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.
I’m off the bike this week, due to being brutally wounded (tattooed) at the weekend. I’m almost healed and ready to get back on the road, but in the meantime I’m letting myself recover and reflect.
I’m really conscious that when I first started this blog, it was about learning how to fix bikes, and my time volunteering with The Bristol Bike Project.
While I do still volunteer with the BBP, and I am still learning how to fix bikes, the actual cycling aspect seems to have taken over my posts as I’m sure you’ve noticed.
Cycling as a sport or hobby is probably the first thing I’ve tried out, not been very good at, but stuck at and continued to progress. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and know that I can go further if I keep at it.
Anyway, I know that what I initially promised with this blog has organically evolved into something else. I’d like to know what you think – are you happy with the way it’s evolved, or do you wish I’d stuck to my original purpose? Do you like how it is now or do you want to see something different?
I really appreciate every single person who reads my blog, whether you comment or not, and I want to make sure that you’re getting what you want from it. Please could you take 30 seconds to give me some feedback? I was going to insert a poll but apparently the internet doesn’t want me to, so please leave answers in the comments:
What are your thoughts on my content?
I’d like more about bike maintenance
I’d like more about cycling
It’s fine as it is
I’d like something different (please leave more details in your comment)
First of all I wanted to share my experience at an event at the Specialized Concept Store this week, which was aimed predominantly at women who wanted to get out riding more. After this, I’ll share the real reason I went there.
Trying something new
On Tuesday this week, the Specialized Concept Store in Bristol held a women’s night, where they greeted us with goody bags, provided a sushi buffet and prosecco, and introduced us to a variety of things through workshops and stalls:
Breeze Network: There was a stall in place to introduce women to the Breeze Network and promote upcoming rides. I saw Heidi again for the first time since she taught me the basic techniques of mountain biking a couple of years ago.
Fixing a flat: I didn’t spend much time here as I already know how to, but they had a workshop demonstrating how to fix a puncture – a very valuable skill to have!
Try clipping in: There was a turbo trainer and an array of different sized shoes, to allow women to try clipping in for the first time. This is what I came for.
Facing my fears
I’ve already shared many fears with my readers. If anything you must think I’m a total coward, which to some extent I probably am! One of the things that scares me, which I haven’t talked about before, is clipping in.
The stationary bike was set up with road cleats, whereas I was more interested in mountain bike ones (they’re much better for walking around in because the cleat is recessed), but I decided to give it a go anyway.
I instantly saw the difference and knew that I needed them in my life. It’s easy to say that from the safety of a stationary bike, of course. What I liked was how they force your feet and legs into the correct riding position, which is something I can struggle with.
However I wasn’t sure about the amount of force I needed to unclip, and how unnatural the angle felt. It felt like a lot of effort, even when the tension was completely lowered. I’ve been reassured that it’s different with SPDs, which I’ll find out soon enough, because I bought some!
I’m both excited and terrified to take them for a test ride, but I will face my fears nonetheless.
This brings me nicely onto part two of this post: my reason for doing all this in the first place.
You may recall after my ride to Oxford, I allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a 200km audax. It turns out that said audax is fully booked, and while I’m on the waiting list, I didn’t hold out much hope of getting in.
In my impatience, I signed up for a 200km ride in the Yorkshire Dales with the Adventure Syndicate instead, which is happening towards the end of April. Ridiculously exciting!
This is why I felt like SPDs were the way forward – it’s a huge distance for me to attempt when I’m not very experienced at long rides, and I definitely think clipping in will help me ride more efficiently. It will also help with the hills, of which there will be many!
Unfortunately my body hasn’t really been on my side for a while, so my training for the event has been less than perfect. I’ve actually been ill for quite some time now, and while I’ve managed to get out on a couple of long-ish rides, generally I’ve not gotten to where I need to be to feel super confident about this. It’s difficult to find the balance between training and giving my body the rest it needs.
I’m planning to get out on a long ride this weekend, after spending a bit of time in the park getting used to clipping in (cue the spectacular falls).
As a final note, I wanted to acknowledge that the Specialized event was a great opportunity for networking, and I bumped into several familiar faces while meeting a few new ones as well.
In addition to Heidi, I also bumped into two other fellow Bristol bloggers: David (Wheels of Karma) and Katherine (Katherinebikes). I love how much of a community there is for cyclists in Bristol, and how I’m finally starting to feel that I have a place within it. I also bumped into a woman named Sara who I met through Facebook, but hadn’t met in person before. She’s a Deliveroo rider, and someone who has offered to help me get back into mountain biking. I’ll be taking her up on that offer soon, no doubt.
Finally I met Aoife Glass, Women’s Cycling Editor for Bike Radar. Having previously worked for Total Women’s Cycling, she really encouraged me to submit some articles and get my writing out there, which I think I may just do.
It was a really inspiring evening, and I feel so ready to get out there, start riding for longer, and push myself harder. It all begins this weekend. I’m ready. Let’s do this.
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!
As Project Regina continues, I’m now faced with a conundrum. In my efforts to build the bike of my dreams, one of the things I’m planning to do is have her painted in a lovely matte blue, pretty much the same colour as the Pinnacle Arkose 2 women’s bike that I have the hots for, purely for aesthetic reasons.
