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Yakshaving Chronicles: Our Community Bikes

Our Community Bikes is a great concept. Conveniently located a quick 10 minute walk away from where I live between Fairview and Mount Pleasant here in Vancouver, it is essentially one-part bike parts recycler and seller, one-part bike tool sharing workshop, and one part roving bike maintenance skills class. Their model is essentially that they have some bike stands, and you can choose one of three ways to pay for your time in their worksop: $5 an hour if you don’t need any assistance, $10 if you’re only getting verbal advice, and $15 if you’re getting detailed hands-on instruction (with a $50 option if you hand them your bike and say, “Fix it, please!”).

I bought my current bike at OCB. I love the bike. I learned a few things when I got it to start fixing it up, like putting in a fresh set of ball bearings on the wheels, new tubes, and some fidgety things with the gears. Just the basics, nothing overly fancy, though given I was learning from scratch and am not a nuts-and-bolts tinkering type, it probably took me a lot longer than it might take many other people. But I’d be lying if I said the experience was all cakewalk and roses.

I’m far from blaming OCB solely for the unpleasantness of my experiences. As a non-profit, I can say with some confidence that they are likely understaffed and overworked; but they are generally good humoured and encouraging about it, and as helpful as they can be. But it’s pretty much hellish everytime I go, and part of writing this post is to diagnose why that is.

I went today because my bike tube suffered a puncture and I wanted to get an opinion on what to do about it. Looking at the tube this morning, it was clear from the indentations that it’d been weakened through contact with the spokes. The rim tape on my wheel is quite thin (and I had put it on myself at OCB when I first bought the bike), so I figured I’d hop by and get an opinion on whether I should replace the tube, and what to do about the rim tape.

So I hopped over, signed in, and asked for that quick opinion, which was to put on what I think is called a rim protector. I was handed something that looked like a giant red rubber band, and verbally instructed on how to put it on the wheel. OK. A few minutes into trying to do this, I noticed that the protector seemed to be really way too small for my wheel. I brought this up with a second staff person, who quickly replied me that it was supposed to be tight-fitting. But this was ridiculous — I felt like I’d have to break the laws of physics to get this thing on. Meanwhile, I was getting my fingers painfully pinched between the wheel and the rim protector, getting frustrated, and feeling stupid because I was doing something I disagreed with. It was probably around this point that I tweeted:

How do I keep from feeling utterly victimized every time I go to our community bikes???less than a minute ago via txt

I’m aware that I have a well-documented problem with asking for help, so doing this helped wake me up to the fact that I really did need help, and found someone who looked unbusy and asked for it. One staff member tried to get it (the rim protector) on with me; it wasn’t working. A second staff member (the one who’d told me it was supposed to be this way) finally committed to helping me get it on. Armed with two screwdrivers, we did it — but it was all twisted and folded as a result. She suggested I use some needlenose pliers to fix it. I spent another 10 minute trying to do that. Meanwhile, the staff are occasionally mentioning why they’d chose the rim protector — the shop didn’t have tape the width of my wheel. Then the first staff member, the one who’d suggested the rim protector, took a look at the wheel and took off the badly-aligned rim protector.  The rim protector was now ruined, and he took it off the wheel because it was clearly the wrong size.

…Oh. You mean like I first thought 30 minutes before that?

He ended up putting another layer of rim tape on top of the rim tape I’d put on last year. I bought a new tube since the old one was clearly weakening in a number of spots due to the spokes. And then I finished and paid up, an hour after I’d signed in and a lot longer than I’d intended to be there.

Check the wording of that tweet up there again. Who’s the actor in that question? ME. I should emphasize: I do not feel that Our Community Bikes is necessarily at fault for me feeling victimized. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that they can improve on, but I endeavour to take responsibility for making sure that the things I think and act keep me from feeling this way. My reading of this particular situation is that I lacked the confidence in my own assessment of the rim protector situation to respond to the second staff member to go, “No really, it’s not just tight, it’s wrong.” And so ensued another 20 minutes of trying to get it on.

So that’s why I feel victimized when I go to OCB — because yes, I am a beginner, and yes, there are a lot of things I don’t know how to do, but no, I’m not stupid, and I usually make things worse when I allow myself to act or think that I am, which somehow gets really easy to do when I’m there. I genuinely lack confidence in my ability to do many of the tasks — for instance, I needed a reminder on how to put the tire and tube back on the wheel. Because I do this once a year, so my hands and my brain are going to forget. But where’s the middle ground between the correct amount of support and autonomy? My learned helplessness in this area is strong, as this also affects how I interact with my brother in this too. I could probably get more Foucaldian about this, but there’s got to be a way of doing this so that the fact that I lack the knowledge or the skill to correctly apply it doesn’t cause me to shrivel up and sap my value as a human being.

