There has been a lot in the news lately. NBDA purchasing Barnett Bicycle Institute. This story isn't about that. This story is about a man who for more than 30 years has been providing bicycle education to people and building an endless book.
Tell us about your history in the bike industry...how did you get involved in the beginning, who taught you and what has your path looked like up to now?
In 1965 I was perusing a Sears catalog, looking for potential Christmas presents to request. Kids my age were just getting into riding Sting Rays and doing wheelies. In the catalog, I saw an Austrian 10-speed road bike. I had never seen or heard of such a bike, before. At the age of 13, I understood things like mechanical advantage enough to project that the different gear ratios would make this bike a wheelie monster. I didn't know enough physics to factor in the disadvantage of the much-more forward center of gravity. I ended up with the bike, and discovered something far more important than wheelies: independence and freedom.
Like any bike that arrives in a box from a retailer, it was not at all ready for riding. Not knowing anyone who had ever even seen such a machine, I just figured it out myself. Later (and before I'd ever worked in a shop) I'd stripped a bike down to a bare frame and put it back together successfully. Eight years later I was an adult between jobs, and I kept seeing an ad for, "experienced bicycle mechanics needed." After seeing it run for eight weeks I figured that I must be as qualified as anyone, so I asked for the job. They asked one question, "What can you do?" I cagily answered, "anything I've ever tried". By chance, I had walked in on the day the store had decided was the deadline to hire the next eight warm bodies that walked in the door. A month later, three of us were left. A month after that, they sent me to Schwinn School, where the only new thing they were able to teach me was Sturmey Archer 3-spd hub overhaul.
Thirsty for knowledge, I read all of the "fix your own bike" books in print at the time, and quickly realized I was already functioning well above the technical level of sophistication of the collective authors. As an aspiring writer, I immediately started imagining writing the definitive professional procedural manual for bicycle mechanics.
Personal adventure ultimately took me from Austin to Colorado Springs, where I had the good fortune to be hired by a small, but very sophisticated, pro shop called Criterium Bike Shop, owned by Chris Caunt. This was my fourth job as a mechanic, and it was the first bike-shop job where I learned that I still had much to learn.
Who was the most influential person to your career and why?
This is a tough one, because so many people qualify. I refuse to single out one. Frank Cook, founder of Austin's Freewheeling Bicycles (and his manager, named Jay) opened my eyes to the difference between basic bicycles and what were then simply called "pro bikes". Howard Sutherland, through his publication of the original Sutherland's Handbook For Bicycle Mechanics, helped me see bicycles through an engineer's eyes, where everything was quantifiable. The aforementioned Chris Caunt, because his shop is where I first got an insider's view of what was then called a "pro shop".
Looked at another way, Ms. Wilbanks, my high-school English teacher was responsible for two indispensable things; how to utilize the power of words, and just how to use my mind to it's full potential.
These people are like ingredients in a cake. Can you ask, what is the most important ingredient in a cake recipe? It's pretty much not a cake when you leave out an ingredient.
We all know you've been educating mechanics now for 30 years. Tell us what motivated you to become a full-time instructor?
I started working at Criterium at the same time as I became a first-time parent. The profession I loved could not support my family through the winter. At the end of that first winter, I overheard Chris bemoaning the fact that applicants for mechanic positions never could say they'd been to school for that purpose. It was one of those "Eureka" moments, when, without any deliberation, my idea of writing a book instantly transformed into the idea to teaching professional bike mechanics. It started as an off-season activity at the bike shop, but after a few years, it was Chris who saw that I needed a push to switch to full-time at teaching, which I started doing in 1986. I've actually been teaching since 1981, which makes this the 35th year.
What was the transition like going from being a shop mechanic to becoming an educator of mechanics?
Mind bending. There's nothing like seeing your inability to teach someone something about which you feel fully competent to help you realize the degree to which you don't fully understand it, yourself. When you asked who was most influential, I easily could have answered, "collectively, all of my students." I can comfortably say that absolutely no technique I currently teach was exactly how I did it when I was just a mechanic.
What do you feel is the largest road block for mechanics going to that next level of professionalism?
All of these quantification questions about things that are anything but quantifiable! There's a chicken-and-egg question here: Do low wages keep professionalism down, or does lack of professionalism keep wages low? Either way, there has to be expanded access to education, and shop owners need to expand how they value a well-educated mechanic.
I went through your school in 2000. What has changed since then on the technological side?
In respect to new technologies affecting curriculum, in that time, suspension went from a novelty to being mainstream. Disc brakes really started right about 2000. Electronic shifting is poised today to explode much like suspension did a decade and a half ago. Electronic shifting won't end up on every bike like indexed shifting did, but it will definitely outgrow being a niche.
...and on the school side itself?
There have been massive gains in the mechanical-experience level and teaching-skill level of BBI's instructors, and the Barnett's Manual that is the foundation of our curriculum has grown more than twelve fold in size since 2000. As part of that growth, instructions in the manual have become less generic and far more brand and model specific, The manual has changed from something that was 90% text and 10% images to just about the reverse ratio.
How has technology changed what you do?
