Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

A poster for one of Ordinary Spokes’ popular events, the alleycat. Photo by Elling Lien

Ordinary Spokes is a new grassroots organization in town that promotes cycling as a great way to navigate your busy city life. Co-founder Juls Mack sat down with Jillian Butler to discuss.

If you ask Juls Mack, life on a bike is a just another flavour of transportation.

“I started riding a bike when I was 19, and it changed my life,” she tells me. “I stopped buying a bus pass. It makes your life so much easier to have a bike.”

The bike culture in St. John’s has enjoyed healthy growth recently, but it still has a long way to go, Mack says. So she, along with the six other core members, formed Ordinary Spokes, a community-oriented bicycle repair shop and resource centre here in St. John’s.

Run by devoted volunteers, Ordinary Spokes opened its doors on January 1st, 2010, and since then have been offering drop-in bicycle care, workshops and other resources. At least two of the members are bike mechanics.

Mack has seen the importance of a thriving bike culture, having lived in Vancouver before moving here a year and a half ago. “A wider variety of people bike as a form of serious transportation in Vancouver. Lawyers, doctors, everyone.”

St. John’s isn’t quite there yet.

There are plenty of benefits to cycling, which Mack, a former bike messenger, is happy to point out: a bike costs less money, can be easily repaired, and keeps you in shape. Plus, it’s often a whole lot faster than its competition.

“When I first moved here, I thought I lived an hour away from the mall, because I’d take the bus,” Mack says. “When I rode my bike it only took me twenty minutes.”

Hoping to promote cycling as a legitimate form of transportation around the city, they also refurbish old bikes and resell them for about $50. “It’s a really accessible way for the average person who wants to start biking to work, or bike on the weekends,” Mack says, adding they have a wide selection of children’s bikes. A certified mechanic checks every bike that leaves the shop.
Ordinary Spokes hopes that sharing their knowledge with the public will teach the average cyclist that bicycle maintenance is pretty painless.

“About five members of the collective barely knew anything when they started. Now they’re swapping cables out, repacking bottom brackets,” she says. “Knowing how to do your own repairs makes cycling really accessible.”

Ordinary Spokes started with a friend’s empty basement and a desire to make the space useful. “Most cities across North America have these communal places where anyone can use the tools to fix up their bike with a little bit of guidance. I feel like this is something that St. John’s needs.”

Of course, there are real challenges for the St. John’s cyclist—namely, the unpredictable weather. But according to Juls, all it takes to survive a St. John’s winter on wheels is a little know-how.

“We do workshops on how to put on your winter tires. And it makes a difference—I put winter tires on this year and I didn’t spin once,” she says.

And then there’s the Ordinary Spokes alleycat races, a fundraiser based on the daily routine of bike couriers.

“In most cities, it’s the messengers that do the race. It’s like a scavenger hunt on a bike,” Mack says. “You get a list of locations, and you make up your own route, while staying safe. It’s more about finding your way than speed.”

What Ordinary Spokes needs to grow is volunteers, whether to help with promotion or even take on repairs.

“We need more people! Everyone in the collective is busy, but we all really believe in the shop. And as we’ve seen, anybody can become a good mechanic within a month.”

Right now the shop is open three days out of the week—Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays—with a bike sale on the last Sunday of every month. To drop by and either get advice or get involved, all will be revealed with a quick email to ordinaryspokes@gmail.com. Since the shop operates out of a residential basement, they don’t like to advertise the location.

“We have the goal of becoming a real bikeshop. We’re actually trying to register as a non-profit,” she says. “What we really want is for kids to be able to visit the shop, so we can do summer bike programs. Get them riding when they’re young.”


The 2012 Atlantis Music Prize Long List

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6 November 2012

  1. Elling Lien · November 6, 2012