How to Become a Bicycle Mechanic: A Guide
Have you ever thought about becoming a bike mechanic? In the discussion below, we'll go over everything you need to know about the profession: what you'll do on the job, the training you'll need, the salary you can expect to make, and ultimately whether it's a good job for you to have. Hopefully, it'll be a very clear guide on how to become a bicycle mechanic.
What Does the Job Entail?
It seems like every job in the world has some hidden elements to it—cops and firemen end up doing a lot of paperwork, grammar school teachers have to deal with local politics, and lawyers find themselves reading hundreds of contracts instead of arguing with people. Jobs aren't always what they seem—so what does being a bike mechanic end up doing all day?
In this section, we'll take a look at every aspect of being a bike mechanic. We'll start off with the personal characteristics the job requires, the actual tasks you'll be doing, and we'll finish off with the work hours and schedules you'll find in your average bike shop.
People Skills and Communication
We're putting this one right up front, because it's something most people forget when it comes to being a bike mechanic: it's a really, really social job. You think you're going to be blissfully working away on bikes all day, but the truth is, there's a LOT of face-to-face interaction with customers, and being able to communicate clearly is important. You'll need to talk with them and find out what's gone wrong with their ride (and very often, most folks have no idea how to tell you what's gone wrong with their ride), you'll need to discuss repair costs and parts costs, and you'll spend a lot of time explaining *how* you repaired someone's bike—and that can be difficult, because most folks don't have any idea how a bike actually works. You end up answering a LOT of questions.
"Customer service skills"—that is, being able to talk to people all day long, and not getting too stressed out about it—is important. It makes the job a LOT easier. You don't need to have people skills—there are plenty of mechanics out there who are terrible with people—but it helps a great deal.
Fixing bikes isn't a grueling job—it's not like digging ditches in the hot summer sun, or working in a mine or something—but it is a fairly rigorous job, and you'll be on your feet most of the day. You'll be lifting bikes that weigh anywhere from 20 pounds to 80 pounds, using some muscle to assemble and tune bikes, and making adjustments using a wide array of hard-to-use tools. At the end of the day, you'll feel like you've worked a little bit, and as with any of the other trades, manual dexterity and good vision are must-have qualities.
You'll be physically active as a bicycle mechanic, but that's a good thing—for a lot of people, it beats sitting at a desk all day!
Day-In / Day-Out Tasks
Let's get to the nitty gritty: the actual tasks you'll perform as a mechanic. They include:
Reviewing busted bikes that customers bring in. This is one of the most important tasks you'll have, and it'll keep you busy. It's up to you to put your detective hat on and figure out what's wrong with the bike and what you'll need to do to fix it. For many bike mechanics, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. The tough part about reviewing the busted bikes that come into your shop is that you'll need to...
Give an estimate of what it'll cost to repair the bike. This is another big part of being a bike mechanic: not only knowing what's wrong with a bike, and not only knowing how to fix it, but HOW MUCH it will cost to fix it—and how you, the mechanic, can make a profit for providing the repair services. That's something that comes with experience—you'll need to have a wide knowledge of the parts available (and their costs), the parts you have in your shop, and what you can use to make repairs.
Assembling bikes from scratch. If you're working in a shop, you'll be assembling the bikes you've got on the showroom floor, but you'll also be assembling bikes that are shipped directly to you from customers. It's very common for people to buy bikes online and then have them shipped to a bike shop, where you as the mechanic will put them together. That's both a good thing and a bad thing—it gives mechanics a steady flow of work, but it means fewer people are buying bikes in the store.
Doing safety checks. Once you've built a bike or repaired one, you'll need to do a full safety review. This takes a while when you're first starting out, but it gets easier and easier with time.
Cleaning parts, degreasing them, lubricating them, testing them for safety, etc. It's easy to think that "repair" is the main job of a bike mechanic, but "performing maintenance" is also a really big part of the job.
Teaching. This is kind of nice surprise that a lot of mechanics experience: in their role as professional, they're able to mentor younger mechanics, and teach customers about bike maintenance and safety. And that's another nice part of the job—you'll meet a lot of people who share your passion for bikes!
Taking inventory and sticking to a budget. This is a big part of the job: taking stock of your shop's inventory, making orders for new equipment, and making sure you keep a balanced budget. Remember above, when we mentioned that "most jobs are not what they seem"? A big part of the bike mechanic job description is "running a tight ship," and making sure you've got all the parts you need. That alone can be a hefty job, and with it comes...
Paperwork. Yes, sadly, there's paperwork in just about every job. Luckily, that too gets easier with time, and getting it organized can be satisfying. It's a smaller part of the job.
