Walking into the workshop at The Bristol Bike Project is a sensory experience. You hear the clinking of metal on metal, and the grinding of ratchet spanners. You smell the grease, the oil, and the rubber. You feel the grime of these things on your skin, and it’s a welcoming sensation.
Because if you’re walking into the workshop at The Bristol Bike Project, it’s likely that you enjoy this kind of thing. You want to get your hands dirty, play with some tools, and make a real connection with your bike.
But wanting it isn’t enough. You have to walk through the door, and for many women, this part isn’t so easy. Walking into a workshop can be intimidating for some women, because it is still a very male world.
Even in 2017, girls are not encouraged to learn mechanical skills, and there’s still an assumption among many people that they are less capable in this area. Many women don’t have the confidence to get stuck into the maintenance side of cycling, believing it to still be a bit of a boys’ club, and instead rely on bike shops or male friends to keep their bikes ticking over.
So as a woman in the workshop, it’s difficult to put your hand up and ask for help. You don’t want to be that girl who doesn’t know anything, and you may not want to rely on a man to help you.
But we’re changing that, one Monday at a time. Monday night is Women’s Night.
Because it’s important for women to learn these skills, and gain the confidence to enter the workshop. It helps them to become more independent cyclists, able to make necessary repairs while out on the road.
Many women who start this way really get a taste for it, and may even go on to become a bike mechanic themselves. Having female mechanics in bike shops is hugely encouraging for female customers, and could even result in those women walking through our doors on a Monday night.
So when you walk into the workshop at The Bristol Bike Project on a Monday night, you still get that same sensory experience: the grease, the oil, the grime and the grinding. But there’s one big difference: it is filled only with women. Monday nights are about providing a space for women to come and develop their skills and build their confidence, without concern over judgement or being overlooked for their male counterparts.
It’s just like the Thursday night Bike Kitchen: all the workshop’s tools are there for you to use, there’s a coordinator to run the session, and usually volunteers on hand to help you if you get stuck. But the onus is on you to get your hands dirty, and work on your bike yourself. There are no silly questions, and there’s no preconception about your capabilities.
It’s just you, your bike, some inspiring women, and the workshop.
The event comprises of 8 short films that delve into communities using bikes for social justice, and a discussion of the boundaries which undermine them.
On Tuesday 5th September, Joe and Elly came to Bristol and presented Groundswell to a packed-out workshop at The Bristol Bike Project. The night was organised by Lucy Greaves, a mechanic at the Project, and a wonderful wordsmith in her own right.
The night was hugely insightful, providing a glimpse into other cycling communities.
On the one hand we laughed with Peatonito, a Mexico City vigilante, facing the traffic head on and using guerrilla tactics to make public spaces safe for cyclists and pedestrians alike. All while wearing a custom-made lucha libre costume. We loved him.
On the other hand, we shook our heads in dismay and gasped at the treatment of a single mother, who has been pulled over, ticketed, and arrested more than once, just for riding her bike to work.
Other films tackled subjects like race, poverty, gender, and social isolation. I won’t talk about them in depth, you should just watch them for yourself. What I will say, is that it was hugely thought-provoking to glimpse into other worlds. Where for some, bikes are a form of social justice, and for others, they’re simply a way to get out into the world and meet other people. For one man in particular, bicycling quite literally saved his life.
But it wasn’t just about how people are making it happen. Some of the grassroots initiatives that we saw and talked about, didn’t quite achieve their goals. The reasons why they failed were also discussed.
Joe and Elly argue that in order for a city to be able to build a thriving cycling community, they need three things:
Political proponents – local politicians who support cycling infrastructure, and ideally use it.
Boardroom advocates – the important folk who schmooze with various influencers and acquire vital funding.
Street-level activists – those of us who ride our bikes every day, showing that there is a demand for safe cycling infrastructure, and lobbying our governing bodies for change.
This made me question whether Bristol has what it takes to become a better cycling city. Supposedly it’s one of the best cities in the UK for cycling, and in many ways I can see why. We have plenty of bike lanes, both on- and off-road, shared use paths, space for bike parking, and a wealth of beautiful Sustrans/National Cycle Network routes at our disposal.
However, while these things make it possible to cycle around Bristol, many of them were clearly not well thought through. Many bike lanes are nothing but crumbling red paint on the left side of the road. Plenty of them suddenly end, and become car parking spaces. The road surfaces can be awful in certain parts of the city.
And yet, we are the home of Sustrans. For four years, George Ferguson was our mayor. Every day, scores of people commute to work by bike. Yet, I just don’t know if I can see things improving for us.
