Charlie Lowell demonstrates how to oil a chain. (Photo/Charles Bingham)

Drive train, limit screws, cable friction, bearings, wet and dry lube. The jargon alone is enough to keep me from touching any part of my bicycle besides the handlebars. And if there were a bike that needed help, mine is it.

The gears barely shift. The front brake works better than the rear brake so usually I coast to a stop. The tires look like one more ride might push them to disintegrate into shreds. Charlie Lowell of the Susitna Bike Institute in Anchorage insists I’m not alone.

“A lot of people are discouraged from riding bikes because their bikes don’t work,” he said . “And even if their bikes do work there is a lot of intimidation around what happens if I get a flat and I can’t fix it.”

Familiar, to say the least. Lowell is in Sitka this week for the Alaska Walk/Bike Conference, where he led a bike maintenance workshop. He is the youth program director at the Susitna Bike Institute in Anchorage. There, he teaches all ages about how to keep their bikes in tip-top shape. But how does one do that? Lowell offers a few places to start.

First: take the time to clean your chain. Avoid degreasers like Simple Green or WD-40, which can prevent lubricant from sticking the chain and make quiet a mess. Lowell just uses lube and a clean rag to get rid of dirt, dust, and sand. He drips it onto the chain while spinning the wheel, then leaves it be for a few minutes. After it has had a chance to set, he pinches a clean rag around the chain and spins the wheel.

As he demonstrates this to the audience, the chain keeps falling off the gears. But Lowell slips it back on and keeps going. “Immediately, we can see our cleaning rag isn’t that clean anymore,” he said. Grease and dirt leave thick black stripes on the rag as he continues to spin the wheel and clean the chain.

Lowell works on a deraillieur – the mechanism that moves the chain from one gear to the next. (Photo/Charles Bingham)

Bikes present problems besides dirty chains, though: scarier ones like failing brakes. But at the end of the day it all comes down to simple mechanics and learning what to look for. Lowell explains how he learned to ask the right kinds of questions to locate, and eventually solve, problems. The brakes are not working on the bike he uses to demonstrate. So he starts at the handlebars and follows the brake cable back to the rear wheel, where he finds his brake isn’t connected at all.

“Really it’s not that hard to fix your bike,” he says.

Lowell has been fixing bikes since he was twelve. So it comes naturally to him at this point. But he insists that none of the work actually that hard. “We like to teach people how to be detectives,” he said. “If it looks weird, sounds weird or feels weird, it’s probably weird.”

And where can those of use who have never fixed a flat tire start? Lowell suggests your local bike shop. If you find yourself in Anchorage, stop by the bike institute. And when he finds himself stumped? He turns to the great, free how-to resource: YouTube.

The Alaska Walk/Bike Conference runs through Saturday in Sitka. For more details, and to find out more about community cycling resources, visit