I would just like to be able to go to OCB just once and not leave every time without fail feeling lucky I hadn’t burst into tears. I don’t have an issue with spending hours on end trying to install ledger using MacPorts on my Powerbook, so I don’t think it’s an issue of me across the board not being able to tinker with things in order to figure them out — yet being in that place regularly makes me feel stupid. I cook and I sometimes draw and make things with my hands, so I don’t think it’s just a matter of not being comfortable with getting my hands on it, even if I do have to say “righty-tight lefty-loosey” once in a while. Perhaps I’m just not being patient with the fact that things take a really long time, coupled with anxiety about breaking it, and the diluted attention of how few people are there. It generally feels way more dignified to learn with the book my brother gave me at home. I don’t think that has to be like that.

I think there’s a base level of skills with how things work that you need to have in order to feel comfortable participating in the learning. And I don’t have it (yet). And some people don’t have that base level of comfort with cooking, or computers. These are all tasks that people routinely excuse themselves from and can make other people almost cry. So fixing my bike in that particular place is mine.


  1. i lack the base level knowledge you mention for any hardware that’s not computer related e.g.: lights, closet doors, bicycles, assembling ikea furniture, you name it so OCB and Home Depot and Ikea fill me with dread

    if you find a base level course for bicycling or you find a way to get that knowledge, let me cause now i want it too :-) i am hoping my VACC bike maintenance course at False Creek Community Centre tomorrow at noon starts me on the journey to bike repair base level knowledge!

    Posted May 22, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Roland,

    Thanks for the reminder about that bike repair course, it had completely slipped my mind from when you last mentioned it.

    Funny enough, I just spent 15 minutes putting the noodle back on my front brakes. I essentially fumbled through the entire process, but I persevered a bit through the initial fussing with some confidence as it’s the third or fourth time I’ve done it. I’m OK with doing it, even though I generally can’t tell you all the parts involved in a front brake. It’s always a little more nerve-wracking with real things than software, because if it doesn’t work, its effects are seldom permanent; whereas screwing things up on the bike has meant I’ve made my Stupid Taxes on replacement parts.

    And then there are times when I recognize I don’t have the time or energy to fix something, and have paid someone to do it. I took apart my front brake about 3 months ago, discovered it broken, and asked OCB folks if it’s easy to fix. The answer was no, so I paid the UBC bike kitchen to fix it for me.

    It’s interesting to think about this though, because we’re almost always going to be in the position of knowing less about something than someone else, or being less able to apply that knowledge even if we in fact know it (Error Exists Between Brain and Hand?). The better I can learn from these times, the less debilitating this will all be.

    This is also why I hope to get a chance to learn about Dreamwidth’s newbie processes; from what I can tell, that software dev community has been good at welcoming people who may diminish their accomplishments or knowledge.

    Posted May 22, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  3. i bet the bike repair course has spots if you are free 12-2p.m. , it’s $40, would be cool to see you there!

    Posted May 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Catherine Winters

    Good post! It really helps me get a bit better picture of what my three other friends with similar reservations about OCB have possibly been feeling. I think personally, I probably find it easier to speak up about stuff I don’t know much about, but I do understand the feeling. A couple of my classes at Langara felt that hellish!

    Posted May 22, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Karen P.

    I replied to your twitter comment because I have had only great experiences at OCB. Like Catherine, I have no reservations about asking for help when it comes to this stuff. Also, I have mostly been to OCB with my dutch bike, which is very different from most stuff any of the employees there have ever worked on, so I always feel like it’s a bit of a learning experience for both me and the employee whenever I go in with an issue.

    Because I have such an odd bike I always budget several hours for any fix I need to do, and also because I have such an odd bike I am super committed to getting things fixed – and learning how to do them myself – because most local bike stores don’t have the parts or expertise to help me.

    But reflecting on your comments, I’m not sure I’d feel as confident going into OCB and asking for help with a more “vanilla” bike. I might indeed end up feeling the same way as you.

    Posted May 22, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Karen,

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    It’s reminding me that there have been some people I have encountered there who have been genuinely helpful and accommodating too, like Richard, the guy who helped me when I first bought my bike and did a lot to help size it to make sure it was good for me.

    I wonder if part of the challenge is the staff feeling the need to adhere to their pricing model. If I signed myself in as needing verbal assistance and 20 minutes later I’ve bugged three staff members and had them spend a few minutes wrestling a rim protector on my wheel, I could easily see them feeling like they should be charging me the “help me out a lot” rate. I’ve pretty much always seen it as a judgment call at the till — did I monopolize their time for long periods, etc. They may feel obligated to let me really give the damn thing a shot before they’re comfortable stepping in, to avoid over-hovering? I’m sure your dutch bike strikes them as a fun thing to fiddle with, so it may be more engaging to help out with than, as you put it, an ordinary vanilla bike.

    I think it boils down to, the OCB staff are there to help, but not always able due to circumstances to teach from the ground up. I think that’s OK — like there being a difference between bike assistance and bike teaching/tutoring — but they seem to currently give the impression that they do the latter, and I think given the amount of patience and how thinly they are stretched, that claim can border on misleading. The VACC course Roland mentioned (which I can’t make, unfortunately) or the book are probably a bit more comprehensive.

    Posted May 23, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

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