I hadn’t intended to end up here.

College graduation loomed, and I was trying to make some extra cash before the icy plunge into the cruel world of “real” job hunting. In my small college town of Laramie, Wyoming, that meant walking around the block and stopping at the local camera shop, outdoor clothing store, and coffeehouse. As I slinked past the bike shop, I saw a few friends through the window, beckoning me inside. My stalled job hunt inspired them to persuade the owner I’d be a good fit; he needed someone to do inventory, sweep floors, and sell gear. Just like that, I had a job—one that, to me, sounded like any other retail position.

I wore a white T-shirt on my first day. By midday it was grimy and streaked with grease. A mere four hours in, I realized I’d made a mistake. Here I was, a petite 21-year-old blonde looking like a fool in the midst of a tight-knit group of guys who’d been working on bikes for half their lives. Every one of them wore a dark mechanic’s shirt.

Soon after I started—having mastered the floors—I began learning how to be a “wrench.” Where my co-workers could pop a tire off of a wheel in 30 seconds or less, it took me 20 minutes of pinched fingers and a whole lot of cussing. I became an easy target for my fellow mechanics. They filled a busted tube with baby powder that exploded in my face as I checked it for holes. They teased me, tested me, and snickered at my cut-up hands. More than once I felt the urge to quit. I’d try to hand off a project that was tormenting me, but my fellow mechanics shot back: “Be smarter than the machine.” Not only was my strength in question, but now my smarts were, too? That was it. I was going to learn to fix a flat, and I was going to do it just as well as the guys.

My smooth hands soon developed the rough, calloused feel of a bike mechanic—as did my attitude. When a co-worker lit a bottle rocket in the bathroom I was in—true story—I greased the handles of all his tools. But my real test came three weeks in when a burly, six-foot-two man walked through the door. He needed a flat tire fixed, and I was the only one around. I watched his eyes look past me, desperately seeking anyone else. “I’ll wait for a real mechanic,” he said. “This one may be a little too tough for you.” I persuaded him to let me give it a try. With a few wiggles, off popped the tire—30 seconds flat. I couldn’t help but smirk.

Two years later, I left the shop with an unintentional education. A hint of smugness, which all true bicycle mechanics possess, had rubbed off and changed me. I started at the bike shop as a timid girl, scared to do the wrong thing and wanting someone else to take the hard jobs. Now, faced with an arduous task, I tackle it dead on (or at least give it a fair shot). When doubt and frustration creep in,
I give myself an internal jab: Be smarter than the machine. And that white T-shirt? I traded it in for a button-up mechanic’s shirt, covered in grease—with my name on it.