There was a time when I was a pretty good wrench.
Needless to say, that was before I married a woman who objects to finding greasy bike parts scattered all over the living room.
I took great pride in building my own wheels, carefully lacing the spokes in the traditional interlaced pattern. And twice each year, I would strip my bike down to the frame and rebuilt it; lubing, tightening and aligning every part until it rolled smoothly, in perfect silence.
But it never occurred to me to assemble an odd collection of mismatched parts and build my own bike from the rubber up.
Yet that’s exactly what Amanda is doing.
Even though she’s only been riding for a couple years. And even though she didn’t even know how to fix a bike when she started. In fact, one of her reasons for doing it was to teach herself bike mechanics as she goes along.
The author of Life Without Wheels, Amanda — better known by her online persona, Dancer a la Mode — started riding because she couldn’t afford a car. Then continued because she fell in love with it, joining in on group rides and doing solo centuries and double centuries, as well as commuting to and from both her jobs.
And all that on a bike that’s too big for her.
She needed a new bike, one that actually fit. One that would allow her to ride even longer distances, as well as take up racing, her next two-wheeled challenge.
So she decided to build it herself.
And that’s when the problems began.
She went to the local bicycle co-op in her neighborhood, the Bicycle Kitchen — the city’s first and still most respected co-op — and asked for a little help. And walked out discouraged and empty handed.
I’ll let her explain.
Let me say that I understand the purpose is to teach you how to work on your bike. It’s not a bicycle shop and it’s not a repair shop. I get it. I wasn’t asking for either.
My first off-putting experience was when I came into the Kitchen during ArtCycle. I explained that I wanted to build a bike from scratch as a learning project, but also to ride, and asked what kind of frames they had. Now, based on everything I read, that’s exactly the kind of project you can do at the Bicycle Kitchen, exactly what it’s there for. But the “cook” there just looked at me and said, “well, we don’t sell frames”. I made it clear, again, that I wasn’t looking to buy a bike, I wanted to build one, myself, I would need some direction, but this wasn’t about “buying”. The cook continued to brush me off, so I left with my friends and went back to ArtCycle. My impression was that they just didn’t want to help me. I was very sad and had to wonder what this “community” was really about if these leaders in the community were going to discourage me for some reason or, dare I say, bias of their own.
Maybe there really wasn’t anything they could do. Or maybe they didn’t take her seriously. But either way, instead of trying to find a way to help or encourage her, the person she spoke with turned his back on her — figuratively, if not literally.
Even if they couldn’t do what she asked, someone could have taken the time to guide her by discussing various types of frames, or offered suggestions on where to find a good used frame. Or they could have simply suggested that she come back the next day and talk to someone at Orange 20 Bikes directly across the street.
And then offered to assist her in building her bike once she found one.
But instead of offering encouragement, the answer was simply “we don’t sell frames.” So she walked out the door, empty handed and disappointed.
A lot of people would have quit right there.
But clearly, Amanda isn’t the type to give up. So she went ahead and built it anyway, doing the research on her own to discover what she needed and how to install it. And slowly assembling, not just a bike, but the skills required to build it.
And then it happened again.
So I embarked upon my bike build myself. I went to swapmeets, garage sales, searched online, and compiled used parts for my project over the course of a few months. Every time I talked to people about my search for parts they would say, “oh, you should visit the Bicycle Kitchen.” I had to shake my head sadly and say I’d already tried that. However, as I began to assemble the bike, in my living room on the floor without a bike stand, I realized I needed an integral part to install my shift and brake cables. Last night, on a group ride, we stopped to show an out-of-town guest the Bicycle Kitchen. I went inside, explained that I was building a bike at home, and needed a cable clamp for the downtube. The cook politely showed me a cable clamp but would not give or sell it to me. He said, “We’re not really a bicycle shop. You can bring it here and work on it.” I explained to him that the bicycle was in pieces, I don’t own a car, and I would have to carry it here, which isn’t really an option, because I’m not walking through Hel-Mel and Koreatown at night, carrying my bicycle (and let me be clear, nighttime is the only time I have to work on this project). It’s absolutely ridiculous that he even expected me to. Hello! There have been muggings, and recently cyclists have been held at gunpoint for their bikes in this area! I’m a 30-year-old woman, and while carrying the bike isn’t the problem, I paid good money for all the parts I had to compile, since the Kitchen wouldn’t help me in the first place. I wasn’t trying to use them as a shop. I had a legitimate need, a legitimate situation, and could’ve used a little help. Regardless of my explanation, I was again refused any help and left very angry that I was being told that the only way I could get help was to do something I deemed dangerous.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
This isn’t a criticism of the Bicycle Kitchen. Until I read Amanda’s letter, I’d heard nothing but good things about them. And I wasn’t there either night, so I can’t comment on what really happened, or who was right or wrong.
It’s a reminder that if we really want to build our bicycling community, we need to take a situation like this and turn it into an opportunity to encourage less experienced riders. Whether that means offering advice on how to ride in traffic, how to buy a bike or where to get the parts they need.
And whether we write a blog, work in a bike shop or serve on the board of a biking organization. Or just encounter a rider having a little difficulty on the road.
Not everyone has Amanda’s determination. And it’s a lot easier to give up than to struggle though on your own.
I nearly did the first time I tried to replace a busted wheel.
I couldn’t afford a new one, and the staff at the local bike shop took one look at a beginning rider with no idea what he was doing, and dismissed me on the spot.
They told me that I couldn’t build one of my own. Too hard, too complicated, something only the most experienced riders should even attempt.
So I turned and walked away, deeply discouraged and ready to quit, since I couldn’t ride on one wheel. Then another customer stopped me on my way out the door.
He took the time to explain the different types of rims, helping me select the right ones for my bike, budget and style of riding. Then he helped me find the right spokes, explaining how to lace them and get the tension just right.
It wasn’t his job. But he cared enough to encourage a total stranger.
And over 25 years later, I’m still riding.
And still grateful.