When you walk into your local bike shop, who do you expect to see working? Especially behind the counter turning wrenches? Go ahead picture it, I’ll wait…
Men, lots and lots of men, right? It’s no secret that the bike industry as a whole is still very white cis-male centric.
I never liked bike shops. I felt uncomfortable, like I didn’t belong, and like I was being judged. Beyond changing a flat tire, for many years everything about how a bike worked was as foreign to me as working on a car. But if life is anything it is unpredictable and for the last two years I have found myself working at the The Oakridge Bike Shop and Willamette Mountain Mercantile in Oregon during the summer and wrenching as a volunteer at BiCi Centro in Santa Barbara, CA the rest of the year. I recently had the opportunity to fill the gaps in my mechanical knowledge and become a Certified Bicycle Technician by completing the United Bicycle Institute’s Professional Repair and Shop Operation class as part of the Gender Diversity Scholarship cohort.
Despite there being a number of initiatives over the last decade to do something about gender inequality in the cycling world, the most recent data indicates that only five percent of mechanics working in bike shops are women. The movement for change continues and I would argue that the most recent charge is being led by the Radical Adventure Riders (RAR) who are getting companies from all levels of the bike industry to pledge to do better. They’re pushing the bike industry to diversify and create a more inclusive workforce with concrete measurements of successful outcomes being a requirement. The United Bicycle Institute (UBI) class I just completed is another success story of established companies providing pathways for transgender, femme, non-binary, and female-identifying individuals to participate in the bike industry in a more professional capacity.
A Motivation to Learn
For the first decade that I rode bikes I was happy with being able to repair a flat tire myself and leaving everything else to the professionals; however, once I started bikepacking that had to change. The transition to bikepacking itself was actually quite easy for me – I was already a mountain biker and had done a fair bit of backpacking; it was a natural progression to combine the two. However, that gap in my mechanical knowledge was staring me down. I was most acutely aware of this deficit during moments when I was descending remnants of remote forest trails with rocks and downed tree limbs everywhere, a wayward stick just waiting for the right moment to throw itself into my spokes and tear them in half, leaving me with a 30-mile walk to the nearest dirt road.
It’s one thing to head out on a 10- to 20-mile mountain bike ride with minimal mechanical skills, but if you are going to head deep into the wilderness, the ability to fix a wider array of problems becomes necessary. Thus began my journey to better understand my bicycle. Over the years, a number of friends gave generously of their time, helping me learn basic skills but I still disliked working on my bikes and attempts to do so often ended in frustration and emergency phone calls for assistance. Swearing and tears may have been a normal part of the process.
Becoming a Bike Mechanic
The first step in my journey to becoming more than a haphazard home bike mechanic was volunteering at the local non-profit bike shop in Santa Barbara, CA (Bici Centro). Volunteering at a non-profit is a whole different game than maintaining my new bikes! It’s one thing to know how to work on some basic parts of a modern bicycle but another to work on the bottom brackets, cup and cone axles, and cantilever brakes of old donated bikes! A different kind of education was taking place for me at BiCi, and the important thing is that the education was taking place in a supportive environment. Friends would comment “but you hate working on your bikes”. It turns out that I don’t like working on my bikes alone, at home, without the correct tools, and without anyone to ask for help when things don’t go as planned. And really, when you are a beginner mechanic, things rarely seem to go as planned; however, working in a supportive environment with assistance can be super fun!
I loved volunteering at BiCi Centro, both the people and the work were enjoyable. Fast forward a few years during which I had quit my job and started traveling the world on a bikepacking rig. Then Covid happened – causing me to end up back in Santa Barbara asking what next? Well, on a whim, I applied for a seasonal job at The Oakridge Bike Shop and Willamette Mountain Mercantile. I had fallen in love with the small Oregon town of Oakridge when I completed a solo self-supported ride of The Oregon Timber Trail in 2017. While I was still insecure about what I had to offer as a bike mechanic, they enthusiastically hired me, and in an unexpected twist of events, half of the mechanics at the bike shop were women! It was such a joy and rare opportunity to be learning from other women who took the time from their own work to share their knowledge with me. It was so much fun on the days that only women were working and customers would walk in shocked, pleased, and full of questions for us. Despite the help from my Oakridge co-workers and the Bici Centro crew in Santa Barbara I still had huge gaps in my knowledge that I was hungry to fill.