Of course, watching these films did make me realise that we have it better than many cities, and I recognise that we’re very lucky in that respect. But it made me question, if even a city like Bristol hasn’t managed to get it right yet, then what hope do others have?
Go watch the films, and tell me what you think. There were so many thought-provoking themes that came up that night, I’ll be exploring some of them further in future posts. Stay tuned for that.
It might seem blasphemous to some, but with the weather we’re having at the moment, I’m struggling to motivate myself to get out onto long rides.
I’m still commuting by bike, and I’m taking myself off for the odd pootle, but I think it’s important to know your limits and understand where you need to make some allowances, for the sake of your health and your sanity.
When it’s melting weather, I’ve found the best thing to do to keep myself pedalling is to plan an activity that I can handle in this heat, and then make the bike a means of getting there, rather than the centre of attention.
You may disagree with me, and that’s okay. I take my hat off to you if you can still throw yourself up hills while the sun is high in the sky.
However if like me, you want an excuse to pedal without melting, here are some ideas to get you doing just that.
Ride in the woods
If you’re lucky enough to live near a wooded area, take yourself there with some thick tyres and a packed lunch. You’ll get a lot of shelter from the trees so the sun won’t be beating down on you, and you’ll get to ride around some beautiful bridleways.
Best bit: the sound of snapping twigs.
Take a dip in some water
Working up a sweat is fine when you’re going to reward yourself with a dip in some cold water very soon. Whether it’s a river, a lake, the sea, or your local swimming pool if that’s all that’s available… wear your swimsuit under your clothes, de-layer, and jump right in. You don’t even need to worry about getting changed afterwards, because you’ll dry off in no time.
Best bit: floating on your back with the sun on your face.
Find a beer garden
I’m not really a drinker, but I’m not averse to sitting in a beer garden with a pint of soda water. I like the atmosphere that comes with it, and there are plenty of country pubs that put a lot of effort into creating a serene outdoor space. And of course if beer or cider are your thing, go for it.
Best bit: there are usually dogs!
Ride to a museum or art gallery
This one comes with two advantages: the acquiring of knowledge, and air conditioning. If you’re open to learning something new about the history of the local area, or see some works of art that move you, you can generally enjoy a free day out. Plus there’s always a café, and usually ample space for locking up your bike.
Best bit: if you’ve got company, you’ll have plenty to talk about on the way home.
Volunteer at your local community project
I had to slip this in here. If you want to be surrounded by bikes, but not particularly riding them, why not pop down to your local community bike project and see if you can help out? They may have some workshops where you can tinker with old bikes, or work with members of the public and show them how to fix a puncture.
Best bit: giving something back to your community, while perfecting your tinkering skills.
Go for a spin class
I know. I hate myself for even saying it. But the fact is, if you really want to burn some calories while you pedal, but are averse to the heat outside, sign up for a spin class and do it in a room with air conditioning.
Best bit: you’ll have earned your ice cream.
Finally, some important tips on staying safe in the heat:
Drink plenty of water. Carry as many bottles as your bike can hold, and if you’re out for the day, fill them up at every opportunity. Generally staff in cafes and pubs are more than happy to help.
Add a pinch of salt to your water. You won’t taste it, and it will help replenish your body when you’re sweating a lot. I like to add a slice of lemon as well.
Pick your time of day wisely. If you’re only out for a short time, leave extra early in the morning, or go riding in the late evening, when the temperature’s at its coolest. Avoid riding in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky.
Wear sunscreen. Baz Luhrmann got it right. Keep topping it up.
Wear a cap. I won’t take part in the helmet war, but cover your head if you’re going to be out for a long time under the sun.
Eat ice-lollies. Yep. I don’t care how healthy you want to be. If you’re sweating buckets and you pass an ice cream van, just do it. You deserve it.
About a month ago, a meeting was called. El gathered a bunch of women cyclists together in the upstairs area of Roll for the Soul, to discuss the lack of community among the women cyclists of Bristol.
We agreed that there are plenty of women cycling in Bristol now, and it was time to create a feeling of cohesion among us. We all brought forth ideas, from putting together women-only day rides, to weekend camping adventures, and drinks socials.
We held our first social on 11th May, and I’m really pleased to say that it was a big success! There was a great turn-out, taking over the downstairs area of RftS, where women mingled, drank beer, ate awesome veggie food and got to know their fellow lady riders.
We paused the chatter to have a group-wide discussion, which gave people the platform to promote their own events and groups, and show everyone what’s already available to get involved in. I’ll list these here.
They’re not all women-only, so lads, you’re allowed to join in too (unless we say otherwise):
Food Cycle collect waste food from local businesses by bike, and distribute it to various charities and local ‘skipchens’ for use.