I figured powder coating was the way forward, because it’s cheap and it gives pretty good results. Plus I know of a few Bristol cyclists who have recommended a place near where I live. I popped in there to chat about possible options and I’ve been left with more questions than answers.
Powder coating involves exposing the frame and forks to extremely high temperatures, and if I go ahead with my plan to replace the aluminium forks with carbon ones, that means I need to look at painting options as well. Also, with powder coating I’m limited to the RAL palette available at the workshop, and while there was one that was fairly similar to the blue I’m after, it wasn’t spot on and there’s no flexibility to customise it.
I spoke to the guy at the paint shop on the same complex, and he’s able to mix custom colours. He can also add my Orange graphics back in, and once he showed me an example of their work, I was in love. If I’m going to build the bike of my dreams, I want it done well. But this is extremely costly.
So my current options are:
Have the frame powder coated and the carbon forks painted, and hope the colours match (budget-friendly but risky)
Have the whole frame painted and awesome graphics work added (very expensive but looks amazing)
Don’t swap the forks for carbon, and have the whole thing powder coated (cheapest option but means bumpier rides)
I’m ashamed to say that until last night, I hadn’t actually been back, through fear of having another stressful evening and walking away whilst fighting back the tears. Volunteers’ Night is supposed to be fun – a space to go and tinker with bikes, share skills, and give something back to the community. I’d completely forgotten that, and despite committing to going yesterday, I almost chickened out.
Thankfully my conscience stepped in. The moment I said I wouldn’t go, I instantly felt guilty. I should go, I hadn’t volunteered for three weeks. I know I’m a really flaky person and I have an awful tendency to cancel plans and chicken out of things in favour of a night in my PJs playing my PS4. I’m a hermit at heart, but I also care deeply about giving my time to local community projects to help make the world a little nicer for those who need it.
So I went. I teamed up with my pal Erin who is more experienced with bikes than me, but not by too much. It’s a good dynamic; she knows a bit more than me but also gets stuck sometimes and we work together to try to figure things out. It’s a great way for me to learn from someone without feeling like I’m being taught.
Despite it only being three weeks since I’d been, I immediately felt lost when we started. It’s amazing how quickly everything I think I know can fly out the window. A guy asked me where a tool was – a tool I’ve used many times – and I couldn’t tell him. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to sort out a pair of V-Brakes – a task that should be quick.
Thankfully I wasn’t the only one. Erin hadn’t been for a while either, and we both muddled through, making silly mistakes and laughing at ourselves.
Lesson Learned: Don’t believe everything you read
I arrived early and had my pick of the bikes to work on, and I chose to work on one that had already been started. I figured it would be a good way to get a bike finished – something I’ve not done before. According to the paperwork, the previous two volunteers had made their way through half the checklist, checking the frame and seat post, servicing the wheels and bottom bracket, and checking the brake arms were made of metal.
Trusting that they knew what they were doing, Erin and I embarked on the first task for the night: adjusting the brakes. Nice and simple, it shouldn’t have taken us long. Unfortunately we were landed with a couple of really crappy pairs of calipers, which meant we spent significantly longer trying to figure out why they were so spongey, why the lever was reaching all the way to the handlebar despite braking much sooner, why one arm just wouldn’t spring back, no matter how much tightening and loosening we did.
Perhaps we should have figured it out sooner, but as I said, we were both feeling a bit rusty last night. We spent a while trying to figure out why the rear wheel was off-centre, attempting to realign it in the dropouts. I took the arms off, looked at the springs, put them back on again. Then took them off again, greased them, put them on again. Took them off again, realigned the pivots, put them on one final time.
About an hour and two brake cables later, they were sorted, and in theory we were ready to continue down the list. That’s when one of the coordinators pointed out that the wheel hubs had a lot of play, as did the bottom bracket.
We hadn’t bothered to check these things because we’d assumed that the tick in the box meant they were good to go. Of course, that was wrong. All the volunteers come from various walks of life, with a diverse range of experience with bikes. There are many noobs like myself who go along to learn, and perhaps many of them are also averse to asking for help in favour of figuring out a solution themselves – just like me.
So, we started working backwards on the list. I re-serviced the hubs, tightening them properly (a skill that took me a long time to master, and thankfully didn’t go away), while Erin cracked on with the bottom bracket, only to find out that the one they’d fitted was too short for the frame.
Long story short, we never made it any further down the checklist than the brakes, and we didn’t sign off the bike. What I’d figured would be a quick job and a bike ready for a new owner, turned out to be a learning curve for both of us.
We learned many lessons last night:
Don’t assume that everyone knows what they’re doing, even though that seems mean.
Give everything a quick check before moving down the list.
Ideally, start a bike from scratch.
Don’t expect to sign it off.
It’s better to start a bike well, and leave it for someone else to finish, than to try to finish a bike that’s been started badly.
The other lesson we both learned was probably the most important one of all: when you don’t volunteer for several weeks, you forget things. Therefore, get your bum down there every week!