The QBP and UBI Gender Scholarship
The Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) Gender Diversity Scholarship for the two-week Professional Repair and Shop Operation course at UBI provided the perfect opportunity to fill those knowledge gaps. This collaboration is a great example of companies “doing the thing,” as one of my bike school classmates put it, as opposed to talking about doing the thing. That “thing” is trying to create a more equitable bike industry. UBI is a professional bike school in Ashland, Oregon that for over 30 years has taught mechanical skills, shop operations, and, until recently, frame building. In 2014, UBI collaborated with QBP to start a scholarship in support of female-identifying folks taking a bicycle repair class at UBI. Basically QPB gathered the financial support from an array of sponsors and UBI provided the space, educators, housing, and the course.
Like most good projects, it started small. The first year there were two scholarship recipients, then four, then eight. The project peaked in 2018 and 2019 when UBI hosted TWO two-week classes of 16 femme, transgender, women, and non-binary (FTW-NB) individuals each year. During this time, QBP purchased the Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs, now known as U of Q. Following this change, UBI kept one scholarship class and QPB took the other over to U of Q. QBP continues to gather additional sponsors and fund scholarship cohorts with the goal of supporting gender and racial equity in the bicycle industry. I have had my eye on the Gender Diversity Scholarship for a few years, but like many things, Covid caused the scholarship class to disappear for a bit. However, this year the scholarship returned! I anxiously applied in late winter and waited, and waited, since the application period did not end until early April.
By mid-May I had given up hope of receiving the scholarship, but then one morning I returned from a ride to an email telling me this was my *last chance* to reply and confirm that I still wished to participate in the program. WHAT?!? I had never received an initial email and hastily reassured them that I most definitely still desired to participate! All summer I impatiently waited for August to arrive so that I could meet all the other rad humans taking the course and become a more confident and knowledgeable mechanic.
One of the eligibility requirements for the QBP/UBI Scholarship is that the applicant currently works at a bicycle retailer, a non-profit bike shop, or has graduated from a community bicycle program, so the fact that I worked at The Oakridge Bike Shop and volunteered at Bici Centro was important. In August I arrived in Ashland ready for the two week Professional Repair and Shop Operation class. Housing was generously provided and all of us were staying at the hostel next door to UBI.
The excitement and joy of the participants was palpable. While I only had a four-hour drive down from Oakridge, we were a group of FTWN-B bike industry folks from places as far-flung as New York City, Washington DC, New Orleans, and Detroit, to name a few. We also covered almost 30 years in age-span in addition to filling vastly different roles within the bike industry. While many of the recipients had several years of experience wrenching in traditional bike shops, two had recently become bike shop owners, and several were educators and/or running community e-bike programs.
We arrived to class at 8 a.m. Monday morning to find a three-inch binder waiting for each of us and learned that in the two-week class we would cover all the material in the binder, have to successfully complete a number of hands-on tasks each day, and pass a written exam on the last day of class. We would be in class 8 to 10 hours each day. This was going to be intense! On day two, we covered the topic I was most excited about, wheel building! While over the years I had attempted to true a few wheels, a positive outcome always felt more like magic and luck than skill. And if someone came into the bike shop with a broken spoke, I immediately handed them over to a more experienced mechanic, because even if I managed to figure it out and get the job done, it would take me so much longer; thus I was really looking forward to peering inside this black box.
