Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Volunteering at the Bicycle Co-Op in Austin

Bicycle co-ops are places full of parts bins. There are enough parts to keep the Right Bicycle going for life. If you are running 8 speed cassettes, friction shifters, and long-wear tires, this is your place. If you have a steel frame, platform pedals, and flat handlebars, you are especially in luck. Bins and milk crates overflow with every conceivable part that you will need to keep the Right Bicycle running. Sometimes the co-ops are reasonably well organized. There will be a drawer for cup-and-cone bottom bracket spindles. Checked and trued wheels will be hanging above your head. It is beautiful when it isn't totally overwhelming. During open shop times the straightforward can give way to surreal.

I like to help people fix bicycles. I enjoy it enough to do it for free sometimes. I have volunteered at a few different co-ops, but it doesn't happen often. I am considering increasing the amount that I'm willing to help. I was in Austin without any pressing matters on my schedule, so I decided to show up at the Yellow Bike Project to see if I could assist. I showed up for two shifts that week, and it was better than anything else I was doing.

I told them I was a mechanic, but since nobody personally knew me, and insane people barge into bicycle co-ops as a matter of course, I was asked to sort tires. I know this is considered by some to be an unskilled task of drudgery, but I could also see vast opportunity for improvements. There was a huge pile to be sorted, and the storage area was already overflowing with every common size. I got to work. There wasn't enough space for everything, so the first objective was to figure out what was unquestionably trash. I put those in a pile for recycling. I started conservatively, so as not to offend anybody, but soon enough it became clear that they would trust my judgement. Cool. A lot of those tires had no business on any bicycle ever again. Simple fact. The tire racks had more tires that did not pass the "should ever be used" test, so the worst offenders were tossed. Tires don't stay in nice rows like books on a shelf. When people take one down, then try to put it back, knobs and friction push the other tires all over the place. After a few hundred rounds of this, there are tires pushed and folded everywhere. I fixed it. For each section, I wrapped my arms through all of the tires, placed them all on the ground, and then replaced them in neat rows to get messed up again. Some of the tires still had tubes in them. Nope - used tubes go over there. In about 40 minutes, I had those tires looking good. Not excellent - but it was an improvement to be proud of. Then I was promoted (by wandering away from the tires) to helping a guy who was there to fix a bicycle.

Some guy in a Yeti hat (coolers, not bikes) was trying to get an old Fuji to roll. This is what happens every day at a bicycle co-op. Ostensibly this is the whole point, but all projects are not created equal, and in spite of conventional logic, some bicycles should be taken to a shop. What looks like a reasonable frame, and appears to be an easy project, often has its tentacles far deeper in a pit of madness than even seems possible at first glance. Parts have already been disassembled, for unclear purposes, and the smallest seemingly insignificant parts have been misplaced, and thus must be replaced from drawers and buckets of similar, but not exactly identical parts, hoarded in the bins and drawers of the co-op. Let's get to work. He needed cones, spacers, and bearings for a rear freewheel hub. I couldn't give it a spin, but it appeared that the wheel was otherwise in good shape. I dunno man... at a bicycle shop, it would be new wheel time. At a co-op, the trend is to mend and make do. In theory, I wholeheartedly support this. But after about 15 minutes, I was ready to roll that wheel under a train.

Stupid Fuji. I didn't like it much anymore. If it was mine, no problem. But in this scenario, I wouldn't have minded watching it go right under a train. Rather than digging in a five gallon bucket of variously-threaded cones and guesswork, using a donor hub would be the expedient move - find the same hub in a huge bin of hubs, and transfer the axle, cones, bearings, and spacers to the hub built into the wheel of the Fuji. It was a Sunshine freewheel hub. There should be a million of them. The bins of hubs contained every conceivable minor hub variation, none of them the exact same thing.

About helping: I should note that it is generally the policy of a co-op to take a "hands off" approach to helping with tools. It is up to the customer(?) to handle all of the tools, and perform all of the repairs using only verbal instruction and miming from the facilitator (me.) However, in practice, that is a difficult rule to adhere to. Sometimes there are fine adjustments to be made. This rule does not factor in people with absolutely no concept of finesse, be it mechanically or as a matter of personality. I was ready to move this project along. Marginal improvements were made over the course of an hour. We fooled around endlessly on a bicycle that still left without a front brake. It was important to get the bicycle to roll, and I suppose stopping it could be figured out on the road. I assume that the bicycle will forever remain in the form of a comprehensive punch list of glaring safety concerns, rendered in steel and tape. I made him promise to address the brake issue, and then I washed my hands with Gojo. I used the remaining time to make chit-chat with a girl in a coonskin cap.

I returned to Open Shop Hours two days later, and had a far more rewarding experience. In order to maximize my usefulness, I decided to get a bicycle ready to sell, so Yellow Bike could make some money. The co-op doesn't exactly strike me as a cash cow, which of course is not the point, but I reasoned that selling a bicycle never hurts, and everybody can use some money for something. I put one of the partially completed project bicycles in a stand, and got to work on tuning it up in a swift and efficient manner. After about ten minutes I got sidetracked by an eleven-year-old with a hub issue at a nearby stand. I spent the following two and a half hours showing him how to fix bicycles. That turned out to be way more fun. If volunteering at a co-op was like that every time, I'd spend a lot more time helping out.

This kid was smart: he didn't have experience fixing bicycles, but he understood all new concepts instantly. He had natural tool intelligence, and was able to visualize basic hands-on physics better than lots of adults I've met. He was curious. Every step of the way, he was eager to learn. He was there with his mom so he could learn how to repair something mechanical. He would be excited to see how anything goes together. Bicycles just happen to be easy to get your hands on. He builds model airplanes at home. So mom took him to Open Shop and they each picked a bicycle to work on. This kid's bicycle was a perfect platform for learning. Every single thing on it needed a little bit of adjustment and help.

I showed him how to fix many things, and some of the repairs might be of practical use for his own bike. We started with overhauling a cassette hub, which is a weird place to begin, since I was later surprised to learn that he had not yet repaired a flat tire. (We did that too.) Truing a wheel is considered a little bit advanced, but I explained everything I knew, and he was able to true the front wheel with the only guidance being my confirmation that he was doing everything exactly correct. We stuck to the "hands off" tool rule, and he did everything himself. A few times, I had to step in to demonstrate the best way to get leverage, but then I undid that step so he could do all the work himself. He nailed the bearing adjustment on the cassette hub, and trued wheels in a stand and on the bicycle itself. I was impressed, and I let him know it. It was cool that I didn't have to dumb anything down. I could speak to him like a peer.

When it was time to clean up the shop, his mom thanked me for spending so much time with her kid, and said she hoped it didn't stop me from what I was working on. Ha! I told her I was having fun, and it was exactly what I was there for. Then I said goodbye to my friend, who I assume will master life by the age of fifteen.

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