A Tribute to DIY Bike Shops

Just over a year ago, I co-hosted the Bicicultures Roadshow with Adonia Lugo. The sessions are still view-able online. Reflecting recently upon the event, I wanted to share a few thoughts prompted by Chris Carlsson’s talk, drafted long ago but not published until today.

I watched the first talk, titled, “General Intellect’s Cavalry: The Bicycling Movement on the Front Lines of the Culture War” by Chris Carlsson of Shaping San Francisco. His tribute to do-it-yourself bike shops struck me as particularly potent as I prepare to leave my own beloved community bike repair space, the Davis Bike Collective.

The DIY bike shop is one of these places that starts with waste, the waste stream of modern society. They see all these bikes… There are parts laying around. So people all over the country have formed these DIY bike shops. They usually start with nobody getting paid—they’re all volunteer.

This is precisely how the Davis Bike Church began (which later became the Davis Bike Collective through an unfortunate naming accident in which I may have had a role). A group of wistful would-be bike mechanics turned a bike junkyard into a fully functional do-it-yourself bike repair place.

Say some fat geyser like me shows up with my bike. I say, oh man, I heard you are a bike shop. Fix my bike. They say, we don’t fix bikes here. What are you taking about? We’ll show you to fix your bike. Come on in.

This ethic of teaching people to fix their own bikes and sharing skills has remained central to the mission and purpose of the Davis Bike Collective, an ethos I respect greatly. There are many good quality bike shops in town who can fix bikes. We wanted to do something different.

 

And right there the whole logic of capitalist business is short-circuited. Because instead of them providing a service that I’m buying, they’re insisting on sharing technological skills and the apparatus of technological repair that they have accumulated from the waste stream. So it’s a deeply radical moment when that happens.

It took me a long time to appreciate how radical the simple act of teaching someone to true their wonky wheel could be. I kept thinking, “We’re just fixing bikes and having fun. What’s so crazy about that?” But when the university put its power to bear against us, working to shut us down, I began to question if what we were doing was in some way exceptional, and perhaps exceptionally threatening to the powers that be.

And then I find, who am I standing next to? There’s a 12 year old Latino kid on one side, a 14 year old African American kid on the other side, and they’re working on their bikes…We are very segregated in this society, and we do not cross those boundaries…

Once we moved off campus into our own digs and became an independent nonprofit, I began to better appreciate the possibilities of the community bike repair space. I remember volunteering in the shop once. On one side of me was a university professor. On the other side was a woman whose bicycle was the closest thing she could call home. Also sharing the shop space that day was the future mayor of Davis and a high school kid. The close intermingling of the often invisible social and economic strata of Davis intermix in the shop in ways seldom seen in our privileged enclave.

In this moment, I can talk to them because it’s about brakes, or putting on spokes, or painting your bike some weird color…There’s a new relationship that starts to emerge…That’s an awesome moment because there’s suddenly the beginning of relationships that we have systematically disrupted and rendered kaput over the past forty years.

I’ve spent less time at the Davis Bike Collective as my research and writing overtook my life. And yet, I must remember that it was this strange project and the feeling that something special was happening hear that drew me to bicycles in the first place. It’s a site of potential. The radical possibilities spoken of by Chris Carlsson are far from guaranteed in the DIY bike space. These spaces can “sell out,” become assimilated, or otherwise find themselves integrated within the gaping maw of value exchange. But they retain the ability to dance on the edge of what is possible and what sort of relations and world we want to live in.

Thank you, my fellow ‘bike ministers’ for teaching me.

Spokemistress Sarah

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