Why I Fix Bikes
Some Thoughts On Being A "Bike Mechanic" I've been thinking lately about my identity as a bike mechanic. Like a lot of other parts of my identity (sexuality, race, other stuff) I feel very... what's the word? Liminal? In-Betweeny?
you Marvel nerds remember the In-Betweener? Awesome.
I feel like an experienced mechanic who is still a novice.
Like an ignorant expert.
Like an outside insider.
Forks Over Knives, Fingers Over Wrenches, Novices Over Experts
I've been teaching bike repair as my full-time job for several years now, but I've never been a shop mechanic. I'm a professional mechanic who's never been paid to fix a bike. This is made more strange by the fact that a major focus of my own activism and advocacy (this blog, for instance) relates to confronting exclusion in bike culture and bikey spaces. So many people have negative experiences with bike mechanics that I spend a lot of time talking about and working on that. So much time that it is very easy for me to forget that I, myself am a mechanic.
Same goes for promoting a DIY approach to bike repair. In some ways that DIY ethic is in opposition to both commercial bike shops profiting from riders not knowing how to do their own repairs and the idea of bike mechanics as a special Expert Class.
I'm pretty surprised to find myself where I am, when it comes to fixing bikes. I don't see myself as naturally gifted in things like repair. I came to this interest without any other, similar interests as precursors. Before deciding to learn repair, I was not all that mathy, or crafty or handy. I just liked bikes and felt I needed a useful skill to employ after the Crash, to justify my place in the bunker. I wasn't sure an encyclopedic knowledge of early comic strip art and a facility for media piracy were gonna cut it after the oil-or-zombie apocalypse.
I also realized that helping people choose not to drive (which I try to do) was going to require bikes. Affordable bikes, refurbished bikes, re-purposed or repaired bikes.
When Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly prepared to start Raw magazine, they purchased a printing press and set it up inside their apartment. They decided to start from base principles. Before editing a magazine they would understand how an image is printed on a page. I wanted to take that approach and apply it to bikes.
Luckily, there was Chandley, who was living in the basement my house and who volunteered at the Bike Shack. He helped me take apart my first bikes.
This was so empowering and energizing that I just never stopped. My own cycling and love of bikes blossomed. Where previously I had mostly just hated cars, I now learned to love that simple machine I'd already been using all my life as a car alternative! What a gift!
I've always been a teacher. Before bikes I taught comics, zines, digital art. Pretty much whatever I was pursuing artistically, I found ways to get paid (a little) for teaching.
When this whole bike thing got its hooks in me, I joined in with a few rad people to begin the very long process of founding a bicycle co-op dedicated to combating oppression and exclusion in transportation called, the Bikery. This led to quite a lot of teaching repair and riding.
Soon after, I managed to get a very fun job as a Bike Ambassadorat Cascade Bicycle Club. I did this for a few years, part-time outreach work for Cascade and teaching classes in bikes and biking. The outreach work provided a lot of opportunities to hear about the concerns of new or reluctant cyclists and to respond to the questions and challenges of people who were often very hostile to the rights of cyclists to use the roads. It was a blast and really good practice.
Now, I spend much of my time trying to use these (very modest) repair powers for good. I get to be involved in creating safe, nonjugemental alternatives to the usual, male and expert and relatively-wealthy-people dominated spaces.
This could bring me back to the In-Betweeny place.
they redesigned the In-Betweener to make him more appealing to real life 'Tweens! isn't that cute?
So I spend time talking down the concept of expert, while needing to be one. Thing is, this doesn't feel like a conflict any more. It isn't that mechanics aren't specialized craftpersons, deserving of respect and support. They totally are! Its more that the mystification of bike repair is a big part of why so many potential riders are nervous about getting out there!
I see my place as kind of like that of a white person interested in combating racism or a man trying to be a feminist ally.
I would love to live in a world where bike mechanics are known for always trying damn hard to help people understand their bikes. Where bike retail was all about meeting riders' needs, as they understand them. Like librarians. Where bike nerds smarts are charming and enthusiastic and not exclusive or snobbish. I'd like a bike industry invested not in bikes themselves, but in helping people with bikes.