They also cook and serve their own community meals across the UK.
If you have time during the week (or on a Saturday morning), they’re always looking for volunteers to cycle around the city with a trailer and collect food that’s been pre-agreed with the businesses involved.
It’s a lovely way to cycle around the city and give something back to the community.
Women Cyclists of Bristol – Closed group for women cyclists, to discuss anything we wouldn’t talk about in a mixed group (from street harassment to periods). They also have their own Twitter account and email address, where you can get in touch if you need advice or want to share something with other women cyclists in the city.
Bristol Biking Bitches – This group is full of women who love to get out on their bikes as much as possible, and frequently post in the group to invite others along for the ride. Full of roadies and MTBers, they’re a great group to be part of if you want to go riding with some company.
I wasn’t taking notes on the night, so naturally I’ve probably forgotten a few things. If there’s anything I should add to this, please let me know.
The next social will be at Roll for the Soul at 7pm, on Thursday 8th June. Hope to see you there!
It’s time to try a longer ride. I commute 10 miles a day, and cycle around Bristol whenever I’m out and about in the evenings and weekends. On average I clock around 55-60 miles a week, which isn’t very much.
Clocking the miles
I’ve tended to limit longer rides to Bath (14 miles) or The Jolly Sailor in Saltford for chips by the river (20 miles return). Last year we cycled from Exeter to Plymouth via Dartmoor, which totalled around 69.5 miles over three days, and the longest ride I’ve ever done in a day was a round trip to Clevedon, which clocked me at 42 miles.
Now I want to start riding for longer. I’ve not had a lot of experience but I’ve certainly got the bug. We keep talking about different UK cities that we’d like to cycle to and explore, and now it’s time to make it happen.
So this weekend I’m setting off on my longest trip yet. We’re leaving at the crack of dawn to ride from Bristol to Oxford, which is around 70 miles, and it’s all in an effort to attend the Women & Bicycles festival, hosted by Broken Spoke Bike Co-op.
It’s always about women
Yes, my #WomanCrushWednesdays have all been leading up to International Women’s Day on 5th March, and BSBC have decided to mark the occasion with a weekend-long festival celebrating women who ride. The weekend will comprise panel discussions, group rides and workshops, and I’m super duper excited!
If you’re around on the Sunday, let me know so we can say hi.
Doing the prep
I haven’t exactly been clocking up miles in order to prepare for the ride, but I’m doing my best to make it as painless and enjoyable as possible.
I’ve rebuilt Regina!*
So, I went back on my plans to paint her blue. Yes, I’m still perving over every blue bike I see in the street, and I’m still a Hawkeye when it comes to spotting the exact shade of blue I wanted. But the fact of the matter was, I didn’t have time to cycle around visiting all the powder-coating places I’d spoken to, who all happen to be closed at the weekends. My desire to ride her won me over, so I’ve embraced the orange, she’s back in one piece and I’ve been taking her out on the roads so we can get to know each other.
When I bought Regina second hand, she came with a male-specific racing saddle, so when I rebuilt her, I swapped it for my trusty Ridgeback saddle. I’ve since discovered that while this saddle was perfectly comfy in an upright position, for a more forward-leaning position it is REALLY uncomfortable. That’s why I’m in the process of hunting down (and test riding) a woman-specific saddle with a cut-out section. It’s all about keeping the lady bits happy.
Cushion for the pushin’
I’ve bought some padded leggings. They’re not fancy and they’re not expensive. In fact they’re cheapo ones from Sports Direct, but it’s my first time trying them and I wanted to have a practice run. Not that Oxford is a practice run. I may regret this decision later.
I love how light Regina is, but I don’t love riding her with a heavy backpack. I already feel like my body’s been folded in half as I acclimatise to the forward-leaning position, and adding a heavy load to my back is the last thing I need. So this week I’m investing in a rear rack, some mudguards and, of course, a bottle cage. She’ll be touring ready in no time.
*I feel like I should clarify something here. I had every intention of blogging about the rebuilding experience (hashtag ProjectRegina), however things didn’t quite go to plan. The original idea was for me to build her, with my boyfriend’s supervision and guidance where needed. Unfortunately because he’s well known as a knowledgeable volunteer, his time was taken up with helping a lot of other people, and I got stuck more than I thought I would, meaning I spent a lot of time waiting around. By the time we were actually able to make progress, it was 11pm and we were tired, so in the end he quickly threw her together for me. I was upset to not actually build her myself, and as a result I don’t feel like I know her as well as I could, but I’m also grateful to have a boyfriend who knows this stuff, and who is there to help me out in such a hurry, to make sure I’m not stuck walking home at midnight with a half-built bike. In time, I’ll get to know her better.
