Learning to Ride a Bike

Learning to Ride a Bike: Mechanic Skillshares

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

It’s difficult to know whether or not the number of people riding bikes in Chicago is growing, since no one counts or keeps track. Anecdotally, cyclists—including those writing this article—will tell you they see more and more folks, especially in the spring. Also growing rapidly are the number of places in Chicago where cyclists can learn how to maintain their machines. For years, shops like Uptown Bikes have hosted open shop nights organized by passionate mechanics. The popularity of learning bike mechanics has blossomed into a wide range of settings and sites. (Note: the authors of this article, while both identifying as being part of the cycling and bike mechanic communities in Chicago, do not purport to have undertaken extensive research for this article. Hence, the questions we pose at the end have perhaps already been pondered and even answered.)

Bicycle self-maintenance is a way to manifest self-sufficiency and independence—the DIY ethic, identifiable in so many forms in culture, is also prominent amongst the cycling community. We define the cycling community as a group of people whose commonality is the choice to ride bikes, who may seek a social or support network through the platform of bicycle riding. Bikes are simple machines, and the challenge of learning to maintain them is appealing to those who seek continuing education. Alex Wilson of West Town Bikes calls this demystification, and cites it as a main reason for the interest in classes. For those on a tight budget, it provides a way to bypass the costs associated with frequenting bike shops. When asked if they thought bicycle self-maintenance was a threat to local bike shops, mechanics have said they aren’t worried: there will always be people who don’t want to fix their bikes; amateur mechanics will make mistakes that require cleaning up; and the steady increase in bike traffic ensures more customers.
The settings of bike mechanics education range from very structured to informal. One can learn how to build a bicycle from scratch during an 8-week course or drop in with a six-pack to a women’s open shop to tune up brakes. In a structured course (“Build a Bike”) or topic class (“Derailleur Adjustments”), there is generally an instructor or expert who demonstrates a specific mechanical skill and then assists students as they apply the new knowledge to their own bicycle. Open shop nights are more flexible, with a range of individual abilities and interests. For example, at a women and transgender open shop night formerly held at Uptown Bikes, this resulted in lateral information sharing and knowledge production as participants moved between projects and solved problems collaboratively with other co-participants.
Bike mechanics education spaces have the potential to provide a setting for discussion about the possibilities of organized groups of cyclists, in addition to the practical benefits it bestows on its students: increased self-sufficiency, thriftiness, socializing, etc.
Chicago’s bike maintenance offerings are diverse and ever-growing, with the dedicated group of people devoting interest and energy at an all-time high. The list of related activities is a testament to this, and this is only a partial list (email s.eva.miller@gmail.com with additions or corrections). Perhaps now is a good time to take a step back, assess, and ask questions about what exists, what could exist, and how to coordinate it. What follows is a list of questions generated in the course of interviews and conversations during the writing of this article. These questions and many more were discussed at the networking bike mechanic education discussion the authors organized this last September 20th, 2007 as part of the How We Learn series that AREA put together at Hyde Park Art Center.

Further Questions

-How can coordination between bicycle education programs help ensure that offerings serve a wide range of bicycle users and reduce duplication?

-How do we encourage both the transfer and production of knowledge? How do these different methods affect students’ learning?

-If the end goal of bicycling activists/advocates is that riding bikes is simply a transportation option, not an identity, where are we now in this quest? Can a cycling community exist without a cycling identity? What role does bike mechanics education play along the way?

-What types of settings best support the goal of increasing community amongst cyclists?

-What are other tools that would help to create more cohesion?

-Is this cohesion and organizing transferable to other communities of interest?

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