Why do Community Bike Projects matter? – Emily Chappell

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 Emily Chappell, author and long distance cyclist (and big sister of our co-director and mechanic, Sam).

I’ve visited more community bike workshops than most. When my first book was published, in 2016, I spent a few weeks cycling around the country promoting it: an enjoyable amalgamation of a book tour and a bike tour.

Image: Björn Eiben

What this consisted of in practice was a tour of Britain’s bicycle communities. Every day or two I would show up at whatever shopfront, warehouse, converted school, or other low-rent premises housed the local bike workshop. I’d be welcomed with tea and biscuits, shown round, offered bike servicing and occasionally even a shower, then an hour or two later the city’s cycling crowd would show up. I’d show them my slideshow and tell them my stories, we’d end up in the pub afterwards, and often we’d discover mutual friends in the other community workshops I’d visited. My hosts would usually put me up, or billet me with friends of the co-op, and I’d leave the following morning with a happy sense of having added another ring to my social circles.

When it came to planning my second book/bike tour, I realised I had friends up and down the country, and a bike gang in every city.

No two community bike workshops are the same. They’ve been set up by different people, for different reasons. Bristol Bike Project grew out of a smaller scheme, set up to recycle second-hand bikes and provide them free of charge to refugees. Broken Spoke (as Ellie’s recent blog post tells us) was set up by three people who’d volunteered at a previous workshop in Oxford, and felt bereft when it closed. Edinburgh Bike Station began as an informal bike swap at a local primary school.

Some are charities; some are social enterprises; some are run as co-operatives, where no one’s in charge, and all workers have a stake in the business. And most have evolved organically around the communities they serve, responding to whatever needs they identify – which means that in certain places the focus will be more on refugees; in others more on disadvantaged young people or ethnic minority communities. Some train people to ride bikes, others focus more on fixing them.

Most have a group or session aimed at women and trans people, and this is the thing I’m most grateful for. I’m a very capable and experienced cyclist, but my mechanical skills remain patchy. And the more successful I am riding bikes, the harder it is to learn to fix them – everyone assumes I must be as good at indexing gears and servicing hubs as I am at riding up mountains, and it’s embarrassing to have to admit that I still need to ask for help with quite a few things. Often I pretend I’m simply too busy to fix my bike, and park it at a bike shop for a few hours while I get on with something else.

But traditional bike shops are a minefield of their own. Like most women, I have countless stories of being ignored and patronised by mechanics, who assume (for whatever reason) that I don’t know the first thing about my bike, and talk over me when I try to explain what I do know. I’ve often left bike shops gritting my teeth, fuming at having paid good money for a job that was misidentified and then inadequately fixed, cursing myself for knowing enough to see what the problem was, but not possessing either the expertise or the tools to put it right myself.

Broken Spoke, which is the community workshop I have the most experience of (since my little brother works there), is a breath of fresh air in comparison. Beryl’s Night, which offers an opportunity for women and trans folk “to learn, fix, teach, socialise, hang out, laugh, help each other, high five, ask for help and make friends”, is one of Broken Spoke’s most popular and long-running activities – because the need for these spaces is so great.

Not all of the men who dominate cycling are as patronising as the casually sexist mechanics I’ve encountered across the world. Many are considerate, helpful, and really want to make a difference. The thing is, we are all the product of our upbringing and society. A male mechanic’s genuine attempts to help or teach me might come across as didactic and overbearing, despite his best intentions. And I’ve noticed, to my dismay, that there’s a passive, helpless persona I adopt when talking to men about my bike. It comes from all those years of biting my tongue, swallowing my frustration, and disengaging from the process of discussing repairs – because ultimately I need my bike fixed, and if a mechanic refuses to listen to me, talks over my head, or insists on explaining things I already know, I’d better just shut up and put up with it.

Of course, in a space populated entirely by women and gender-variant people (London Bike Kitchen’s version is called ‘WAG Night’), this dynamic can’t play out, and we have to find new ones. Instead of the man in the room feeling it’s his job to explain things, and the woman grudgingly (or gratefully) deferring to him, people’s roles and relationships change according to their knowledge and experience.

And these are by no means static. I’m pretty good at truing wheels, but I’m terrible at indexing gears. So in a community workshop I would morph from teacher to student, depending on what particular thing we were focussing on that week. There is space for partial knowledge – for a few people who have a vague idea of how something works to figure it out between them. (London Bike Kitchen sometimes refers to itself as a ‘do it together’, rather than a DIY workshop.)

Image: Björn Eiben

Out of these encounters evolves a wonderful sense of community. In 2017 I worked with Broken Spoke to put together their hugely successful ‘Women & Bicycles’ event. The experience perfectly encapsulated all that is good about community bike workshops. A large team of us worked for nine months to pull together all of the complex moving parts of the festival, each of us playing a different – and indispensable part. I contributed a small amount of organisational competence and my contacts from the bike industry and around the country. But when I look back at the time we spent working together, and all of the energy and ingenuity that the team put into our joint project, my main emotion is gratitude. It was a rare privilege to work with such a brilliant team, and honestly one of the most enjoyable learning experiences of my life. I witnessed experts at work, I was encouraged to push myself and extend my own capabilities, and together we produced something that none of us could have achieved on our own.

I still run into people who tell me that they came to Oxford for that weekend three years ago, and that that was when they realised that they were part of something, that they found the bike friends and community they’d been looking for, or that they gained some of the inspiration and confidence to do whatever it is they’re doing now.

As Ellie’s post suggests, community workshops and events like this are the bedrock of diversity in the cycling industry. People who found their feet in community workshops, through projects like Beryl’s Night, and at events like Women & Bicycles are moving on into the wider world of cycling – they’re the ones shaking up the company hierarchies, blowing fresh air through the dusty old bike shops, telling new stories in bike magazines, websites and podcasts, and offering us new role models, new ideas, new ways of doing things. We owe it to ourselves to support these ventures, and make sure they continue to exist. Our future depends on it.

Emily Chappell

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 over the coming weeks. 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.