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Grimy Handshake: Grime is Relative

Shaking Hands for More than Two Decades

This column was named during a spontaneous phone conversation with founding Bike editor Rob Story not long before this magazine was launched back in 1994. The idea was to have a column about the mountain bike life as seen through the eyes of a bike shop mechanic, which was what I was at that time. We were kicking around ideas about tone and what to call the damn thing, about how we wanted to be irreverent and informal, but also informed and welcoming. "Like a handshake at the front of the magazine," Rob said. I countered, asking if it was "A grimy handshake?" and we both laughed some crazed "Eureka!" laughter. I hung up and went back to trying to scrape the crud out from under my fingernails with a knife. Back then my handshake was as filthy as any grease monkey's, the result of 40 hours each week spent tearing apart and putting back together bikes. Most of those bikes never saw much in the form of maintenance beyond slathering Tri-Flow onto already gunked-up chains, until something inevitably broke and the bike ended up in my hands, where the layers of drivetrain coagulate would then migrate over from the bike as it was healed. There was not enough GoJo in the world to get my hands clean, but it was a mark of honor, a sign of dedication to a learned trade, and I was proud of my blackened nails.

Two years later I was writing enough that I could afford to do it full-time, and I left the bike shop life with a bittersweet mix of feelings. The fatter paychecks were welcome; losing the day-to-day social interaction with customers and stepping away from a bench and tools that shaped a sense of order in my otherwise laughably chaotic life was painful. Fortunately, I was testing a ton of bikes and equipment, so my hands stayed dirty for the next few years. Less dirty overall, and my DT Swiss spoke-wrench calluses went away, but dirty enough that I felt like I still worked for a living.

Somewhere around the beginning of the 21st century, about when the first of the revolving door of corporate owners began squeezing this and several other titles through a succession of increasingly constricting metaphorical intestines in the predictable large corporation quest for shareholder revenue, I was writing and editing all the time, and my hands were embarrassingly clean. Writing is work, but it's something I have always grappled with in terms of measurability. There's a tangible product in the form of words on a page, but in the force-times-distance definition of 'work' writing doesn't produce the end-of-day sense of accomplishment that can be found digging ditches, chopping firewood, rebuilding motors or truing shitty old steel wheels on neglected Schwinn Continentals. For me, the sense of a job well done inevitably led to contemplation of my hands. My increasingly soft hands, pecking away at a keyboard in front of a glowing screen for dozens of hours each week. Grimy Handshake? Not very. Aside from a growing sense of abstraction in terms of work, the title of the column weighed like an albatross around my neck, made me feel like a fraud. It became increasingly difficult to face down the screen at deadline time and spit out some words that made any sense.

So, I went back to throwing wrenches around at a beautifully weird bike shop in Downieville, California. Summer work, more like an emergency room for bikes back then than a fully stocked shop, but the pace was frenetic and my hands were dirty and balance had been restored. I enjoyed writing again, and I slept well at night.

Then I took a decade-long wrong turn; a detour that started by going straight through the corporate intestine for a spell as editor at this magazine, getting pooped out into the world of marketing and ultimately ending up facing the realization that I just do not do well with abstract concepts as the sole way to put food on the table. It's fine for some people– kicking around ad campaigns and reshaping hyperbole into successive model years–but it just wasn't quantifiable enough for me to feel good about myself. My hands became soft and very clean. My handshake may have still been firm, but at times I would look at my clean hand extended toward another clean hand, repeated in Escher-esque profusion from one trade show to the next, and my own hand looked alien. Shake, shake, wash, shake, shake, wash. Try to smile, wonder just how I had landed myself in this fluorescent-lit, synthetically carpeted, air-conditioned purgatory.

When the wheels predictably fell right off that particular life in dramatic fashion three- and-a-half years ago, it felt as if the bottom of the world had just fallen out. But there was also an almost palpable sense of relief. The first thing I did with my newfound abundance of time was ride my bicycle into the hills, repeatedly, with no direction in mind. A few months later, I rebuilt a motorcycle. Blisters and sore hands resulted from using tools, from riding more. Then the blisters turned hard, and my forearms regained lost definition, and I remembered how to fix things with tools. The handshake grew grimy again, one peeling blister at a time.

This column has been my sounding board for going on 23 years now. It has at times felt like therapy, at other times has been a much-needed pressure relief valve. And there have been times when I felt less than authentic as the words scrolled across the screen and into shape. I live on 85 acres of land now, in a barn full of bicycles and junky old motorcycles. I dig and wrench more hours in a week than I write, and that feels about right. My handshake is grimy and firm, and I am very happy to recognize it as such.