Posts Tagged ‘cycle industry’

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop

April 2, 2012

I’m a fairly incompetent and very low in confidence bicycle mechanic. Between us Sue and I manage to keep our family’s growing stable of bikes on the road for most of the year, fixing punctures, changing tyres, replacing cables and fettling with gears and brakes. But our bikes occasionally go elsewhere to be given more fundamental overhauls, and/or to have the kind of work done which we feel less able to do – for example, the bottom bracket of my winter training bike crumbled recently, and I got straight on the phone to Colin Stones, a great local bicycle mechanic we’ve known for years, who collects your machine in his van, takes it away to do the necessary repairs, and returns it to you restored to its former glory.

I aspire to be more technically competent however. After all, one of the supposed beauties of bicycles is that they are an appropriate and relatively transparent and participatory technology – because they are easier to understand and maintain than a car, our use of bicycles should be less reliant on outside experts, and more open to the DIY ethic. That’s the theory anyhow. I also predict that as a family we’ll acquire more bikes as Bobby and Flo get older – for example Bobby hasn’t got a mountain bike yet, but I don’t think it’ll be too long before he’s desperate for one (especially if he keeps watching clips of Danny Hart winning the 2011 World Championships downhill on YouTube!), and then I’ll maybe join him, and so too might Sue and Flo  – so we can enjoy off-road adventures together. (Without a car and with most mountain biking venues awkward to reach by public transport, this branch of cycling is probably the most difficult for us to experience.) The more bikes we get, the more sense it makes to take complete care of them ourselves.

It’s also impossible to teach Bobby and Flo bike mechanics if I’m no good at doing it myself. Bobby had his Redline BMX nicked from our back garden at the end of last year, but that cloud had a silver lining … the local police invited him onto a bike-building workshop, run by local bike recycling project Pedal Power. Danny from Pedal Power sourced a fantastic BMX to replace Bobby’s stolen steed, and over five winter Thursday evenings, Bobby stripped it down and re-built it himself, finishing not just with a ‘new’ bike, but with knowledge and skills which should serve him well. But he and Flo will need support and encouragement from Sue and me if they’re to develop their bike maintenance and repair skills. Like most kids today, I didn’t have parents who were interested in or knew anything about bikes. The little I know I had to find out for myself. I never messed about with bikes as a kid, and so I never learnt how to look after them properly  – I expended my efforts fleeing into the countryside on my bike, and – mainly I think through lack of support – struggled and got seriously frustrated whenever I actually needed to fix it.

I’ve a partner and a son who are more mechanically minded than I am, we’ve an expanding stable of seemingly ever more expensive bikes, and I’ve a guilty and growing sense that I should develop a technical literacy around cycling to match my reasonable social, cultural and political literacy.

So I’ve joined The Tool Club at Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop.

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop is a co-operative enterprise of three women – Aurora, Hollie and Sarah. At the end of a Lancaster terrace close to the city centre, they’ve set up a friendly and airy space with all the tools you need to work on your bike yourself, with at least one of them always around to lend a helping hand should it be needed.

In a mature and properly sustainable bicycle system there’d be a place like Freewheelers on every corner. Your neighbourhood, every neighbourhood, would have one. But it is Lancaster’s first. It answers three major barriers to self-sufficient cycling which, aside from what I’ve mentioned already, my own household confronts.

First, a real lack of space to do our own bicycle maintenance; we live in a terraced house with no garage or other out-buildings save sheds with space to store, but not to work on, bicycles. So we work on bicycles in our downstairs dining space, particularly in winter, when it’s too cold and/or dark to do such work outdoors but – because of the harsh riding conditions – such work is also more likely to be required.

Second, we lack many of the required tools. Lack of appropriate tools is one reason why we’re happy changing tyres and cables, but balk at removing freewheels and servicing bottom brackets and hubs. Tools for those kinds of jobs can be expensive, and there’s also a vicious circle here – you’re unlikely to buy tools which you don’t know how to use, but you won’t learn how to use such tools until you’ve got access to them, and in today’s capitalist economy that typically means buying them.