I’ve talked before about how I probably know more than I think I do, but lack the confidence to trust my own judgement. I was also really interested to hear about Lucy’s experience volunteering at Women’s (& Trans) Night at The Bristol Bike Project. Being a trainee in a shop full of experienced mechanics, she found that Women’s Night offered the perfect opportunity to really test her own knowledge, and found that she was able to help those less experienced than her.
So, it was only inevitable that I would experience the same thing, and I’m so happy that I did. I heard that they were struggling to find someone to coordinate the session due to unavailability, and that no one was around to volunteer. There was talk of not running the session. Thankfully we found a coordinator, and I agreed to go along as a volunteer, to be on hand if people needed help.
Side note: Women & Trans Night is an open workshop where members of the public can use the space and the tools to work on their own bike, in a safe environment where they can explore and learn together. A coordinator runs the session, and volunteers are on hand to help out if someone needs a bit of guidance.
Honestly, I was actually terrified. I’d been to Women’s Night before and I knew that it was a nice, laid back atmosphere, but suddenly I felt under pressure to perform. I was actually revising the night before, testing my knowledge, running through common problems and how I would solve them. I even spent about 20 minutes trying to get my head around the difference between a freewheel and a cassette, just in case it came up.
As it happens, I had no reason to fear. I was under the impression that it would just be Gabi and myself, but we ended up inundated with volunteers – confident women who knew exactly what they were doing. If anything, I felt superfluous to requirements for a while.
But throughout the course of the evening, the workshop filled up with women who had a variety of jobs to do on their bikes, and I had a chance to help out. I showed one woman how to change her tires and talked her through fixing a puncture while out on the road, checked her gears, and explained the difference between the front and rear sets. I then helped another check her chain wear and cassette, gave her some maintenance tips and left her happily cleaning and polishing. At the end of the night I helped another woman out with a rather dodgy V Brake calliper. We finally got it in place, only to discover that her newly inflated tire was completely flat. You win some and you lose some.
Listing it off, it doesn’t sound like I did a huge amount, but I spent some quality time with some very nice people and saw the spark in their eyes as they connected with their bikes. Particularly with the tire changes – the first one was an absolute beast which I really wrestled with, and she was quite nervous about trying the second herself. But a bit of brute force and three tire levers later, she slipped it off and popped the new one on, and she looked so proud as she pumped it up and saw that it was, in fact, put on right.
It was really rewarding, and I can completely understand what Lucy was getting at in her interview. It’s a wonderful feeling to see women who have never considered fixing their own bikes before, suddenly feel empowered to learn as much as they can.
On a personal level it was satisfying to be able to help others, and realise that I can problem solve and explain some things articulately. I definitely need to work on the latter, but I felt that the women I spoke to left with an understanding rather than feeling confused.
It’s week 3 of Femme February where I’m chatting to other women in Bristol’s bike community, to explore our place in the workshop and the industry.
I met Erin whilst volunteering at The Bristol Bike Project. One evening we were paired together to work on a bike, and while she’s more experienced than me, we’ve got a good way of working where we discover and learn things together. You may remember me mentioning her here.
Do you remember learning to ride a bike?
Not exactly. I know that my dad taught me when I was about 5 or 6 years old, and there were definitely tears and tantrums!
Have you always ridden or did you take any breaks?
I’ve pretty much always ridden a bike, whether I was playing around with my brother or riding to and from school. I’ve always commuted on two wheels, to university and now to work. I bought my first road bike in the summer of 2009, and that was definitely a turning point in my cycling passion!
Tell me about bikes you’ve owned.
I used to ride a BMX, and then a Malvern Star (Aussie brand) urban bike through school and university. That one was known as ‘the Beast’. Sadly it was stolen and replaced, and then stolen, found, and stolen again. Now I have a Giant TCR C2 road bike which I used to use it for racing, and it was known as ‘the Rocket’. Now it’s my commuter, and known simply as ‘My Precious’.
Where were your favourite spots to ride?
There was a pretty awesome track down the street, I vividly remember the ‘really steep’ start slope and being terrified the first time I went down it. Having an older brother means not getting away with wussing out. We’d also take the bikes to the local park, think Aussie bushland, dry and dusty with loads of rocks and gum trees and gullies.
When did you first become interested in fixing bikes?
It was while I was at university, when I relied on the Beast for commuting, and was too cheap to go to a bike store for repairs. And my personality is such that I like knowing how things work and being able to take care of myself, which includes knowing how to fix my most important mode of transport!
