Inside Job: Bicycle repairperson

Is this wheel life? A day in the life of a bicycle repairperson

If I ever leave Shanghai (I used to say ‘when’, but y’know, Brexit/President Trump), one of the many things I’ll miss about the city is the array of fixers that are readily available on nearly every street corner or outside almost every metro station exit. Literal fixers and those who help you out when you’re in a spot of bother: the cobblers, the umbrella sellers, the fapiao floggers – even the mooncake voucher merchants and the guys who offer to ‘assist’ with your driving test.

But top of the pyramid of importance when it comes to fixers for me will always be the bike-menders. It’s not the most glamorous of roles, but they are literally responsible for keeping a large portion of this city moving.

Assuming I can get my bicycle close enough to home before a problem becomes so bad that it’s unrideable, my go-to repairperson is Wang Shifu on Jianguo Lu, near Gaoan Lu. Barring certain holidays, he’s been fixing up bikes on this spot from 7.30am-8.30pm for over 20 years now.

Friendly and efficient, Wang Shifu has a strong base of repeat customers, with flat tires being the most common complaint. The rise of Mobike and Ofo et al may seem like a threat to his business, but he estimates that he still helps fix ten to 20 bikes and scooters a day. From the number of drop-ins he gets whenever I’m there, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more.

Perhaps part of the reason Wang Shifu’s estimate is low is that he often does small quick fixes for free. He frequently waives his fee when making the odd tweak (pumping the tires, smacking a hammer against the kick-stand) to my ride. That’s partly because he’s a generous person and I’ve been a loyal customer of his for around eight years. But it’s mostly because my bike is a piece of junk and he knows he won’t have to wait long before something major goes wrong with it.

Given my predilection for Feiyues and what people keep telling me is a hipster beard, I really ought to be zipping around town on a chrome fixie, but my bike is a rust-bucket old Forever. Each time I visit, I get Wang Shifu to do just about enough to make it roadworthy, knowing I’ll be back for more in a few weeks. It’s a vicious cycle, but one I’m in no rush to put the brakes on – I’ve found having a barely rideable bike is a strong theft deterrent.

After visiting his bike surgery regularly for nearly a decade, Wang Shifu seems a little bemused that I suddenly want him to show me how to fix my own bike. But he laughingly agrees to teach me how to replace a front wheel that due to a couple of spokes rusting away has taken on a wobble even more disconcerting than when I’m cycling back from Uptown Records ‘n’ Beer.

He has to head off to a nearby supplier to get a new wheel, so begins by handing me a spanner. ‘You get started,’ he says and I give him a blank look. ‘Take the wheel off,’ he clarifies. Right. Yes. Obviously.

Having somehow twigged that I don’t have a huge amount of mechanical know-how, when he returns with a new wheel Wang Shifu patiently shows me how to take off the tire (which is just about in reusable condition) and the inner tube, prying the former away from the wheel frame with a screwdriver amid a small shower of rust.

He’s an encouraging and patient teacher, walking me through the steps to fitting the old tire and inner tube around the new wheel frame, giving me a thumbs up and a grin as he tells me ‘that’s it, you’re fixing it really well’. But when an elderly neighbour enquires as to whether the laowai is training as his new assistant, Wang Shifu just raises his eyebrows and chuckles heartily.

Replacing a wheel is the kind of job that would usually take him no more than half an hour alone, he says as he hands me an old paint can full of oil to brush over my chain, though that feels like a generous estimate to save me a little face from having taken 45 minutes. As I rinse my hands in the outdoor sink, Wang Shifu tells me I’ve done a good job, but he doesn’t seem overly worried that he’s going to lose my business any time soon. And he’s right of course. It won’t be long before the wheels come off (again) and I’m back on Jianguo Lu in need of his help to resurrect my old bike. It’s the cycle of life.