Why do Community Bike Projects Matter? – Kat Young

The time we’re living through now encourages reflection. What is really important to us? What relationships, activities, and things do we actually need to keep us healthy and happy? What kind of community and society do we want to rebuild out of this…and what can we let go of? For many of us, living under lockdown has stripped away the patterns and routines of our normal lives and left us with space to rethink.

So we’ve been thinking…do community bike projects matter? Do we need them to weather this crisis and come back fighting? If the Broken Spoke is going to face down the bumpy road ahead we’re going to need some motivation – we need to remind ourselves and the world what the point is. To help, we’ve asked some close friends of the project to tell us what community bike projects like Broken Spoke mean to them. We’ve been hard hit by COVID and we need your support now more than ever. We hope these stories will inspire you to commit to a monthly donation to Broken Spoke to keep us going and allow us to continue our vital work in our community.

This weeks story comes from volunteer at The Spoke and Team Beryl member, Kat Young.

I never really considered myself a feminist until I started hanging out at Broken Spoke. ‘The Spoke’ may be a community bike workshop, but it has brought so much more than bikes and grease into my life over the last 6 years. Broken Spoke is one of the few public places where you can just be, without being hassled to buy things in exchange for taking up space. No judgements or assumptions are made about your background, gender or sexuality when you walk in the door. These things alone makes it a space worth fighting for.

I was volunteering in the workshop on a fairly ad-hoc basis for a few years until I moved things around at work so I could do a half-day shift in the workshop every week. Having regular time in the workshop is a great antidote to my day job which involves sitting, staring at a screen all day. It allows me to provide consistent support to the overstretched lead mechanics, help customers improve their mechanical knowledge, improve my own mechanical knowledge, and rediscover the joy of fixing physical things by hand. I think I am yet to leave the workshop without grease on my face somewhere.

The regular lead mechanics for Fridays, Jonathon and Jamie, unwittingly became my mentors. Through their patience and passion for teaching and fixing, my mechanical prowess began to grow. Whenever there is a tricky issue or something that I haven’t seen before, they make sure I’m included when they explain the problem, and solution, to the customer. My favourite ones are when the solution involves the massive hammer or the blow torch. No questions are silly. Tea is welcomed.

A while after I started the regular workshop shifts I made a comment to another mechanic about how I hoped I was becoming at least a bit more useful and less of a nuisance around the place. She looked at me and sighed.

“No man has ever said that to me. But three women in the last three weeks have.”

Damnit. I will always be honest about the limits of my mechanical knowledge, but I won’t apologise again.

This is an issue I see reflected in the women that come into the workshop looking to fix their bikes. Often there’ll be some embarrassment that they don’t have the vocabulary to properly explain what is wrong with their bike. Then there might be some apology that they don’t know what needs to be done, or that they’re worried they’ll need a lot of help.

“Never apologise for what you haven’t had the opportunity to learn.” I offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit. Then we start working through the problem(s) together. As Emily mentioned earlier in this series, we have monthly Beryl’s Night sessions specifically for women and trans folk, which is an ace community, but I do love it when the open workshops are a melting pot of Oxford’s people.

I equate learning about bike mechanics to learning a language. When you start a new language, you learn basic vocabulary and phrases. Similar to when you learn how to solve isolated issues on a bike by memorising a series of steps. Over time, you learn how to use the building blocks of the language to construct novel sentences. Similarly, you learn how the separate bike parts work within the larger system, and, based on your understanding of the principles, you can figure out how to fix a much wider array of mechanical issues. Within this comes a deeper freedom.

I’ve never been one to let the absence of travel companions hold me back from the journeys I want to make. However, if I hadn’t gained the experience from Broken Spoke that I could be a largely self-sufficient cyclist, I would have been less confident to ride across France by myself last year. My cycling adventures have grown in parallel to my time at Broken Spoke.

Image: Kat Young on La Vélodyssée

I started cycling to work because that was the logical mode of transport in Oxford. It was the only way I could reliably get to work 20 minutes after leaving my flat. And it was fun. Through a friend from Broken Spoke I soon got involved with the Cowley Road Condors, a very friendly cycling club. Cycling clubs, much like bike mechanics, have a very gendered history. I’m very proud to be part of a club with over one hundred women – we think that’s the most in a mixed club in the UK.

Whilst my cycling experience grew with the Condors, it was Broken Spoke’s Team Beryl that got me into longer distances and audaxing. As I built up my endurance to 200km and 300km rides my worries were focused on whether there’d be any cake left at the next control point, not what would happen if something went wrong with my bike. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have had too many mechanicals over the years, and I’ve been able to fix those that have occurred. I’m currently planning a pan-American cycling adventure next year (pandemic allowing). Again, it’s the frequency of cake opportunities that I have the most detailed notes on so far; my bike’s first aid kit is already sorted.

Broken Spoke has allowed me to discover the joy in teaching. I’ve supported evening mechanics classes as a teaching assistant, led classes at Beryl’s Night, worked on Broken Spoke’s outreach at schools and festivals, and supported the Build a Bike course for relocated Syrians. Developing ways of explaining an issue to a student to reach that “Aha!” moment is really rewarding; for someone to walk (ride) away feeling more empowered and confident on their bike is more satisfying than I initially appreciated.

We all like to feel useful, and volunteering at Broken Spoke helps to fill that component of my wellbeing. I live with a mental illness that from time to time can incapacitate me. As someone used to living a pretty independent life, I find this quite frustrating. Having a purpose, being useful, teaching, learning, riding my bike; these all help me maintain a balance with my mental health. I’m not about to say that cycling, or mechanics, has saved my life. Both do wonders for my wellbeing, but have little impact on the mental illness. I weather that as best I can, and when the storm passes, I pick up the pieces and try to overhaul another sad bottom bracket.

Community bike projects like Broken Spoke deliver so much good to the world. But all of the ones I’m aware of live a pretty tenuous existence. The cost of commercial rent can mean frequent upheavals, staff are on low wages and all rely on volunteer capacity. The optimist within me hopes that the anticipated “cycling boom” following the easing of lockdown will see projects like Broke Spoke become more valued, not just in sentiment and footfall but through national or local government support schemes. We stand to lose too much by not investing in the green recovery that exists under our noses.

Kat Young

We’ve asked some close friends of the project to tell us what community bike projects mean to them, by creating a series of blog posts. We hope these stories will inspire you to commit to a monthly donation to Broken Spoke.

If you can’t commit to a regular donation, we still welcome anything you are able to give at this time. Your financial contributions can go a long way towards getting more people fixing & riding bikes.