Did anyone teach you?
Many people have shown me bits and pieces of bike maintenance. Dad showed me the basics and then friends with bikes and the odd helpful person at a bike shop. I also learnt a fair bit from the internet. It’s all trial and error – I got more tips when I joined the uni cycling club. I’ve by far learnt the most from volunteering at the Bristol Bike Project though.
Can you tell me about your experience of volunteering at The Bristol Bike Project?
It’s been great so far. I’ve met a bunch of friendly fellow-bike-lovers and learnt a lot about fixing bikes. As an immigrant/expat/foreigner, volunteering at the BBP has helped me feel part of the Bristol community.
What was the first break-through you had?
Understanding how the limit screws work! That was a pretty exciting day.
Have you ever felt like people were surprised when you told them you tinker with bikes? How dopeople generally react?
People who don’t know me are usually a bit surprised, though they always react positively. Reactions vary from ‘that’s cool’ and ‘what a great thing to do’ to ‘I’d be good at that’ and ‘do you want me to show you how to fix bikes’. Yes, the latter two are from blokes. *eye roll*.
Do you feel there’s any discrepancy between the way men and women are perceived or treated in the workshop?
Hmmm, yes and no. I think the workshop coordinators at The Bristol Bike Project are very good at treating women equally and not making gender-based assumptions of a lack of knowledge. The other volunteers are a bit hit and miss. If I’m introduced as someone with experience to a male, newbie volunteer then they tend to listen to what I say and are happy learning from me. If it’s someone on a similar level to me, then I sometimes don’t get listened to. There have been a few times when I’ve said ‘I think it’s the limit screw’ and they’ve ignored it or continued with cable tightening to then get a coordinator’s help and, hey! It was the limit screw. I could be pushier about it, but I hate confrontation.
What advice would you give to a new female volunteer at the Bike Project, in terms of asserting herself?
Good question. My technique is to keep asking questions and be persistent in suggesting what you think needs to be tried.
At what point did you learn to trust your own judgement and assert yourself?
I’m not sure I’ve reached that point! I am getting better and each time I discover (usually by workshop coordinator intervention) that I was on the right track, it builds my confidence. Regular practice is key.
Do you feel Bristol has much of a community for women cyclists?
Yes, somewhat, and I think it’s grown over the 5 years I’ve been here. There’s definitely been a global increase in women cycling communities since I got into road cycling in 2009. My focus is road cycling, so I’ve noticed the difference in the number of women with Strava segments over the years. Although, on the road I’d say 90% of fellow cyclists that I pass are blokes. No idea when the women are out!
What could there be more of/less of?
For women cyclists in the Bristol community? Ummm, I don’t really know. It’d be good if bike shops increased their stock of women’s kit and accessories. More options than pink and purple would be nice.
Do you also build bikes?
Other than at the BBP when we end up building a bike because all the components end up getting binned? No, not yet. It’s been my intention for a couple of years, but I haven’t found the time or frame.
What would you like to build?
For my dream bike I’d like to build an urban road bike. I’m not bothered about the brand as long as it’s a quality frame. It should have drop bars and a svelte, cherry red frame with shiny aluminium pannier rack and a gorgeous tan leather pannier. I’m moving back to Melbourne this year, which is flat, so I can make it a single speed! Easier build and maintenance. I’d also like to build a mountain bike, but that’s just because I want one and am too cheap to splash the cash on a new one. So I need to get some experience with shock absorbers…
It’s the second instalment of my Femme February theme, where I’m talking to Bristol bikey ladies about the industry and local community.
This week I’m chatting to Hattie Pullen, who I met last year during a maintenance course at The Bristol Bike Project. She was working at the stand next to me, and over lunchtime we got chatting about the Project, and I managed to persuade her to come along for Volunteers’ Night.
How old were you when you learned to ride a bike?
I don’t remember the exact age I learnt to ride a bike but it must have been around 4 or 5. I have a very clear memory of the first time I rode without stabilisers, as I remember finding a hedgehog on the side of the road and taking him into the garden and giving him cat food!
Who taught you?
My mum and dad, I’m not sure who had the most input, that part isn’t very clear.
Do you remember how you learned?
I started off like most kids did in my day, with stabilisers. This then progressed to a parent running behind with one hand on the saddle and one on the handle bars, until they felt confident to let go. I was very fortunate to grow up in the countryside of Lincolnshire, and the tiny village where my parents still live has very little road traffic so we had quite a lot of freedom to learn on the road. Lincolnshire is very flat and I remember thinking that the small slope from my parents’ house to the bottom of the road was super steep.
What’s your ‘cycling story’?