Here's the good news, and it's what you'd expect: even with all the different duties above, as a bike mechanic, you will spend most of your time working on bikes.
Schedule and Environment
For the most part, you'll be working 35 to 40 hours a week, but there can be long hours on the weekends, and some 10-hour days during the week. There's a seasonal aspect to it, usually—shops get very busy in the spring and summer, and wind down during the fall and winter—and that will change your work schedule a little bit. In other words, it's not quite a regular 9-to-5 job, and the schedules vary here and there.
As for the environment, most bike mechanics work indoors. In smaller bike shops, you may have one or two colleagues working with you; if you're part of a larger bike shop or "mega-store" type place (there are a couple of big city bike shops that would fall into that category), you'll be on a team of bike mechanics.
Bicycle Mechanic: Job Requirements
This is one of the most important aspects of how to become a bicycle mechanic, and there's great news: there are no technical requirements to find work as a bike mechanic. Not as of the time we published this post, anyway. Electricians require an apprenticeship, barbers have to be trained in a state-approved school, and health care professionals need to get specific licenses, but to be a bike mechanic, all you need to do is prove to the shop owner that you know what you're doing. That's it.
That said, most places would prefer that you...
Have a high school diploma or GED, and
Have a year or two of experience
...but employers may be willing to overlook both of those requirements if you really know what you're doing.
So, outside of their own experience working on bikes they own, how did most bike mechanics get the experience needed to work on bikes?
There seem to be three ways folks build the knowledge needed to become bike mechanics:
They Go to Bike Mechanic Schools
This is a fantastic way to learn how to build and repair bikes. Trained technicians with years of experience guide students through each lesson, and build on students' knowledge. You can most definitely build you knowledge piecemeal, but there's a real benefit to having someone who knows the topic guide you through training.
Bike schools cover the A to Z of biking, and you'll learn how to:
Install and maintain bottom brackets;
Adjust threadless headsets;
Overhaul and fine-tune hubs;
Install drive trains and all related parts, including chain rings, cassettes, crank sets, etc.;
Align and maintain derailleurs;
True wheels, adjust wheel tension, and fix flats;
Install and align handlebars of all types;
Set up and fine-tune various types of braking systems;
Install and align saddles and seats; and
Use a wide array of specialized tools and equipment.
Sadly, there are only a handful of bicycle schools in the United States, but the ones in business are fantastic. The best known are probably the United Bicycle Institute in Oregon (they've got two locations: one in Ashland, OR and one in Portland, OR) and the Barnett Bicycle Institute for Bicycle Mechanics in Colorado Springs, CO, but there's also The Bicycle School in Maryland, TN and the Appalachian Bicycle Institute in Asheville, NC. Classes usually cost anywhere from $150 for single-day classes on a specific topic, to $4,000 or $5,000 for an A-to-Z, learn-absolutely-everything-there-is-to-know-about-bikes class that goes for about a month, and because most students at these schools have to travel across the country to attend, many of the schools help find temporary lodging for the time you're in class. There are plenty of folks who get job offers after graduating from United Bicycle Institute and Barnett Bicycle Institute, so you may want to check those out if you're serious about becoming a bike mechanic.
The good news is that while full-time schools are somewhat rare, many bike shops offer one-day instructionals at a very low cost. The topics aren't very advanced—it's usually about basic bike maintenance and repair—but it can be a great place to start (or sharpen your skills). There's also a program run by Park Tool (a company that manufacturer's bike tools) called Park Tool School, that partners with local bike shops and puts on one-day and two-day bike classes. They're usually pretty affordable, and if you want to check and see if there are Park Tool School classes near you, you can do so here.
They Read Bike Repair Books
This is another great way to learn. Online tutorials are fantastic (and this guy, RJ, is one of our favorites), but a book, written by a professional, that introduces topics in a logical order, is still the best way to learn a skill (in our opinion, anyway). There are four great books we'd recommend:
Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance: The World's Best-Selling Bicycle Repair and Maintenance Guide. This may be the "big daddy" of bike repair books, and it's widely considered the gold standard when it comes to bike repair books. It's got tons of illustrations, and it provides a fantastic overview to bike maintenance and repair.
Barnett's Manual: Analysis and Procedures for Bicycle Mechanics. This is another time-tested, widely-read read set of books (it consists of four volumes), and it covers basically everything, from tools to parts to terminology. And—this is a really nice touch, and it makes perfect sense—the pages are grease-resistant, so you can use it in the shop.
The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle. This is more of an "intro"-type guide, that's a little more general—it introduces and describes all the parts of a bike in detail—so it's less about repair and maintenance, and more about general knowledge. Still, it's a worthwhile book to have—great for beginners—and it's got some gorgeous photographs.
