January 27, 2017 0 Comments
As a bike mechanic fixing and upgrading the world's bikes I have a front row seat from which to peer into the cycling scene. My work hours are spent getting stuck into not only the worn-out cogs or outdated equipment that bring the bikes to me, but also the minds of the owners. For a while now I've played witness to a shift in the way people view bikes and the bikes that they choose to ride.
When I started out as a mechanic the bike industry was an entirely different place. My days were almost entirely spent servicing and upgrading people's hobby machines. They would be telling me about their adventures in the Alps and I'd be more than happy to help them deck their bikes out with the latest parts and components they had been reading about in their magazines.
Dispersed amongst these encounters were different but equally predictable liaisons. The Center Parcs bikes, dusty and unused, begging for some oil and air before they were put back on the bike rack to head to the trails once more, the mid-family-bike-ride puncture, usually a great excuse for a mid-ride pub break whilst I fixed it, a BMX-er with a snapped chain and a host of other problems that would have to wait until pay day, the CTC member wanting his mudguards fitting for winter (and demanding 10% off of course) and occasionally, the commuter.
Back then the commuter was a rare and unusual beast. Their bikes worn and rusty, a mix of old and new parts and usually topped off with a Safeway bag on the seat. What a mess I'd be thinking, do they not care about their bike? Why don't they just get a new one? I'm not sure I want to touch it!
How naive I was. Once fixed, and often with a fair few little extra tweaks done for free just to prevent death, I would hand back the bike with a mix of admiration and worry, stoked to see someone so totally committed to cycling. But riding a beat-up bike in all weathers, light and dark, isn't the safest thing to do - right?
Fast forward to 2017 and I still have the same flow customers, but the ratio and style in which they arrive is entirely different. I'm still made privy to a tale or two of the Alps, and the Center Parcs bikes still occasionally arrive for their annual spruce-up, but the overwhelming majority of my customers are now commuters. The bag-on-seat-beasts have taken over and it's not all sunshine and rainbows for them, literally or metaphorically.
Their bikes are almost always in a very poor state, and much like the BMX-ers I used to help out, the extra work I inevitably find will need to wait until pay day. The customers are somewhat clueless as to what is wrong with their bikes - they just need them back on the road as quickly as possible so they can get to work or home. Far from hobby cyclists, they are simply people getting some cheap mechanical assistance on their journeys around the city: assistance in the form of a bicycle.
I have often thought of my age group as 'Generation Lost'. I am part of a generation that, without help from a rich mummy and daddy will never be able to buy a house or own a brand new car. Holidays are usually out of reach and the idea of paying rent for a house you're not even living in whilst you pay for a hotel just adds to the feeling of hopelessness. We are most definitely trapped in a loop of working ourselves senseless each month just to survive.
With this struggle for survival you are forced to take into account how much everything costs. Food, rent, bills and transport are top of the list and only one of those really can be modified to save money: transport. So it seems people are ditching the car or the Oyster card and buying bikes, not through choice but because it can get you from A to B for free, leaving you with more money to pay off your debt or, if you're lucky, buy yourself a nice meal because you work so damn hard.
I'm sure the government would love to tell you that the reason there are more cyclists than ever commuting in London is because of the 'cycle to work scheme' or the 'cycle super highways' that they have created. Not true. People are risking their lives every day on an infrastructure that cannot deal with cyclists, on bikes that are being used beyond the designer's intention, simply to get to work and have a quality of life that has so far eluded them.
One of the major but telling changes that show that this is the case is the rise of the Dutch bike and fixie. Once upon a time the only Dutch bikes I saw were dredged from the canal during the Canal Trust's annual clean up, and fixies were only ridden by the most hardcore (and old!) CTC members, but now I work on them every day. It seems that Generation Lost - through the destruction of derailleur bikes, epic amounts of use and limited money available to maintain them - has managed to regress to a time when bikes were built to last and get the working class population from A to B without breaking the bank.
The conversations about summer riding holidays have for the most part been replaced with "How far do you commute?" and "What are the most puncture-resistant tyres?". I love this - after all, I am a bike mechanic because I want to get people on bikes and I want to improve their cycling experience - but I can't help but feel the industry needs to be doing more to help these accidental cyclists.
I've no idea how many billions are spent on advertising the latest and greatest bike technology to make you go faster or look cooler but I wish more of this money was spent to design cheap, low-maintenance bikes that can get people around both safely and with a smile on their faces. Companies like "Africa Bike" have done this to great effect in the Third World, and I think it's time the big companies addressed this issue in the First World. "Bike-share" is a venture that has evolved to help people get on bikes for little expenditure. However, as much as I love Boris bikes, owning something is entirely different and comes with a sense of pride. Let's not take that away from people as well.
One shining light that has appeared in these times of change is the rise of the DIY bike workshops. London Bike Kitchen is an awesome example of this. During opening hours you can turn up, use tools and receive impartial and free advice, something I never would had dreamed of seeing when I started training as a mechanic.
The change that I'm seeing on a day-to-day basis is both inspirational and sad. The more people that are riding bikes the better, I just hope the industry doesn't treat these new cyclists as outsiders simply because they have discovered the sport through necessity and don't want to throw every penny of their spare money back into cycling. I know for a fact that certain supermarket-chain-style companies will quote these new riders unnecessarily high rates in order to sell replacement bikes that they don't actually need. So lame.
We are all cyclists and just because you know what every single part of your bike does and have the latest and greatest gear doesn't make you any more of a cyclist than someone who sees a bike as simply a mode of transport. We all sing from the same hymn sheet and have a shared desire to ride - so let's do everything we can to make Generation Lost feel welcome, and part of the raddest and fastest-growing scene on the planet.
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