Third, we lack a more experienced and competent person to call on, when we get to those tricky and potentially very frustrating moments, when we suddenly realise we’re not fully in control of what we’re doing, and could be about to balls it up, sometimes big time. I’m sure it’s true of all DIY, not just bike maintenance, but I have known many times when a supposedly straightforward and quick job rapidly escalates into a panicky, stressed episode and potential mechanical catastrophe.

I’ve never owned a car, have always ridden bicycles, already know a fair bit about them, and am strongly committed to the development of bicycle-centred societies. So if all these barriers to bicycle mechanical confidence and competence are true of me, and even accepting that I’m more than averagely mechanically incompetent, how much more true must they be of the majority of the population? We need better spaces in which people can cycle, we need people to be taught how to cycle, but we also need spaces in which people can learn about bicycles, how they work, and how to repair them. People today know so little about bicycles – even seemingly simple things such as appropriate seat height and tyre pressure, which can make all the difference between  enjoyable and excruciating (so excruciating they may never be repeated) experiences. Over the last few generations we’ve lost a great deal of cycling knowledge and skill, and these resources were anyway always already heavily gendered.

Now I’m a member of their Tool Club, when I’m confronted by a tricky job which I could but really shouldn’t hand over to somebody else, I’ve no excuse not to do it myself; all I have to do is get across to Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop, and in a supportive environment with all the tools (including importantly access to the internet and book-based manuals) have a go at doing it myself. (Very sensibly and appropriately, what you pay reflects whether or not you need additional support when working on your bike. I know that for myself, there are some jobs which I could, using the space, stands and tools provided by the Tool Club, do independently; but for others I’ll need to call on Aurora, Hollie or Sarah’s help, and will happily pay a little extra for it.)

It is significant that Freewheelers is the achievement of three women. In the UK cycling remains a male-dominated practice, and the cycling industry – including retailing – is similarly male-dominated. It’s so obvious it barely needs saying, but for women to cycle as readily as men (and indeed for many more men to cycle) we need cycle shops and services to which people are attracted and where they feel comfortable, and women as well as men need to be empowered to fix bicycles when they’re broken.

For people who do want to be taught how to fix their bike, Freewheelers offers a range of maintenance courses, everything from servicing your bottom bracket (that’s one for me!) to adjusting brakes, and removing and fitting cables. It’s also a bike shop, selling all manner of spares and accessories. And Aurora, Hollie and Sarah also receive unwanted bikes, to repair, recycle and bring them back to life.

For the sake of cycling, we need new spaces in which people can learn in safety the vocabulary of cycling and build healthy, active relationships with bicycles.

For the sake of a sustainable economy and society, we need these spaces to privilege re-cycling, repair and re-use, and to encourage people to think about, and perhaps to revise, their attitudes to the appropriate relationship between production and consumption – learning how to fix your bike yourself can crack acceptance of passive consumption.

For the sake of thriving local community and democracy, we need such spaces where people live, so they can foster face-to-face interaction and contribute to convivial bike-based neighbourhoods. And for the sake of social justice, we need them to be spaces which appeal to and cater for constituencies beyond the current ‘cycling market’, so that new groups have a stake in cycling, and begin to reproduce the bicycle system as something qualitatively and quantitatively bigger and better than it already is.

I’m guilty of gross hypocrisy here; I often use on-line cycle retailers because they’re cheap and convenient – I can buy what I want in the comfort of my own home and have it delivered to my doorstep a few days later, and it costs less than buying it from a local bike shop. But each time I use an on-line retailer I’m supporting one kind of bicycle economy and denying another, the kind best represented by Freewheelers, the kind I actually believe in. Aurora, Hollie and Sarah are three women trying to create a space for more people to feel welcomed into and to take up cycling, they’re busy building a core part of a sustainable bicycle system in their own – and my own – backyard, at the grassroots, and they’re hoping – just maybe – to make a bicycle-based living by doing so. But they quite probably depend on people like me siding with them over Wiggle.

It’s the same each time I shop at a supermarket rather than the local wholefood co-op; I affirm the wrong kind of world and make the attainment of the alternative I’d actually prefer that little bit harder. It’s too easy for me to do ‘the bad thing’ and too hard to do ‘the good’. But shouldn’t this send a strong signal to me that I need to re-evaluate and re-organise my own life so that doing the right thing becomes easier and doing the wrong thing becomes harder?

