mi error en su sonrisa y me corrijo de inmediato. Ella regresa a trabajar en su bicicleta tras indicarme el siguiente paso.

Sobre los muros de the Bike Library descansa una cantidad incalculable de herramientas. Los “allen keys” (con más de ocho variedades) son de uso frecuente, pero para ajustar los spokes se necesita una “spoke wrench,” mientras que la única función del “freewheel” y el “chain whip” es sacar el cassette. Desde mi ignorancia, concluyo que no hacen más que agotar las variaciones formales de un asterisco o un hexágono ¿Por qué no una llave maestra que las reemplace todas? ¿de dónde viene este afán de originalidad? ¿no pueden ser todas amigas? Considero necesario formar una especie de Naciones Unidas en cuanto a estándares de herramientas, que acuerden un lenguaje común.

Luego de algunas semanas, siento más propia a mi bicicleta naranja. La intuyo más paciente con mis ignorancias y también humilde respecto a sus propias imperfecciones. Nunca es fácil empezar en una nueva ciudad. El camino venidero supone cambiar el “rear derailleur” y el “saddle” y alinear el “back break,” entre otros ajustes. No he buscado cómo traducir esas palabras al castellano; creo que esa no es la lengua que habla mi bicicleta y no quisiera importunarla con nuevos términos.

Iowa City Bike Library Executive Director Audrey Wiedemeier repairs the brakes on a bike. Friday, June 22, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Bicycle Anatomy

Translated by Kathleen Archer

Bicycle anatomy is a whole other language. English is not completely foreign to me, but the vocabulary of bike mechanics is. I can’t see myself using words like “derailleur,” “crank arm,” “spoke” or “cassette” outside of the Bike Library. I assumed that taking a workshop on how to fix a bike meant getting my hands greasy and learning about the mechanisms, but sometimes it turns out to be an exercise in memorizing vocabulary.

Getting around on a bike is a unique way of interacting with a city. In Washington D.C., where I lived until just five months ago, it meant watching out for suddenly opened car doors or looking haughtily at the patrons of the deficient public transit system. I’m starting to learn what it means in Iowa City. For now, I know riding a bike shortens distances that are already pretty short. It also means not riding at all during the arctic winter when the snow never seems to tire of piling up layer after layer.

I started the workshop in the beginning of February. To get to the Bike Library, I had to walk through four inches of snow, fresh powder everywhere. The bike I chose to fix is a road bike in a captivating shade of opaque orange. The more I work on it, the more mysteries and obstacles it reveals to me. I don’t know if I find it gratifying exactly, or if I’ll even manage to finish my project. I associated fixing it with the hope of spring. As I turn a star key to adjust the derailleur, I still think that once my bike is in working order and I ride it home for the first time, the sun will shine warmly and the trees will magically turn green again.

While I fix up my bike, Audrey Wiedemeier, the director of the Bike Library works on one of her own, but she occasionally checks my slow progress. I always have questions, and she responds with patient didacticism. She never gives me the answer directly but invites me to ponder the options; after I adjust the part in question, she undoes it so I can practice again. She sometimes quizzes me: “To adjust the derailleur, should you screw the limit screw out or in?” Multiple-choice questions with two possible answers are my favorite: I have a 50 percent chance of getting it right. Without enough time to toss a coin, I choose “out.” I see my error in her smile and quickly correct myself. After instructing me on the next step, she goes back to working on her bike.

The walls of the Bike Library are home to an incalculable number of tools. The allen keys (over eight types) are used frequently, but to adjust the spokes, you need a spoke wrench, while the only function of the freewheel and the chain whip is to remove the cassette. I ignorantly conclude that they do nothing besides exhaust all the possible shape variations of an asterisk or hexagon. Why not have a master key to replace them all? Where does this zeal for originality come from? Why can’t all the tools get along? I consider it necessary to form a kind of United Nations for tool standards, so they can agree on a common language among themselves.

After a few weeks, my orange bike feels more mine. I sense that it is more patient with my ignorance yet also humble about its own imperfections. It is never easy to start over in a new city. The path forward means changing the rear derailleur and the saddle, aligning the back break, and other adjustments. I haven’t tried to translate these words to Spanish; I don’t think my bike speaks that language and I wouldn’t want to bother it with any new terminology.


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Gabriel Villarroel is a writer and journalist from Bogotá. He holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Literature from Georgetown University and is currently an MFA candidate in the Spanish Creative Writing program at the University of Iowa.

Kathleen Archer is pursuing an MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa. She translates from French and Spanish. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 265.

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