Growing up I always had a bike at home. I wouldn’t use it as transport to get to places, but I would often go on a Sunday afternoon bike ride with my mum.
I didn’t take the bike to Plymouth University; the city’s small enough to walk everywhere. I moved to Whistler in Canada straight after uni and ended up staying for nearly 3 years: skiing in the winter and enjoying the lakes and mountains in the summer. Whistler has a massive downhill mountain bike scene, so I had a couple of goes in the bike park but I was too scared. I stuck to the cross country trails, but never bought a cross country bike. I just borrowed from friends; a friend of mine used to work in a bike rental shop so we could always use the bikes for free!
I had a pink Raleigh for getting around on. A cheap ride-around-town bike was always difficult to get in Whistler, so I treasured her. There was a rack on the back which I used to give my friends backies on, especially after a few beers at the lake. Always great fun!
After Whistler, I moved to Bristol where I’ve been for the last 5 years. I bought a bike within the first 6 months, but it’s a lot hillier here than Lincolnshire! Until last year I would never have called myself a cyclist, I was just someone who rode bikes to get around and occasionally for fun. I don’t think I’d ridden more than 20 miles in one go until last year.
One of my goals for 2016 was to raise money for charity. My mum had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease so thought Parkinson’s UK was a good start. I looked on the website for fundraising events and a London to Paris cycle caught my eye, so without further thought I signed myself up. I had no idea what I was doing, and just thought I’d give it a go. I told my friend Lis who already had all the gear, and she volunteered to join me, so I now had a training partner! We completed the ride in September 2016 over 4 days and it was amazing. Such an inspiring group of people and I managed to raise about £3,000. I was hooked after this.
What types of bikes have you owned?
When I moved to Bristol I purchased a beautiful looking blue vintage Peugeot with a split top tube. She was only a 4 speed but I absolutely loved her, though she just wasn’t that practical for the hills of Bristol.
I replaced her with a Trek hybrid, which I bought on my boyfriend Will’s Cycle to Work scheme. I still have her now and she’s my trusty steed, but not a looker! Will’s into downhill mountain biking, and he bought a second hand Orange Hitman that I could ride on cross country trails and he could use on the pump track.
For my London to Paris cycle I purchased my first road bike. I bought it off a lady in Clevedon who had ridden it maybe once or twice, for half the price she paid for it. It still had the factory grease on the chain!
I turned 30 in January this year and bought myself a new bike (Genesis Croix De Fer) to start my new decade. I only picked her up on Saturday but I’m in love already. I’m really excited to have some adventures with her. I’m hoping to cycle the North Coast 500 in September this year.
When did you first become interested in fixing bikes?
I really want to do some more cycle touring, and thought I had better learn how to fix my bike so when I’m on the road I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always relied on Will when anything has gone wrong with my bike before.
Did anyone teach you?
I went on a maintenance course at the Bristol Bike Project in November last year to learn the basics. Other than changing a tube I literally had no idea about anything.
Have you ever felt like people were surprised when you told them you tinker with bikes? Howdo people generally react?
I have to say it’s not really something I’ve brought up much in conversation. Those who I have spoken to though tend to be close friends who have watched my passion for bikes and cycling develop, so they’re not really surprised when I say I’m learning to fix bikes.
Can you tell me about your experience of volunteering at The Bike Project?
I have to admit I’ve only made it 4 times since I did my maintenance course. Everyone is super friendly and welcoming. There are definitely more men than women, and it would be great to get a few more women involved.
I’m not afraid to ask for help though, as like you, I forget everything between sessions. I need to ask otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. It can be difficult though when everyone is doing their thing and involved with the bike they’re fixing.
I haven’t been often enough to work out who is a good person to work with yet, but hoping to become more of a regular face, especially now it’s two nights a week. I think maybe I need to buy a maintenance book and take it with me, then I can be a bit more independent and not ask for help every 5 seconds. It’s a great place to learn and for such a great cause. I’m hoping someday soon what I’m learning might stick!
This February for me is all about the femme, and I wanted to dedicate a month to celebrating women in the bike industry, with a particular focus on Bristol’s cycling community.
So without further ado I’m going to kick off with the first in a series of interviews I have lined up for the month.
Lucy Greaves is a trainee Bike Mechanic and volunteer at The Bristol Bike Project, who I met (along with her Croix de Fer, Toby) on a social ride to Dundry Hill. She very kindly agreed to tell me her life story and share some really interesting insights from the perspective of a woman in the workshop.
Name: Lucy Greaves
Profession: Bike mechanic / Translator / Cycle Instructor / soon-to-be Barista at Roll for the Soul
Tell me about when you first learned to ride a bike.
