Friday, 3 June 2011

DIY Bike worshops in Canada

During a visit to Montreal and Toronto in January-February of this year, I took the opportunity to visit some of the various well-established bicycle coops and projects dotted around both cities. This was such an inspiring experience from the point of view of someone interested in setting up similar projects in Europe that I’d like to share some of the things I saw and advice I heard.


Cycle culture is vibrant in this city which boasts several thriving bike courrier companies, N. America’s first city bike rental scheme (they take them away in the winter to stop them getting buried in the snow) and around ten DIY bike co-ops. In the car park of Concordia University in downtown Montreal, there is a hidden-away but thriving hub of not-for-profit bike repair. Like many places in the city, it has a dual identity: Right to Ride or La Voie Libre, and is a project partly funded by the university. It opens its doors every evening during the week and longer hours on weekends.


Ontario’s biggest city is also a hub for the not-for-profit bike sector, and while there I was able to visit one well-established co-op and one which is just starting up.

Bike Pirates were running their women and transsexual Sunday workshop session when I called in. The spacious and well-ordered interior of their workshop nonetheless manages to feel homely, with plenty of posters, slogans and artwork on the walls, as well as a cosy kitchen at the back. Colour-coded tool boards surround the half a dozen work stands, with useful hand-painted displays about various aspects of bike mechanics placed here and there. Cup of tea in hand, I put a few questions to Ainsley about how the project was run. Once again, it relies entirely on volunteers and at the minute there are only two of them, dividing up the week’s shifts between them. The project makes enough money to buy parts and pay the rent – that’s it. Opening hours and attendance are drastically reduced in winter, but not everyone is put off by the snow and ice: the much anticipated yearly I-cycle was scheduled for the following weekend, where hundreds come to watch intrepid cyclists do laps of an ice rink on wheels. Bike Pirates is part of a lively cycle culture and lifestyle in the city; it’s not just about fixing bikes, but also riding them, growing things and eating together (they have a communal garden and often cook for everyone at the workshop sessions).

An organic outgrowth of Bike Pirates, Bike Sauce spent a few years in the pipeline and moved into new premises – a former funeral home in East Toronto – last Spring. Once again, the space is well laid out, with plenty of room for work stands and tools sensibly placed and labelled all around the room. Anibal, one of the founders, was happy to down tools and explain the technicalities of setting up the project over a cup of coffee. Making it clear from the beginning to local bike shops that you’re not competition is really important, he says. As he pointed out, the DIY sector is not taking money away from bike shops, which make most of their money from sales of new bikes and repairs for those who are not interested in learning about fixing their own bike. Setting up a good relationship with local bike shops from the beginning is vital – they achieved this by going round to introduce themselves, with a business card explaining briefly what they’re doing. This way bike shops know who you are and what you do, plus they have your number on hand, so will happily pass you on unwanted parts rather than dump them. Bike Sauce began advertising themselves and gathering parts and tools long before they actually had a dedicated workspace: they stocked things and worked out of a member’s garage in the meantime. Anibal is wary of government grants and from the beginning wanted Bike Sauce to be able to generate the cash it needs for survival through its own activities, rather than growing complacent (and being accountable to the city or the government) on grant funding. This seems to be working, though the real test will be the bike sales in Spring, which is just around the corner. If you come in to repair your bike, rather than paying a yearly membership or a flat rate for a session, Bike Sauce ask for a donation each time you come in: as much or as little as you can afford. Your time is also valuable: you could volunteer at a repair session or come to a bike build, where salvaged bikes are repaired for sale.

Even with such a proliferation of not-for-profit bike projects in Montréal and Toronto, cycle culture remains marginal in Canada as is the rest of the world. In some ways this is a blessing: it allows for the creation of vibrant sub-cultures based around a common marginalised passion and it allows cyclists to remain radical, outside the establishment, to question the status quo. Even if Bike Sauce could have benefitted from funding, Anibal was against it, preferring to remain free, not wanting to be bought. In a world still so dominated by the capitalist ethic, it is nigh-on impossible to set up a successful project whilst remaining outside the money-making rat race. These projects exist, yet they struggle; they are barnacles [1] on the great sick ship of capitalism. Some projects rely on outside organisations for survival; Right to Ride needs Concordia University’s space, funding and goodwill. Others like Bike Sauce, have deliberately chosen to remain outside this. The not-for-profit bike repair movement will never interest investors; but it is a growing force questioning the values by which we judge societal worth. When everything else grinds to a halt, one thing is for sure; bicycle wheels will still be turning.

[1] Alternative use of term ‘Barnacles’: the Bike Pirates’ term for people who turn up expecting help to fix their bike, sucking energy and not putting much back into the project

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