There are deep structural issues here, which make elevation of the individual’s capacity for agency potentially naive. Certainly, whatever lifestyle changes we ourselves make, there’s also need to push for broader and more fundamental economic, social and political re-organisation. But I think it’s time we start thinking more consciously about not just creating an increasingly bicycle-based society, but the precise kind of bicycle-based society we want to create. And here surely, places like Freewheelers are part of the society we want?

Like more standard bike shops, Freewheelers offers repairs and servicing. To come here you don’t have to get oily fingers; you can simply be a customer, and have your bike fixed for you, albeit  – and unusually – by a team of women who have organised themselves and their business cooperatively and ethically, which is a strong enough reason in itself to support them.

Freewheelers forms part of a growing grassroots bicycle system which if it spreads sufficiently can re-work cycling as a genuine vehicle of sustainability; not just because cycling replaces trips by car whilst leaving everything else unchanged, but because cycling becomes more rooted in and contributes to a system which is committed to more fundamentally re-organising economy and society, production and consumption, in ecologically and socially sustainable ways.

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop is a new kind of participatory and democratic space, of the kind required to re-skill and re-tool society in convivial and sustainable ways. There are similar workers’ co-operatives and grassroots bike projects elsewhere, such as Birmingham Bike Foundry, Cranks in Brighton, Pedallers Arms in Leeds, and Oxford Cycle Workshop. If there’s such a venture close to you, I urge you to search it out, visit and support it. By being not merely about cycling, such places help us see how the push for cycling is no blind push; it’s a push for a fundamentally different kind of society, much better – fairer, greener and more democratic – than the one we’ve currently got.

Huge thanks to Aurora, Hollie and Sarah for showing me around the workshop, and answering my questions. And please, if you’re in or around Lancaster, support their co-operative business – and so a truly sustainable future. You can find all the details you need, including opening times and costs of courses, on Freewheelers website.

The Green Jersey Cafe

February 27, 2012

Winter’s ending. It’s doing so uncertainly, as it always does, but there’s now sometimes warmth to the sun and daily the days grow longer.

I’ll be able to appreciate one of my deep loves of winter cycling – naked trees – for some time yet, but signs of spring – such as the snowdrops – are emerging elsewhere.

Over the last couple of months the highest roads in this corner of the world have often been too treacherous to tackle. While down below there might be none, climb above a few hundred metres and there can be ice, sometimes in sheets across the road where the rain running off the moors has temporarily frozen to a halt.

So last week’s mild spell saw me raise my cycling horizon and ride over Cross o’Greet for the first time in a while. At 427 metres you pass – if heading south – from the Yorkshire Dales into the Forest of Bowland. At Slaidburn I typically turn west, returning to Lancaster through the Trough of Bowland, but last week I continued another ten miles south to Clitheroe, a place which – despite being little more than 30 miles distant – I’m ashamed to say I’d never been before. I wanted to visit The Green Jersey cafe, which has just opened there.

The cafe’s situated in the town but also right at the foot of Pendle Hill, classic cycling country. A big group of riders was just leaving as I arrived at midday. Richard, the owner, isn’t serving food during the week, and only cakes at weekends – but he’ll look to change that if the demand is there. I think it might be. In the meantime, he’s serving damn fine coffee and you can top up on flapjacks, energy bars and gels, and help yourself to bananas in exchange for a deposit in the honesty box.

It’s these little touches which make The Green Jersey feel such a treat: a collection of classy cycling books and magazines spread across the long central table, to browse as you relax; the knowledge that you’re being served by a fellow cyclist, so filling up your water bottle isn’t going to be a problem, that there are spares should you need them. If you will forgive my being momentarily sociological, it’s a place where one’s cycling identity can be announced and is appreciated and affirmed rather than – as can sometimes happen – merely tolerated.