I don’t actually remember, but I must have been around 5 when my dad taught me. I’ve got vivid memories of riding along the front lawn at my mum and dad’s house, which was quite long and flat. Beyond that I’m not sure, it’s just that one image.
Have you always ridden or did you take any breaks?
I’ve ridden fairly consistently. My mum and dad are keen cyclists, so we spent a lot of time cycling together as a family: I used to ride on the back of the tandem with my dad! As a teenager I stopped riding so much, but then in Sixth Form I had a couple of jobs that I needed to get to so I started to cycle for convenience, and that’s when I got excited about riding again.
What types of bikes have you ridden?
I’ve mostly ridden road bikes, though I’ve done a bit of mountain biking. My parents live on the north Wales border where there are some good trails, it would’ve been rude not to!
I recently bought a Croix de Fer for touring, in time for a 5-week ride around the UK last summer.
Can you tell me more about that ride?
I covered about 1,250 miles, starting and ending in Bristol. I rode to Brighton, then up towards Edinburgh, on to Glasgow and back down again. I didn’t train for it, and it was hard work to start with but I soon got into it and loved it. It was at a time when I really needed some headspace.
Are you planning another long ride soon?
I’m actually planning to ride the west and north coast of Scotland in late spring with my girlfriend, for a couple of weeks. We’ll be covering a large chunk of the North Coast 500 route.
Do you name your bikes?
Yes! My Croix de Fer is a girl called Toby, then I have a gorgeous steel framed beast I inherited from my dad called Reg – he’s my town bike. And then I also have a road bike inherited from my dad, but it’s too early in our relationship for a name.
When did you first become interested in fixing bikes?
I’ve been able to do bits and bobs since I was a teenager – my dad showed me the basics. I’ve always known that it was a skill set I wanted to develop. I did a maintenance course at The Bristol Bike Project a couple of years ago and then started volunteering with them last year. It was around the time that my other volunteering had slowed down; I knew I wanted to volunteer still, and I was becoming increasingly bike nerdy, so it made sense.
When did you decide you wanted to be a bike mechanic?
It all happened around the same time. I was becoming frustrated with my translation work, and started to feel like that career wasn’t working for me. At the same time I was volunteering and enjoying the bike stuff, and while out on that summer ride I realised that I wanted to be doing something different. I guess I was hoping for an epiphany, and it came in the form of ‘more bikes’!
The next step after that was continuing with the volunteering, until I eventually saw the Bike Project advertising for a mechanic. I’m proud to say I got the first job I applied for, and feel really jammy for it. I wasn’t super experienced, so they took me on as a trainee: I’m training and working with them one day a week for the time being. I’d definitely like to do more.
So how’s it going so far?
Well, last Tuesday we got a donated bike out and stripped it down, and then started building it back up from scratch. That’s the first time I’d done that, and I got to discover some tools I hadn’t used before, like the headset press which is a lot of fun! Also the crown race remover – a massive tool for such a tiny piece.
What was the first break-through you had?
I wouldn’t really say I’ve had any one breakthrough moment. Over the last few weeks I’ve started volunteering at their Women’s Night, helping other women fix their bikes. I’ve been able to show people what to do, which has made me realise I’m not totally clueless. When I’m in the shop with the boys I sometimes feel a bit of a numpty, but in this different context I feel more like I know what I’m doing.
Do you feel there’s a gender divide?
Not necessarily, it’s just that when I’m in the shop I’m working amongst more experienced people, whereas in the workshop I’m helping women who are less experienced and looking to me for guidance.
I wonder whether might be easier to fit in with the boys as a queer woman, though. I mentioned wanting to build a bike trailer, and Pi suggested teaching me to weld. Soon I’ll be ticking off all the lesbian stereotypes!
What were the biggest challenges you faced as a new mechanic?
Feeling like I don’t know enough! I like being good at things, and I’m still learning so much. It’s challenging to admit to not knowing how to do things. Even mentioning that I’d only just discovered those tools before – that’s going to be in the public domain now! I’ve definitely got a good dose of imposter syndrome.
But I’m having a really great time there and I love going to work. If anything it’s made my fairly shit translation job feel even worse – when I’m doing it I think to myself, I could be fixing bikes! I only do it a couple of days a week but I’m not as motivated on those days.
Do you feel that it’s more challenging being a female mechanic?
No, not necessarily. The Bike Project is a fairly radical and unusual place, and I’ve experienced nothing but support. It can be different in the shop though. A couple of male customers have stared past me whilst looking for someone with a penis.