What I mostly do is write the manual. Initially, it was a lot of typing, complemented by some technical drawing (utilizing software). Publishers did the editing and layout. With the advent of digital photography and the incredible software that exists to enhance images, I would say my number one activity is now shooting and processing images. The other big change is that the manual went from a print publication to a purely digital publication. As a result of this, I am now the editor, I do the layout, and I even program the publication to be self-installing on PCs.
By utilizing the potential of software to change how we can navigate large amounts of information, the publication went from being a two-dimensional linear event to being a four-dimensional spider web of data. Here's an example. When I recently added a Fox damper service to the manual, I made changes in more than a 100 locations spread out over about a dozen source files so that information could be accessed from whatever related topic at whatever point the user might have started, Then, following completion of the damper service, the user can continue to an equal number of other related topics that might logically follow completing the damper service. This change is reflected in the classroom. Where our students used to work from printed worksheets, they now work almost exclusively from a computer to guide them through a procedure. I like to say the first tool any bench should be equipped with is a computer.
How would you categorize hands on learning vs online learning in terms of value?
For the individual who gets the opportunity, hands-on learning is superior by many magnitudes, because getting feedback from an instructor is only possible in a hands-on environment. Online learning is fundamentally handicapped because this feedback loop can't exist, but on the other hand, online learning increases access by many magnitudes.
In your career what has been the most interesting / intriguing technological advance in your opinion?
In my cycling life, I have seen bikes go from being single speed to 3x11. I have seen bikes go from toys for juveniles to lifestyles for adults. I have seen bikes go from being prisoners of pavement to being the best way to get as deep into the wild as has ever existed. I have seen bikes go from unsuspended to suspended, I have seen the advent of indexed shifting, clip-in pedals, disc brakes, and electronic shifting. "Most"? I could not say.
Anything that reduces barriers to riding is uniquely revolutionary. Each of these things I've listed has reset the existing limitations of cycling. If you made me pick one, the acceptance of derailleur-equipped bikes as a norm for adult transportation and recreation (the bike boom of 1973) has single handedly expanded cycling more than any of the other items I just listed. It's not the most exciting answer, but without that single event, you wouldn't be here asking me any questions. If I could erase from history any other of my listed events you and I still end up here in this interview.
Interestingly, no one has a convincing answer why this single most important development ever occurred. In a way, the bike boom of 1973 is to cycling as the big bang is to the universe. We know it happened, we wouldn't be here without it, but we are completely clueless about why it happened. To further the analogy, despite both events critical nature, very few people put either event at the top of their "most important" list.
...how has that affected the way a mechanic must think and work?
Without the bike boom of 1973, little of the more exciting technical innovations I listed are likely to have occured. So when I began, before all of the technology innovations, it was a reasonable-sounding falsehood that good mechanics could have in their heads everything they needed to know. Today, if a mechanic doesn't recognize his or her absolute reliance on reference materials, I might consider them delusional. I look stuff up absolutely every day, including in my own book.
What would be the one thing you would want a graduate of your program to say to a potential employer?
"I've been trained in methods that enable me to perform at the highest technical standards that any shop might have, but you are the sole determiner as to what level of standards I must adhere."
What is your vision of the future for BBI?
My vision from the beginning was that the professionalism of mechanics would be increased, certification would become the norm, and that as a result, everyone who wanted to be a bike mechanic would not have to choose between a profession they love or a profession that would support a comfortable lifestyle. My aptitudes as a mechanic and an educator have always been up to that task, but my tendency to stay in my comfort zone as a business person has always kept me from taking the logical next step to expand BBI. I see the acquisition of BBI by the NBDA to be the logical solution to that limitation. With this partnership, I fully expect BBI to ultimately realize my original vision.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give to someone wanting to become a bike mechanic?
One? Comprehend that bike mechanics as a field requires a degree of sophistication, commitment, and a sense of responsibility on a par with many professions that require a degree and a license. Sure it's fun, but it's no joke.
Here's number two: Remember, your job will never be about optimizing the performance of bicycles, it will always be about optimizing the cycling experience of your customers.
Do you have a favorite tool?
Barnett Bicycle Institute's Fork Bushing Removal/Installation Tool (#FBT-3). Personal pride is at the root of this choice. None of the major fork manufacturers were ever able to come up with a viable design. My design is viable, works elegantly, pushed my creativity to its limits to conceive and engineer, and it removes and installs bushings on all the major brands. The ultimate validation? Fox made it their official tool and Fox has bought hundreds from BBI for resale as a Fox product, and for use at all official Fox Service Centers.
What's next for John Barnett, personally?
I remain committed for some time to remain actively involved with BBI after ceasing to be it's owner. I suspect the end of my relationship with BBI will be subtle and drawn out. Perhaps I will only know when its actually over some considerable time after it is actually over. Like a derailleur that outlives it's useful life, but you missed noticing when was that last day it was still truly useful.
Writing and visual arts were core interests of mine before I invented a career that required me to utilize writing and photography as a way to maximize taking advantage of my interest in bicycles. My career has left me somewhat stuck indoors and rooted in one place. Immersing myself in nature predates my interest in bicycles, writing, and photography, so my best prediction is that I will ultimately end up back in nature, and communicating my experience through the written word and photographs. Put another way, there's an artist in me waiting for a turn at being in the forefront.
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