A gift of mud and love and neglect.
All photos by Kyle Sparks
A coworker once told me I should never throw away a bike part, no matter how useless it may seem. His shop always drove me crazy, random components fighting for space with new, undoubtedly useful ones. “Just wait,” he’d say. “One day you’ll need it, and it’ll be the one part you can’t find anywhere.
“Or you’ll spot it when you’re searching for something else, and it’ll end up being just the part you wanted.”
My brother Jake is annoyingly good at figuring out what people want. When it comes to giving, he rarely asks for ideas; instead, he keeps a “potential gifts” list on his phone that he appends year-round. I, on the other hand, tend to be a reactively practical gift-giver: I notice things people need but don’t have the time or knowledge to take care of themselves.
My trip to my brother’s house in Bellingham, Washington, this August had nothing to do with gifts or any sort of holiday; I hadn’t been home in a year, and I was in town to ride mountain bikes and spend time with family.
Jake’s bike, I quickly realized, was in need of some quality time as well—after countless miles of mud and love and neglect, the entire thing was worn to the edge of inoperable. As I listened to it creak, grind, clank and click for the entirety of our first ride, I had an idea: Because I wouldn’t be around for the holidays, and since Jake hates working on his bike, I offered to rebuild it with him. He’d provide beer, and I’d show him how to fix whatever wasn’t working … which, it turned out, was a lot.
That was fine, though. We had a lot of catching up to do.
Until a few years ago, Jake and I had spent pretty much our entire lives in the same town, doing mostly the same things, and usually together: college, skiing, mountain biking, wildland firefighting, tattoo choices, housing choices, rollerblading, longboarding, potlucks, more tattoo choices … we’ve been “The Bankson Brothers,” capital “T” and two capital “B”s, longer than either of us can remember.
Then, in 2018, my wife and I moved to Montana and eventually Virginia; my brother stayed in Bellingham, where he quit his job to become a flight instructor and commercial pilot. By the summer of 2020, our lives were more divergent than ever. We talked on the phone multiple times a week and had a running text thread with memes and video clips, but three years is a long time, and 3,000 miles is a long way … which was, by my guess, how many miles it’d been since Jake last worked on his bike.
The “to-repair” list continued to grow: He needed a new headset, cassette, chainring, chain, derailleur pulleys and shifter cables, a front-brake rotor, front tire, grips, a few spokes and his fork was pleading for new seals. Last on the list was a dropper seatpost lever; a few days before, Jake hooked his pedal on a stump five feet from the top of the trail and went over the handlebars. He was fine. The lever, however, was very broken (though we were able to coax out one more lap before the hydraulic fluid completely drained).
Pre-2020, most shops in town would have had everything we needed. But with an international parts shortage smothering inventory, even the biggest stores were struggling to restock the most basic components. I would need to get creative.
Over the next three days, I scoured Bellingham for parts, using 15 years of personal and professional connections. An old college roommate loaned us some cassette and suspension tools, and we reminisced on powder days long past while his 14-year-old Aussie shepherd, Reese, did her best to earn some snuggles (she succeeded).
At my old office, some close friends and former coworkers donated a chain, chainring and shifter pulleys they had laying around. One, who’d gotten married earlier in the pandemic, was moving to central Washington a few days later; he took a break from packing his desk to show me their new spot on Google Maps, an adorable ranch house at the foot of the mountains.
Another friend agreed to sell me a tire and grips, at the price of a group ride and a six-pack. He filled me in on the latest ski area drama as we pedaled to the top of the trail, and afterward introduced me to his new girlfriend while barbecuing in the backyard.
I searched for the rest of the parts at three different shops, where I made a half-dozen new friends figuring workarounds for things I couldn’t find.
And I spent three afternoons with just me and my brother and his bike. We talked about his new job, the nuances of training a border collie, and speculated about our parents’ retirement. We commiserated about the aches from crashing in our 20s, and how much worse it is crashing in our 30s. He told me about the stress of becoming a new pilot and how riding helped him gather his thoughts.
Some of the topics were weighty, but most were mundane, the minutiae that just doesn’t come up over the phone—not because it doesn’t matter, just because we’re occupied with things like work and family and holidays. With nothing more pressing than the beer and bikes in front of us, our conversation meandered into the trivial, those leftover nuts and bolts that hold meaning simply because they’re shared.
The day after we finished Jake’s bike, my last day in Bellingham, we went for a big ride on a new trail. I don’t know if it was something Jake wanted, but following him as he drifted through corners, fresh tires biting into the ankle-deep loam, drivetrain silent and the tweak of a smile on his face, it was obvious his bike—a functional bike—is something he needs.
As for all the time and work it took to get there … well, that was a gift I needed.
Despite my former coworker’s advice, I rarely keep old bike parts, but when I got back to Virginia in September, Jake’s leftovers were with me—sitting in a greasy cardboard box on the passenger seat. They’re currently tucked under my shop bench; not because I’ll ever use them, but because I know my brother and that, come December, his bike will be a mess.
He’ll need a reminder to fix it, and I’ll need something to wrap.