by Our Bicycle Lives

Once upon a time when I was a cycling novice, it would take me a while to muster the courage to walk into a bike shop. I found it an intimidating environment, a place of mostly male competence which had its own lingo and exhibited a bewildering array of tools with a purpose. Just like one is implicitly expected to have a decent haircut even before being attended to by a hairdresser, I felt I already had to know what’s what to avoid making a fool of myself. Faced with this catch-22 situation, no wonder I used to hover on the pavement, eagerly looking at the bicycles in the window, before venturing inside and finding myself surrounded by all things cycling.

I had, in fact, reached cycle heaven! Shiny bicycles on display left, right and centre … parts, accessories and items of apparel for all weather conditions and wallet sizes … I soon realised that bike shops and I shared a passion, even if in their case it was perhaps more a craft, a trade or even a money-making business. Then I set out to find my bike shop, the one that felt right for me. Chains were bright and spacious but fairly sanitised and anonymous affairs. I had more affinity with independent outlets. It took me two years to feel at home in Brixton Cycles Co-operative. An unfortunate first encounter had put me off: a nervous newbie question (‘How long does a chain last?’), an answer (‘How long is a piece of string?’) which made me feel silly and inadequate, a false start. The second time, many months later, I was more experienced. The first thing I noticed was the background music: I recognised the song! Being a musical ignoramus, this never happens to me so it was a sign. I then went back again and again, got to know some of the staff by name and enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere. I also liked that it was anchored in the community: they lent tools to the kids cycling in the nearby skate park and a sympathetic ear to the local eccentrics.

Of course, over the years, our relationship has had its downs. Nothing like what my housemate has experienced though, who is working his way through the South London bike shop directory as he becomes disgruntled with each one in turn. No, I simply had to come to terms with the fact that a bike shop is also a workshop where bicycles are made and mended, a place where dirt and grease abound. Do not, like I did, give your bike a deep clean before you bring it in for repair. Then there is the money question. Occasionally my local shop will be the bearer of bad news, like the time I went in for a new chain and ended up having to replace the whole transmission. I don’t like to fall into this way of thinking though: it is like begrudging money spent on organic food, which I equally see as an investment, be it in my health or in my bike’s health. Besides, everyone has to make a living and I can’t imagine mechanics’ wages are anything near astronomical.

But however friendly they are, to bike shop staff time is short. They are busy. They often have little room for lengthy explanations whereas I like to be taken through the process step by step. Ideally, I’d even come by for the latest cycling news, on a social impulse that sees me frequently patronising that alfresco bike shop, Dr Bike. I have come to realise, though, that the transmission of knowledge mostly falls outside their remit. I deplore it, and so do others as witnessed by the recent trend for DIY bike shops like the London Bike Kitchen. So it happens that while more and more bike shops are opening all over London, my visits to my local have become fewer. As I have directed my quest for information elsewhere and my maintenance skills improve, I am more reluctant to relinquish responsibility for my bike. What if something went wrong? Or if, one of my recurrent fears, the shop got burgled during the night and my bike was stolen? Others feel relieved that their bicycle will be fixed at last; I merely think that it won’t be done as well as I would have done it, had I known how to. Well, that’s the hitch: there is still a lot I don’t know! But if experience has taught me that it would be unwise to rely entirely on bike shops for my numerous cycling queries, I believe they do have a role to play as community cycling hubs. What better way to take the pulse of a new neighbourhood than to pop in the local bike shop for a browse and a chat? And a glimpse of heaven in the bargain.