Wheels in motion
Bicycle collective is also a cultural HUB
By Margaret Boehme 10/18/2012
It’s a mid-week evening in Ventura, and a group of nearly 20 volunteer bicycle mechanics sit in a circle on folding chairs in a living room off Ventura Avenue. They surround a coffee table with an array of objects chosen especially for this occasion: an adjustable wrench wrapped with caramel-colored cork handlebar tape, a feather-topped wooden spoon, a teal-beaded necklace, a first aid kit, a brass mortar and pestle, a brush of sage.
Host Rachel Morris asks that everyone think of how they would like to dedicate this council circle. A young woman lifts up the beaded necklace and offers a Susan B. Anthony quote: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Everyone here is part of a newly formed bicycle collective in Ventura called HUB (Helping Urban Bicyclists), and they’re gathered tonight for their regular Thursday class, which is part council circle, part lecture, part hands-on bike fixing.
After all, HUB is not just about the bike. “It’s about breaking down barriers of discrimination so that more people can ride bikes,” says Morris, HUB’s executive director. That night, the class talks about discrimination. The diverse group of 20 students — black, white, Asian and Hispanic, who range in age from teenagers to senior citizens — brainstorm discrimination’s myriad forms and nuances, speculate on its roots and discuss personal experiences with it.
“If we miraculously rise above the culture and grow as people, we might provide something beautiful and unique to our community,” Morris tells the group. “And I think we’re already doing that.”
HUB’s most regular community event is the Saturday Open Shop, where people can bring in bikes in need of repair, use HUB’s tools and get help from the volunteer mechanics. There’s a $7 per hour fee. Morris stresses that HUB is not in competition with bicycle shops. For one thing, HUB, she says, no one is going to fix your bike for you. The bike’s owner works on fixing his or her own bike, getting advice and input from HUB’s mechanics.
This is a key component of HUB’s mission: empowering people to work with tools, teaching them to fix things, and preparing them to be independent. They might pick up some job skills.
HUB strives to be a cultural center, Morris says, a place where people can come together, work on bikes, strengthen bike culture and find community. It aims to make bicycling more fun, more convenient, safer and available to everyone.
In July, HUB set up shop in a parking lot in Oxnard as part of the California Employment Development Department’s Farmworker Fair. HUB held an essay contest and gave away 24 donated bikes that day to the children of farmworkers, ages 3 to 17.
The strongest essay came from a 13-year-old boy who loved to ride bikes. His bike had been stolen one night. He’d been saving up to buy another one but then — as he put it — he had to “waste” all his saved-up money helping his parents pay their bills. He wanted a bike so he could ride back and forth to school, run errands for his mom and ride with his friends again.
That afternoon, he won a new high-end bike donated by Specialized, along with a helmet and lock. It was one of 24 bikes that HUB gave out at the event, along with 24 helmets and 21 locks.
Specialized has donated thousands of dollars’ worth of bikes and gear to HUB. HUB has also received major grants from Kaiser Permanente, The Gas Company and Patagonia. The money allowed HUB to launch, to buy tools and to pay a master mechanic. Anyone can donate new or used bicycles.
The members are looking to start an Earn a Bike program for kids, where they’ll give donated bicycles to children who put in hours volunteering and fixing bikes at the co-op. They also plan to sell bicycles to adults. The logistics of these projects are still being worked out.
HUB launched its first official Open Shop event in Ventura earlier this year, but the idea for it is something that goes back decades in the mind of Morris. She headed off to college at age 16 and enrolled in a degree program that allowed her to design some of her own classes. She took mechanic classes from a local bike shop. Later that year she tried to start her own bicycle shop in Booneville, Miss., a farming town along the river. She found a storefront with $40 per month rent, but learned there weren’t a lot of bicycle riders in that farming town. Later, she joined a food co-op, and the co-op model made a lasting impression on her.
She worked in the computer industry for more than a decade. Then, in 2007, she founded VCCool, Ventura Climate Care Options Organized Locally. It was inspired by a large turnout in Ventura to a screening of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. She knew that she wanted bicycle riding as transportation to be a major component of VCCool, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is dedicated to lowering the carbon footprint of Ventura County. According to its site, it focuses on issues such as “city planning, public transit, clean energy and local food production.”
One day, Morris was walking down Main Street, wheeling a bicycle and trying to give away cookies, when she met Toby Smith, who was waiting for his wife to finish shopping. He was happy to eat the cookies and asked Morris what she knows about the bicycling community in Ventura.
It turned out Smith is a master mechanic by profession, and the chance meeting on Main Street was the start of a vital partnership, the one that led to HUB today. Smith’s bike repair knowledge and skills are astounding and he’s a gifted teacher. He works at a bike shop during the day, and on Thursday nights he teaches the hands-on bike repair classes for volunteers.
Back at the house on the Avenue, the nearly 20 volunteers spill out of the living room and over into the garage, where Smith has set up three bike stations. As the group circles around him, he reviews parts of hubs, headsets and bottom brackets, talks about necessary tools for these parts and shows how to disassemble, assess, clean and replace bearings. And then he divides the volunteers into groups and sends them to the bike stations, where they work on the hubs and bearings of old bikes in need of repair — bikes that have been donated to HUB and will later be sold.
It’s dark out as the class works with flashlights and headlamps, using wrenches, removing lock rings and cups and bearings, wiping them clean, greasing things that need to be greased, and putting it all back together again. Smith goes around to each group, answering questions and checking on progress. He stops at the bottom bracket station, where Alex Peñaloza and Tiffany Richardson, both Ventura College students and avid bicycle riders, have done a masterful job.
Smith tests the bottom bracket, pulling on the wheel and spinning it. “Hey, it feels good. Nice job.” he says. And then he adds: “So now you are in charge of teaching everyone else about this.”
The HUB mobile bike shop is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays at the following locations: First Saturday, Ventura Avenue Senior Center; second Saturday, Sandbox Coffeehouse; third Saturday, Ventura Avenue Senior Center. For more information, visit www.vccool.org/HUB.