On the flipside, I was talking to one of the women who shares my office, and she said she’d be looking for a woman to help her in a bike shop. So it also works in my favour, and there’s quite an equal weighting of male and female customers.
What’s the best thing about being a female bike mechanic?
I enjoy doing something unstereotypically female and smashing gender boundaries. I also love volunteering at the Women’s Night and empowering other women to fix their bikes. It’s a really supportive atmosphere; there are women who know more than others, but there’s a general sense that if we aren’t sure, we’ll look it up and learn together. It’s a process of discovery.
Even if the guys aren’t doing anything to make you feel inferior, it’s easy to belittle yourself because you’re afraid of not knowing. Having that safe space to explore together is really powerful.
I’m happy to be writing a round-up of this week’s volunteers’ night at The Bristol Bike Project, with a genuine smile on my face!
I started off the evening having a chat with a female mechanic who has agreed to be interviewed for the blog*. We both agreed that most people (particularly women) have a tendency to doubt their own judgement. We seek a second opinion on matters that deep down, we know, but we don’t really believe that we know it.
It’s all tied up with Impostor Syndrome – something I’m very familiar with, and may write about at length in the future, if anyone’s interested. Remarkably, following this conversation, I proceeded to have an evening that completely confirmed this exact observation.
Trust your judgement
I started volunteering at the Bike Project last summer, so it’s been about 7 months now. That’s actually a long time when I look at it objectively. Despite that, I’ve had periods of 3 weeks at a time when I’ve not been, and whenever that happens I return feeling like I know less than I actually do. If you’ve read my accounts of my last two sessions, you’ll know that I returned after Christmas feeling particularly rusty, having had a complete disaster before breaking up for the holidays.
So when I turned up last night and was paired with someone who was less experienced than me, I immediately went into panic mode. How could I show someone what to do? I didn’t know what to do! I needed someone to guide me, to help me, I was completely clueless!
Before the panic, I was calmly working my way down the checklist with a Raleigh Blueridge (unstarted, as learned last week), and was about to service the bottom bracket. I had an idea of what I needed to do, and I was about to get on with it. With panic in full swing, I attempted to find something for my companion (Harry) to do, and drew a complete blank. I couldn’t think of anything simple to teach him.
Thankfully Adam (one of the coordinators) saw the panic in my eyes and stepped in, taking Harry off to one side to teach him how to service hubs. Of course, immediately afterwards, I felt ridiculous. I know hubs. It was the first thing Adam taught me. Why didn’t I teach Harry how to service hubs? I was blind-sighted by panic and forgot everything that I know.
But it was done, now. Harry was learning on the other side of the workshop, and I was left to go back to the bottom bracket. What do you think happened next?
Easy. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing – or at least, I thought as much. I had to get the crank arms off. I had the right tool in my hands, but immediately doubted that I was doing it right. I knew there was a reverse thread coming up somewhere, but couldn’t remember where. So I asked Mike (other coordinator) for help. It was easy – turn it left and loosen it. I knew that. But I didn’t know that I knew it.
This became a running theme throughout the servicing of the bottom bracket. I kept checking that I had the right tool, that I was turning it the right way, that I wasn’t putting too much force on it, that I was putting enough force on it. I was constantly seeking Mike for help with things that, as soon as he showed me, I realised I already knew.
How do you break that cycle? How do you start to trust your own judgement?
On one hand, Volunteers’ Night is a great place to learn these lessons, because there’s such a laid back atmosphere. No one minds if you get something wrong, and everyone is on hand to help if they can. On the other hand, I’m always so conscious that the bikes I work on are destined for people in need, and I don’t want to fuck it up for them. I don’t want to create more work for the next set of volunteers who try to finish it off, and I don’t want to potentially break a part or a tool that is otherwise useful.
I need to work on boosting my confidence somehow.
You know more than you think
In the end, we had a really successful evening. Harry serviced both wheels while I serviced the bottom bracket. I got him to check and grease the brakes, and showed him how to replace a brake cable. By the end of the night we’d ticked off about 3/4 of the checklist and it’s very likely the bike will be signed off in the next session.
If I went back tonight, I’d know exactly how to replicate what I did last night. I think the problem is that I only go once a week (if I even do that), and I’m not doing these things frequently enough to really hammer them home.
The Bike Project will be introducing a second volunteers’ night on Wednesdays from next week, and I intend to spend some weeks attending both nights. Perhaps I’ll even get a chance to start a bike from scratch on the Tuesday and sign it off on the Wednesday. That’s the dream.
*As an aside note – February’s theme will be ‘Femme’, and I have some awesome ladies lined up to interview about being a woman in the predominately male world of cycling and bike maintenance. Stay tuned!