Marcy Cruthirds by Joshua Loring, 2017
Marcy Cruthirds by Joshua Loring, 2017

Wo/men’s Work | Bicycle Mechanic aka “Wrench”

In this series, we explore the lives of women who use their hands—to drive, break, crank, construct, and create. Working in fields typically dominated by men, these jobs dictate a lifestyle as much as a workday.

Every day for Marcy Cruthirds starts with a ride. “I’m pretty grumpy if that doesn’t happen,” she says. Cruthirds, 30, lives in Brooklyn. Her apartment is a 10 to 15 minute ride to the bike shop she manages, Greenpoint’s Silk Road Cycles. She likes to extend her commute by riding over the bridges leading into and out of Manhattan—first the Williamsburg Bridge then back over the Queensboro Bridge—adding an extra six and a half miles total, plus a nice grade. “I love riding over bridges,” she says. “It helps wake me up before the day gets going.”

Once she’s at the shop she prioritizes repairs for the day, checks the register—there’s always ordering, receiving, scheduling, and cleaning to do—and wheels the Brooklyn Bicycle Co. display bikes to the sidewalk. Then, she says, “we get wrenching.”

In 2010, Cruthirds had about as much knowledge of bikes as required for a dedicated commuter: just enough. But she needed a job. When a friend told her about a new bike shop opening up in lower Manhattan, she applied.

Cruthirds, originally from Biloxi, Mississippi and raised in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts. She studied sculpture and painting, graduating with a BFA in 2008. While continuing to show and make paintings, she started at the aforementioned shop, Adeline Adeline. It was there that she decided maybe she wanted to be a mechanic, too. Seven years later, Cruthirds is now co-captain of an all women’s track racing team, and is the three-year manager and bicycle mechanic—aka “wrench”—at Silk Road.

“I want every woman on a bike to feel empowered. Not only by the freedom that a bike gives, but also by the bike know-how they pick up along the way.”

Cruthirds prides herself on the friendliness of the shop. Bike shops, especially in New York City (especially for women), have a reputation for snotty service. The stereotype is: Bicycle mechanics are grumpy, and walking into a bike shop is intimidating for a customer. The reason for the latter being that unlike fixing cars, almost any “operator” of a bicycle can probably learn to fix one without too much trouble, so it seems like they probably should. But it takes an investment—time, tools, and a real interest. That can make going to a bike shop feel like a prime opportunity for humiliation. “Riders aren’t just born with general bike knowledge,” says Cruthirds. “You’ve got to learn it somewhere, and that somewhere is often at your local bike shop. I’m really proud of the fact that I work at one that aims to be a source of information for its customers, and a part of the local community,” she says. Cruthirds always tries to impart a little of the mechanical process so that the next time a customer encounters a similar situation they can address it themselves. Or at least feel more confident explaining the problem to a mechanic. “Especially women,” she says. “I want every woman on a bike to feel empowered. Not only by the freedom that a bike gives, but also by the bike know-how they pick up along the way.”

Cruthirds picked up bike her know-how on the job, and then during a formal two-week training at the United Bicycle Institute in Portland, Oregon. At the end of her four years at Adeline Adeline, she prepared for a cross-country ride. She completed the crossing, New York City to Portland, Oregon, with zero flats, and a cemented confidence in her skills. In 2015 she landed the job at Silk Road Cycles.

The shop is located right off a popular commuter route. The work is pretty much nonstop from open until close during the busy season (spring and summer, when everyone is riding). Cruthirds and a couple other employees spend the day lifting bikes on and off stands. Everyone takes turns selling and wrenching. The bike stands, which look like industrial-grade camera tripods built to hold a bike aloft while mechanics work, are front and center. Unlike a lot of shops that keep the repairs in the back of the house, the Silk Road setup is sort of like a restaurant with an open kitchen, giving customers a chance to watch the process.

By 5:00 p.m. the commuter rush hits. This is Brooklyn, after all—part of a city that has seen a 350 percent growth in daily cycling since 1990, according to the Department of Transportation. Cruthirds and crew try to get scheduled repairs done early so they can focus on walk-ins. In the summer they have an extra table by the door for quick service on flats.

A good mechanic, says Cruthirds, knows her way around bike tools (one of her favorites are Knipex pliers, good for “pretty much everything from headsets to brakes”), and to double or triple check her work before sending a bike off into the sunset. Cruthirds alway gets another “wrench” to go over her finished repair. Then she gives the bike a ride on the street. Riding the bike is important. On pavement it’s going to act differently than when it’s on the stand. “Say you did a rear derailleur install,” she says, “and in the stand everything shifts smoothly. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will do the same on the road. Things on a bike behave differently when power is being applied, like when you’re cranking on the pedals. The last thing you want is a repair not holding up and the bike coming back to you within five minutes.” Cruthirds says the best part of being a mechanic is making a bicycle that barely worked run smooth again.

At this point, the complicated tasks that Cruthirds performs come naturally. “It’s almost intuitive, a muscle-memory. Your hands just start to know things,” she says. “For instance, a threadless stem bolt may need to be tightened to o-10 nM. Usually you would use a torque wrench to properly gauge that, but after time your hand just knows what 9-10 nM feels like. That’s pretty cool.”

The bikes that the shop service are varied. “From the rusty lock-up bike to the swanky Cervelo [a favorite of distance road riders], it keeps it interesting, and makes all of us more well-rounded mechanics,” she says. The shop also sponsors two racing teams, one of which is the store’s own cyclocross team, and the other is Formula Femme, the all-women’s amateur track team, formed in 2016, that Cruthirds co-captains. She’s also the team mechanic. “I immediately fell hard for racing,” she says. “I was like, ‘oh this is what I have been missing in my life, adult sports!’”

By the last hour of business the shop slows down, and it’s time for the crew to relax. “We like to sit with the doors wide open,” says Cruthirds, “enjoying a cold victory beer.”

Knipex pliers by Joshua Loring, 2017
Knipex pliers by Joshua Loring, 2017