2. Broken Spoke Co-operative, Oxford
It’s raining and I’m standing in Oxford holding up a bike that has seen better days. I have the front wheel in one hand, and the rest of the bike, flat tyres and all, in the other hand.
It’s going to be OK, says Cassiope Sydoriak, co-founder of Broken Spoke Bike Co-operative. She smiles reassuringly and promises me that by the end of our hour together, I’ll be able to ride the thing again. I admire her optimism, and her bike oil-stained workshop apron is somehow profoundly encouraging. She leads the way through a courtyard into the Broken Spoke building at the back of Oxford’s Story Museum, where I find myself in a glittering Aladdin’s cave of bike parts.
Sydoriak set up Broken Spoke in 2012, with her friend Ellie Smith, who today is walking around with a rose clip in her hair and holding up a wrench. They met through the Oxford Cycle Workshop, and took their workshop into different community centres before settling in this building. Sydoriak and Smith work full-time along with 30-40 volunteers who help run the project, which is open to everyone, men and women of all ages. They also offer weekly women-only Team Beryl nights, named after Beryl Burton, the famous British racing cyclist and seven-times world cycling champion.
The general public drop-in workshops only cost between £5-7, and you get all the help and tools you could dream of for as long as you want during opening hours, which are Friday to Sunday. I start chatting to Dave, one of the volunteers here, who met Smith and Sydoriak through Crisis Skylight (a charity for homeless and vulnerably housed people around the city) where Broken Spoke run bespoke bike workshops to help Crisis members learn new skills in order to secure employment. Dave, a cool guy in his 60s with a bald head, an arm full of tattoos and an eyebrow earring, tells me how he became involved with the project. “When I was a kid I was always fixing my mates’ bikes, so this is just an extension of that - it’s nice to be able to share my skills with the community. And thanks to volunteering here I was able to get funding to do a bike mechanics course and get a professional qualification in it,” he says. He’s now built two bikes himself here from scratch, using bike pieces he found at a skip (volunteers can use the workshops for free).
Alex, a final-year biomedical student, who is in the workshop next to me, explains the appeal. “Before I came here, I could kind of change a tyre and my brakes but not very well, now I can do pretty much everything and it’s satisfying to know that if I break down I’ll know what to do.” Even if there’s nothing majorly wrong with your bike, the aim is to prevent any major future disasters – “you know how you replace the oil in a car, before the oil needs replacing so that the car engine doesn’t mess up? It’s like that,” says Sydoriak.
So that’s what I’m here to do, repair my current bike problems and prevent any new ones. Or as Sydoriak cheerfully puts it: “Taking the bike apart is the first step to putting it back together.” I put on an apron and we put my Giant city bike, up in the work stand so that it’s suspended in the air. It’s already much better than trying to fix it on the floor with scattered pieces around me, as I’ve done briefly in the past, before giving up.
Next Sydoriak takes a look at my tyres. It’s hard to tell if the flat tyres are because I’ve simply neglected my bike or because I have punctures, so we get to work testing that theory. By filling the bikes with air we’ll be able to monitor them over the next hour. And if they deflate in that time, I’ve got punctures. I take hold of the wheels and start looking around for a hand pump so when Sydoriak directs my attention to the funny contraption on the floor, I’m bemused. It’s a professional floor pump with a gauge and it turns out that both my tyres have numbers on them, which dictates the recommended air pressure.
I start pumping while trying to match up the numbers on the tyre with the pressure from the gauge. It’s a serious arm workout, after a couple of minutes it feels like I’ve had a gym session with weights, but my tyres are finally looking better. Now we just have to wait.
No breaks. Just brakes
The whole ethos of Broken Spoke is that the qualified bike technicians offer advice and help you, but you do the practical stuff, so that when you leave the workshop you know how to do it yourself. My right brake is not working properly, so we have to take the bike apart and locate the problem. With a knowing eye she has has immediately worked out the issue, but patiently takes me through what it could be step by step. We look at the brake pads and see that they are aligned badly (well, she spots that. I just nod and smile encouragingly).
In fact bike brakes are one of the most common problems, because the rubber doesn’t last that long. So I set about moving the brake pad position, and while that helps, it doesn’t solve the problem completely. The next step is to undo and pull apart the brake cable: now I can clearly see that the cable is damaged. Sydoriak hands me a new brake cable, some wire cutters and an Allen key; I get to work. I’m shocked that I can (with her guidance) repair this.
I should explain that I’m not great at getting things repaired. There’s a pile of clothes in my room that need tailoring and a pair of thin soled shoes by the door, which would look brand new if I could just be bothered to take them to the shoe repairers. Smith says that was one of the main reasons she co-founded the project. After working in a bike shop full–time, she got tired of all the “selling and lack of sustainability”. Broken Spoke by contrast isn’t geared towards making you buy new parts or a whole new bike (though they do sell second-hand bikes), but helping to keep your bike in top condition so you can enjoy it for longer.
By the end of my session I’ve fixed my tyres, my right brake, and checked my gears are indexed (by shifting through each gear and checking the chain moves along easily, any scratching metal noises can mean you’ve got a rusty cable, or a rusty chain that needs replacing). Now my bike has two wheels again and I can actually ride it out of the Broken Spoke building. My hands are dirty, covered in oil and my arms hurt, but my bike has never looked better. Have to admit to a glow of pride too. Who knew?
This article is part of the Live Better Community Project month. In September, we are showcasing 17 community projects from around the UK. On Wednesday 24 September, we will ask you to vote for your favourite project. The project with the most votes will be awarded £1,000 of funding, and two runners-up will each receive funding of £500. One voter chosen at random will receive £150 worth of gift vouchers for Nigel’s Eco Store. Terms and conditions here.
With thanks to: 10:10; FOE; Project Dirt; Neighbourly; UK Community Foundations; Groundwork; Business in the Community; Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens; the Prince’s Trust; Garden Organic; the Royal Horticultural Society; the RSPB; Keep Wales Tidy; The Wildlife Trusts; and Mind.
The Live Better Challenge is funded by Unilever; its focus is sustainable living. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.