I recognised Richard – he ran a bike shop in Lancaster a few years back. He’s a man who lives and breathes the cycle trade and he knows how it’s changing. Small bike shops are struggling to compete with the big on-line retailers, and they need to offer something different. A place to visit during a ride, or a base from which to start a ride, is an obvious response. The Green Jersey is not just a bike shop, and it’s not just a cafe. It’s both, and much more, and potentially even more than that (by which I mean that such places will become in part what we as their customers choose to make (of) them). Richard has an admirable spirit of adventure and openness to the possibilities ahead. He has plans for courses and events – anything, I think, which simultaneously gives him business whilst responding to potential needs and desires out there. He wants it to be a place which matters to people locally, as well as a place which draws in people from further afield. The place has a cycling ethos. Such places are helping to make cycling happen, and they need cycling to happen to help them thrive. Richard is an entrepreneur, betting on cycling’s growth. Such entrepreneurship creates the conditions through which cycling can grow.

The Green Jersey is less a shop or cafe than a venue; its ethos is I think similar to that behind Look Mum No Hands in London; it’s an ethos which – as Richard himself noted – Mud Dock pioneered, many years ago now, in Bristol. Such places  are ‘cycling hubs’ – places to cycle, to watch cycling, to talk cycling, to acquire cycling, to learn cycling – to do all the kinds of work which are required to move cycling to a place of greater centrality, both in our own lives, and also in our culture as a whole.

The Green Jersey was officially opened by the President of British Cycling Brian Cookson, and by cycling legend Graeme Obree just a few weeks ago (not bad friends to have, eh?!) It’s a really super place, a splendid place to break, or start/finish a ride, and I wish Richard and all concerned all the very best. I’ll certainly be returning, and other local businesses please take note, it’s put Clitheroe firmly on my map as a lovely place full of character and worthy of a longer visit.

For those of us committed to transitioning our world towards low-carbon and convivial, human-scaled sustainability, we need a broad and deep bicycle system. As such, any place which is hospitable to bicycles, cycling and cyclists not only deserves but actually demands our support. Come on, there’s no better justification for a coffee and a flick of the latest issue of Rouleur!

Is there something about rising expectations and surging ambitions associated with this time of year – the tentative end of winter making way for the slow dawn of spring? Certainly, there’s real optimism in the air for British cycling – it’s apparent in the immediate response to The Times’ ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign, in last week’s Parliamentary debate on cycling and its future, and in London Cycling Campaign’s current ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign; it’s apparent too, in patriotic (but not I think parochial) hopes for major British success in cycle sport – not just at the Olympics but also at the Tour, and just maybe the Classics too.

This ‘optimistic, spring is in the air’ feel is also apparent locally. An event  marking the arrival of the ‘road racing year’ in this part of the world is the Coal Road Challenge, organised by Lune Racing Cycling Club. It took place yesterday, another mild and slightly damp day. It’s a super ride into the Yorkshire Dales: out through Wray, the Benthams and Ingleton; up past Chapel-le-Dale and Ribblehead to  Newby Head Moss and then down into Hawes; west to Garsdale Head and the long hard climb over to Dentdale via ‘the Coal Road’, which reaches 537 metres; and then the Dent cobbles and the stiff climb over to Barbondale before the final ‘home run’ west along Lunesdale.

The Coal Road Challenge is what is still sometimes called a ‘reliability trial’ – an early season test of fitness and equipment in preparation for the racing season. It was certainly the hardest ride I’ve done so far this year – initially riding as part of a big group, then solo as the group fragmented in the face of the climbs, and towards the end trying to share a faster pace with a guy (Steve, I found out later) from the Lune. (I covered the hilly 67 miles in just over 4 hours – I’d have been very happy with this, were it not for the fact that throughout the day I also witnessed how much stronger and faster than me are so many other riders!)

There were far more people riding than I’d expected. This big turn out is I think a sign of cycling’s continuing renaissance here. Whilst London is getting the lion’s share of attention, there are positive signs for cycling elsewhere, including up here in England’s north-west. Wherever we are, let’s work towards a truly great year for cycling.


February 1, 2010

One of the things I really love about having a home in a specific cultural world (in my case, cycling) is how it seemingly opens up the whole world, and often brings it right to your doorstep. By being open to cycling, by opening out to cycling, you actually gain a gateway into a massive range of understandings, experiences, personalities. Cycling is a tremendous connection between people at any time, but significant enthusiasm for and commitment to cycling tends to make you the best of friends before you’ve even met.