Bike Mechanic: Tales from the Road and the Workshop. This is another one that's not a "how to" book, but if you're interested in becoming a bike mechanic, it's a great read. It basically details the life of a bike tech working for a team in the Tour de France, and it's fascinating.
Keep in mind—these are great books to have when you're learning, but after you get your bicycle education, they continue to be great resources. Most bike shops will have a couple of these books lying around, and don't be surprised when you see seasoned experts reaching for Zinn every once in a while!
How A Lot of People Become Bike Mechanics: They Hang Around the Shop
One of the most common ways for people to become bike mechanics is by simply hanging around the bike shop. They study on their own, build some knowledge, and then when a position opens up and the shop needs somebody new, the shop owner knows them and takes them on as a sort of "junior" tech. New hires do very simple, very menial tasks (fixing flats, screwing in pedals, and so on—so it's very helpful to come in with basic knowledge you can work with) and build knowledge form there. Many bike shops will provide on-the-job training and a sort of "unofficial apprenticeship" model, where a more experienced tech will do the repairs and maintenance, and the new guy watches and learns and tinkers on his/her own to figure things out.
It's a great business model, and there's reason why on-the-job learning is so fantastic: the full-time classes we mentioned above are really expensive (they're fantastic, but a fact's a fact—they're expensive), and newbie bike techs usually don't have all the tools they need to learn (those are also expensive) and your local bike shop will have everything. Learning on the job is great for both new bike techs and bike shop owners, who have a new guy who's got to do all the low-skill, routine tasks.
Bike Mechanic Salary and Income Estimates
At the time we publish this post, the average salary for a bike mechanic in the United States is about $27,000 per year. That's definitely on the lower end of the "income" scale. In fact, it's a very small amount of money, and was actually a small amount of money 20 years ago. It's very difficult to be an adult, on your own, and live on $30,000—especially if you have student loans, car payments, and enjoy hobbies such as eating and sleeping in a house or apartment.
So being a bike mechanic is a labor of love. The income for a bike shop manager is a little better—at our last measurement, it was about $44,000—but that, too, isn't very much. If you decide to become a bike mechanic—and goodness knows, we definitely need people to become bike mechanics—it may make sense to have a second job part-time as a way to bring in some extra cash.
So we feel obligated to tell you that being a bike tech can involve very little in the way of income. But, that said—for a lot of people, loving the work you do is payment enough. There are, after all, plenty of bike mechanics in the world, and if you're determined to make it work, you'll make it work. And...
If You Own Your Own Bike Shop, You Can Earn More
So there's some good news! According to Bicycle Retailer, a website that discusses bike industry statistics, bike store owners tend to make between $46,000 and $123,000 in annual profit. Keep in mind, to make that $123,000 figure, you would be among the most successful bike shops in the nation, and most bike shop owners don't make that much. If we had to guess—unfortunately, there isn't too much salary data available—we'd imagine that bike shop owners make somewhere between $60,000 and $70,000. Remember, that's just a guess, but if it's true, it's much closer to a livable wage.
Being a store manager or a bike shop owner is a long-term goal, though, and you'll need a couple of years of experience before you'll know enough to open a shop. It's a business, and you'll need a firm grasp of basic accounting skills, marketing strategies, etc. It'll take a while to build those skills, and the best way to do all this is to work at your LBS and see how it's done.
Pros and Cons of Being a Bicycle Mechanic
So, now you know a little bit more about the profession: the job responsibilities, the requirements to enter the trade, and the salary. With that knowledge, let's take an honest look at the pros and cons of being a bike mechanic. We'll start with the cons first:
Cons of Being a Bike Mechanic
The pay ain't so great, and you may need to take on a second job if you also have to pay for an apartment, car, student loans, etc.;
There's a social aspect to the jobs, and you may have to interact with some irritated customers; and
The schedule can be a little bit erratic, with some long days and evening hours.
But! There are some incredible...
Pros of Being a Bike Mechanic
There are no technical requirements to start, and on-the-job training is available;
You'll get to work with more bikes, from beaters to high-end racing bikes, than you'd ever imagine; and
You'll be doing something you love.
That last point is the most important of all. If you love bikes, and you love working on them, it's a great job. The pay is pretty low, for sure, but there are mechanics who make it work—talk to them and see how it's done!
Becoming a Bike Mechanic: Wrapping Up
If you decide to become a bike mechanic, that's awesome, and we're rooting for you. Learn the basics, find yourself a gig at a local bike shop, and dive in. There will always be a need for bicycle mechanics, and it can be a career you truly enjoy.