Burning Man: Bike Repair

September 15, 2010 Repair Stories, Site News — Kyle Wiens

Driving is forbidden in Black Rock City. The only powered vehicles allowed are art cars. That makes the place very pedestrian friendly, but the city is too large to walk comfortably. So everyone bikes! Day and night, throngs of bicycles flow through the streets—creating a feeling of perpetual movement and pulsing life.

This works great, but there’s a catch: The playa dust gunks up everything! Bikes are particularly vulnerable because riding in loose sand kicks up dust. Of course, everyone knows this is going to happen, so they bring the oldest, cheapest bicycles they can.

You can see where this is headed: Bike repair is an absolutely essential skill on the playa. The most common problems are predictable: flat tires, clogged deraileurs and chains, and failing bearings.

The dust in the desert is very fine—closer to fine cement or regolith than sand, which is relatively coarse. The alkali content is basic and caustic to organic compounds like skin. It is also midly conductive and wreaks havoc on all kinds of electronics.

There are several bike repair shops on the playa. I interviewed bicycle techs from the largest two: the ‘official’ bike repair camp, and Pandora’s Lounge and Bicycle Fix-It Shoppe. Pandora’s shoppe featured a problem-solving flow chart (Warning: potentially offensive image). DPW is the local Department of Public Works, and Moop (material out of place) is trash.

Pandora’s has been a stalwart force at Burning Man: this was their sixth year fixing anything and everything people threw at them. I watched for an hour as people from all walks of life came up asking for advice, help, and tools. They solved one problem after another, doing as much as possible with lubricant and tape rather than spare parts (which are rather hard to come by in the middle of Black Rock Desert). The wire bead separated from the rubber on this tire, and this well-dressed gentleman was able to get the tire reseated with a little duct tape to hold the bead in place.

The shop crew were super helpful, and shared some tips with me for preventing getting stranded without a ride on the playa.

  1. Don’t use *any* oil or petroleum based products. That includes WD-40! The oil attracts dust like nothing else, and the fastest way to ensure your bike will grind to a halt is to liberally coat it with lube before you leave home.
  2. Less is more. Use as little lubricant as possible! One tech went so far as to tell me that he thought no lubricant was better than an oil based lube. That’s certainly not conventional bicycle maintenance wisdom. If nothing else, wipe off as much lubricant as you possibly can.
  3. Kickstands don’t help much in 30 mph winds! Just lay the bike down, or the fall will break a pedal.
  4. Temporary hacks are often better than the ‘right’ fix. Don’t attempt complex repairs (like pulling a bearing) on the playa. It’s almost impossible to keep things clean—better to hack a quick fix for a few days and then get the bike back to a real shop.

I asked everyone about lubricants, and the consensus was that White Lightning’s self-cleaning wax lube is the best product out there. I’m told it also works wonders on zippers!

I bet you’ve never seen a BUCKET of wax lubricant before, either.

A few years ago, an anonymous donor helped Burning Man buy 1,000 ‘Yellow Bikes’, bicycles painted green (yes, green: irony is the source of much playa humor) and available for communal use. There’s only one rule: Never lock up a Yellow Bike. Instead, leave it for the next guy when you’re done.

I stopped Epona, one of the Yellow Bike repair techs, to ask why she spent her vacation fixing bikes. The simplicity of her answer delighted me. “I like making bikes go.” Who doesn’t?


  1. Glad you had a good time at Pandoras! I’m one of the founding members, and while I couldn’t make it this year, members of ours from St. Louis (where most of the camp is from) towed out my solar trailer, air compressor and boxes of tools that help make up the fixit shoppe from my home in Boulder, CO. So while I couldn’t attend, I lived vicariously through my own tools. ;)

    Fixing stuff in an environment like the playa is such a different concept than fixing things back at home. Repair, for me, isn’t about making something as close to its original state as possible, but something more abstract, taking something that used to do what you wanted, that has since stopped doing what you want, do what you want again. This is a very context sensitive issue, and in the context of swirling dust, lack of stores, and being extremely hungover, sometimes you find yourself going down a very different road than if you were back home in a clean shop.

    This issue comes up in the “real world” too. For instance, if you are rebuilding a gearbox, and you don’t have the facilities to remove ALL the old grease, you might be better off leaving the old grease in and not adding any new grease, because mixing greases may form acids or other destructive compounds. Don’t take the first step unless you are prepared to walk the whole mile. ;)

    Anyway – I hope you make it back out next year, and hey, remember #3 on Pandora Sez – if you want to put in a few hours wrenching with your fellow citizens, I guarantee it will be a good time, and we can always use the break. :)

    Comment by Sam — September 20, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

  2. Very nice, I wish I’ll be there one day (or longer).

    Above, there is a text:
    “Don’t use *any* oil or petroleum based products.”
    I understand percently, but could you summarize what I should use? I mean certain products and so.

    Thx, all of you.

    Comment by Hannu Makarainen — September 21, 2010 @ 9:28 pm


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