Fix your own bike

This article was published in 2017, in Newsletter 131.

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Being a bike mechanic is one of the most empowering things I have ever done, both for myself and in helping other people have to the confidence that they can just get out and ride.

I started at Outspoken as one of the cycle couriers – the only woman at the time, though more have joined since. I rode a cargo bike and delivered packages for seven or so hours a day – a job I mainly chose for the exercise and the chance to be outdoors. I loved it, being surrounded by loads of passionate cyclists, and a range of fascinating cargo bikes. I’d always been a tinkerer, whether with bikes or woodwork, and being at Outspoken I got plenty of opportunities to learn – everyone was happy to share their knowledge. When I first starting learning to fix bikes, it wasn’t just the satisfaction of saving a bit of money by doing it myself, but also the joy of doing something practical. As the business expanded so did my chances to practice the skills and I took the opportunity to move into the workshop and gain my qualifications.

Approaching my seventh year with the company, I’m now the Head Mechanic. My favourite part of the job is teaching other people to fix their bikes. I first started out teaching the weekend courses; showing someone how to fix their own puncture quickly and easily is still a huge buzz. Often what people need is a bit of confidence that bikes aren’t as scary to fix as they think. Unpicking the ‘dark arts’ of indexing gears, balancing brakes – the look on people’s face when they see how simple it can be is fantastic. In the last couple of years we’ve expanded our offering to include Velotech Gold – a four-day professional course – so I get to see people strip a bike down to the frame and rebuild it for the first time. It’s brilliant.

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I get a mixed response when people find out their instructor is female. Female mechanics are still a rare breed and the barriers to entering the industry are similar to the ones that stop many women cycling. Partly I think it’s a lack of role models or the encouragement for women to take up tools. I get a lot of positive feedback, especially from women who sometimes tell me they don’t always feel comfortable in bike shops that can be heavily male-dominated; however, some people still have their reservations. Once I was fixing bikes with a ex-student of mine – a gent in his 60s – who had joined me to get some hands-on experience. One of our customers flatly refused to believe my assessment of her bike and insisted that ‘the gentleman’ take a look. When he gave the same assessment as me (unsurprisingly, I had trained him after all) she told me she’d get her husband to look. I must admit, it was tough to keep my cool in the moment.

Whether I teach the leisure courses or the longer accredited versions, we always get a great reaction from students about the workshop with all the tools laid out and ready to use. We decided to open up our workshop to the public and start offering a Fix Your Own Bike (FYOB) open workshop service where people can come and use the tools and the space for a small fee. It’s a real joy to be able to share this space with others and it means ex-students can come back and practice their new skills, with someone on hand to give them a bit of confidence. It’s not just beginners though; experienced riders with all the know-how may not have the space or the tools for everything they want to do (and to be honest who really wants to fork out loads for tools that may only be used once or twice in a lifetime of rides).

I’m benefiting too – it gives me another way to spend my day sharing my cycling passion and skills with others. Hopefully I can keep persuading more people, especially women, to enjoy this aspect of bikes and cycling, and keep learning myself. There are always new things to learn.

Catherine Thompson
Head Mechanic, Outspoken