Beggars Would Ride
Dept. Of Redundancy Dept.
The voiceover in the video said “you can fit a cone wrench into the flats machined on the axle cap, and then just pull it up out of the freehub body.” There was a pause, as if the voice was wondering whether or not it would be necessary to explain to the YouTube audience what, exactly, a cone wrench was. Can’t say I blame the voice for that pause. It has been one hell of a long time since I’ve used a cone wrench for anything other than opening a bottle.
But here I was, watching a video on everyone’s favorite “let’s learn some shit” media, and the instructions called for a cone wrench. Miraculously, I happened to have a whole fistful of the damn things in a battered, end of life briefcase full of Pedro’s tools. Ironically, I was watching a video that was explaining why modern Shimano XT and XTR hubs sometimes make horrible creaking noises, and the last time I recall actually using cone wrenches for their usual job of adjusting hub bearings was back about when Shimano had released that fancy new Pewter colored XTR stuff. They low-grade shocked the industry by sticking with cone and cup bearings at a time when EVERYONE else was sliding wholesale across to the arguably lower maintenance and easy disposability of cartridge bearing hubs.
The Pedro’s toolkit, resplendent in a genuine Haliburton briefcase, had shown up at the old Bikemag offices in San Juan Capistrano right about the time that Shimano was releasing that groundbreaking XTR group. I reviewed the toolkit, and then kept it. I was The Grimy Handshake, after all, and the rest of the staff at that time was far more invested in getting first class upgrades for their ski trip junkets than they were in wrenching on bicycles, so it seemed a shame to consign the tools to the dark recesses of the warehouse, where they would inevitably be scavenged piece by piece until there was nothing left to show for the goodwill of Bruce Fina’s lube and tire lever empire. For the people under 40 who might be reading this and wondering what bullshit sands of time navel gazing I am indulging in, let’s use 1995-ish as a reference point and call it good.
Anyway, this briefcase has been following me around ever since then, and everything in it has been well used, except the cone wrenches. And the 32, 36 and 40mm headset wrenches. Because even back in 1995 all that stuff may still have had purpose in a bike shop, where you have no idea what vintage of wheeled heartache may roll through the door next, but otherwise it was already dated. A time capsule of the decade prior. Nevertheless, I was grateful that the haggard old Haliburton had been asleep in a storage unit during the great purging of all my possessions back in November, and with equal measures of relief and remembrance I pulled it back into service to help keep the wheels turning during my toolbox resurrection.
Which is how I came to be squatting in a parking lot in Kingman, Arizona, watching a YouTube video about creaky XTR hubs, and thanking the stars for my very lightly used 17mm cone wrench. I had already resorted to some very ugly caveman shit to remove the cassette. The old kit had been supplemented with a Wrench Force cassette wrench, but the Pedro’s interpretation of a chain whip – in 1995ish – was a cool for the time wrench with stubby cylindrical lugs that set into the smallest teeth of a cassette. 12 tooth lugs on one side, 11 tooth lugs on the other. The wrench set in the cassette teeth, then your cassette cracker fit through the wrench and loosened the cassette nut. Cool. Unless you happen to have a modern 12-speed drivetrain. With a 10 speed small cog. This is where an actual chain whip would come in handy, if I had one. But my last chain whip was a home built affair that used an old piece of Sachs 7-speed chain, so I don’t even know if it woulda been narrow enough to fit anything but the biggest cog. I digress. It does not matter. Did you know you can wedge a long Pedro’s 6mm L-handle hex wrench through the brake rotor as well as a couple crossed sets of spokes on either side of the hub and into the spider of an XT cassette, and this will hold the hub enough to crack that cassette nut? Didn’t break any spokes, and only left one ugly gouge in the cassette spider. I do not endorse this kind of barbarism in anything but the most dire of circumstances.
Dire, as in, the parking lot of a budget hotel in Kingman, Arizona, on a Sunday night.
The mission to de-creak my XTR hub was a success, thanks to YouTube and a woefully out of step with the times toolkit. It got me thinking, though. I’ve been hauling around this briefcase full of old sentimentality for close to 30 years, and fully half the tools in it have been, for almost that entire time, not much more useful than yellow-handled ballast.
Square taper crank extractor? Chain tool that is spaced for 8 speed chains? Those meaty headset wrenches that were old before their time when they were new? And all those cone wrenches? This is a box full of ghosts. Chunky metal reminders of a time that people love to romanticize, when bikes were simpler and allegedly easier to work on.
Right. Admittedly, the current craze for replacing cables with batteries and routing brake lines through the headset and frame does leave me at times screaming obscenities, especially when I have just used my last olive and/or barb that fit on the previous bike that I had to chop a brake hose to install a new handlebar, but I can’t honestly say this new normal is really any shittier than trying to get a Dia-Compe 986 to cease screaming and juddering while doing effectively nothing to actually slow a bike down. Square taper cranks are remembered fondly only by low-wattage day trippers and people who didn’t have to work in bike shops and juggle all the necessary lengths and tapers to keep that highly variable shitshow rolling creakily along. Threaded headsets can fuck right off back into the recesses of time. Thread-on freewheels, ugh. Cottered cranks? Go wash your mouth with soap. There are solid reasons we moved along from all those old standards. They were deservedly obsolete, and the evolution of mountain biking only proved to underscore just how overdue for a change they were.
Yet here I am, carting around a time capsule of tools that smell vaguely like 1990. Times have changed. The old Haliburton needs to retire. It had a good run. The Felco cutters and those sweet Pedro’s ratcheting wrenches can come along for the ride, but the rest of those tools can go hang out with my dad’s old Whitworth sockets. They can whisper rusty secrets to each other and laugh about the good old days. Except for the 17mm cone wrench. Might need that.