So I feel very privileged and quite proud – as well as very happy for my children – that from time to time we have quite esteemed (at least in our cycling world) visitors come to stay. And a week or two ago it felt especially delightful to play host to Isla Rowntree, because although we’d never met, Bobby and Flo have been very happily riding Isla’s bikes (Islabikes) since they started moving on two wheels. As they’ve grown older, they’ve progressed through the Islabikes’ range. Starting from the scooter-bike Rothan, Flo – age six – is now riding a Beinn 20, whilst Bobby – age eight – has moved up to the Luath 24. I absolutely agree with Isla when she says, on the Company’s website, “We believe we have built the best bikes available for children whilst recognising that a growing family is expensive and they must be affordable”.

Bobby was so proud to get his latest bike, a proper drop-handlebar racing bike. Although of course it’s not only for racing,  we did have some wonderful times racing together last summer – Bobby riding a two mile time trial around Salt Ayre cycle track, whilst I rode the 10 mile version (and on one occasion we even managed to persuade Sue out, to ride her first ever time trial – she did the six mile option). Isla can vividly recall getting her own first bike, and it really feels to me that her Company’s ethos embodies the profound love for a bike which children can have. I don’t think I’m overstating the case to call tragic the situation whereby many parents in today’s UK presumably did not experience the thrill of a Christmas or Birthday bike, and the intense liberation which a bike can give, so that there’s little hope of them seeking empathetically to communicate that magical experience down to their own children. We may have almost lost an important (if historically recent) ritual – indeed, rite of passage – of childhood, and I think we should be very, very angry about that – it’s symptomatic and symbolic of a closing-down of the world, a world which – as I said at the start – gets opened up by bike.

Bobby and Flo have been gradually moving up through the Islabikes range, but they’ve probably ridden more miles on Isla’s trailer-bikes. As well as lots of riding around town and local country, we’ve done a couple of big cycle-camping holidays in the Netherlands using these, and their performance has been just superb. There’s no comparison between Islabikes’ trailer-bikes, which pivot over the rear axle of the adult bike, and cheaper trailer-bikes which attach to the adult bike at the seat post. But Bobby has finally outgrown the trailer-bike, so – as with all the other bikes we’ve had from Isla – it’ll soon move on to another home and another child in Lancaster, helping to open up yet another little person’s world. And this year Bobby will graduate to independent cycle-touring. We’re currently busy researching the various options – if you have any recommendations for ideal cycle-touring country for a nine year old, please do let me know!

Isla was in Lancaster as the guest speaker at Salt Ayre Cog Set’s AGM. Paul Andrews from Cog Set had invited her, and because he knew that Sue had done some (obviously favourable!) reviews of Isla’s bikes for the cycling press, and because we live very close to the train station and Isla needed to leave Lancaster at 5 o’clock the next morning in order to get to work, Paul asked if we’d be happy to put her up for the night. “Of course, it would be an absolute privilege!” We already had my workmates Tim and Al, and Al’s son Johnny, staying, which made for a very sociable evening. After giving a by-all-reports excellent presentation to the Cog Set audience, back at our house Isla continued to field our many questions with immense patience and very good grace.

But you know what, if I’m completely honest, I enjoyed the most? Sitting in my lounge around midnight, talking with Isla and Tim about our shared love for cycling, and privately and indulgently dwelling in the thought, ‘there are three people all with Brummie accents talking passionately about cycling in my Lancaster living room! How ace is that?!’

Salt Ayre Cog Set use Isla’s bikes. Islabikes have played a very important role in this thriving Club’s success. Bobby and Flo are learning a (hopefully sustainable) love for cycling much earlier in life than I did, mainly because they’ve got parents who love cycling, but significantly because Isla makes bikes which they can not only ride, but also ride well, and so thrive on. And because good reputations spread, and word as well as the actual bikes gets around, Islabikes is playing an important part in the cultural revival of cycling in Lancaster. There are many interesting issues – well worth exploring – around the contemporary cycle industry. What is undoubtedly the case however, is that we need companies such as Islabikes making good quality bikes for children if not only those children, but cycling in general, is to thrive.

Thank you, Isla, from all of us.