The class had four instructors, all male (more on that later), and wheel building was taught by the owner of UBI, Ron. Ron had a system for building wheels, and I do love a good system! As someone who has been an educator for well over a decade, I believe deeply in the power of clear, calm, and organized instruction and Ron had all these skills. In his soft-spoken but confident manner, Ron gave step-by-step instructions to the group and quickly had us lacing our first wheel. It wasn’t long before I had the wheel in the truing stand and was working on refining the dish, radial true, and lateral true. I had built a wheel! And then I built another! It was empowering to finally have a deeper understanding of the relationship between the hub, spokes, and rim. One of the things I loved about the class was the mixture of theory and hands-on learning. While some mechanically inclined individuals have little patience for book learning, I am the opposite and do best when I understand the theory behind how something works and why I should do it a certain way.
For two weeks we carried on in this manner, generally covering about two topics a day. Changing bench partners daily was a powerful part of the experience, as learning from each other is a big part of the UBI pedagogy. At the end of each day we would trudge back over to the hostel, exhausted and vying for kitchen space to throw together some dinner. As the two weeks went on, our friendships deepened and laughter flowed. The course covers almost every aspect of working on both older and modern bikes, road and mountain, as well as touching on business practices. On the final day of class, we did a complete overhaul on a road bike; cementing skills from earlier in the class.
A Commitment to Change
I found all the instructors to be clear communicators and incredibly patient. At no time did I feel a “why aren’t you getting this yet” vibe. Yet, all the instructors were male, an admittedly disappointing discovery. Denise, the co-owner of UBI, and administrator extra-ordinaire, shared that UBI has had two female instructors over the years; however, one of these women left to assume a caretaker role in her family (a common way that talent is lost as women continue to fill this very gendered role). The other started her own wheel-building business, Sugar Wheel Works (how cool!). UBI has previously hired former students from the gender diversity cohort and they would love to do so again. Supporting the growth of a pool of FTWN-B and BIPOC job candidates for all areas of the bike industry is the kind of thing that drives Denise to support this project so passionately. In fact, the original female-focused class was her idea – she had watched too many situations with only one or two women in the class where a man would literally grab the tool out of the woman’s hands and take over the task.
Denise and Ron want change and they are committing time, effort, and resources to make it happen. They went above and beyond to make sure our cohort not only had a great educational experience, but also a great time in Ashland. They took us out to a group dinner, facilitated fun Saturday activities (some of my classmates learned that west coast mountain biking is a little, um, different…than what they are used to in the midwest or east), drove around the participants who didn’t have a car, and stayed late when needed. All the staff seemed thrilled to have us despite us testing the instructor’s patience at times (not that they showed it), but they did tell us afterward that the scholarship cohort always asks way more questions than an average group taking this class. I’m not surprised given how hungry all of us were for this rare educational opportunity.
Denise shared that while she had hoped the number of women working in the bike industry would have increased much faster over the last forty years, in her own words, she is “very happy to see more and more women interested in bicycle repair, whether it is for their own use or to work in a shop. I want all women to feel empowered to go out on a bike ride by themselves, out of cell range, and feel confident that they can repair whatever might come their way”.
Looking to the Future
The class was supplemented with presentations by SRAM, Shimano, and a visit by Kelli Sam, owner of the women’s racing team LA SWEAT and a high-powered woman in the bike industry making things happen. Kelli flew in from Chicago just for the day, which is indicative of her passion for and commitment to helping FTWN-B individuals gain a foothold in the bike industry. The class wrapped up with a fun graduation ceremony and lots of hugs good-bye. We gained so much more than technical knowledge in this class, we made connections, and more importantly, friends. I’m so grateful for this experience and the opportunities that I trust will open for me now that I am a Certified Bicycle Technician. Thanks to UBI, QBP, and all the other supporting sponsors (who also hooked us up with an obscene amount of awesome swag!). Keep an eye on QBPs scholarship page for future opportunities!
A couple of weeks after the class ended I returned to my volunteer work at BiCi Centro and the bike I was assigned had a horribly out of true rear wheel. With confidence I walked over to the truing stand and made it right. Mission accomplished.
Heather Rose is a recovering perfectionist who now spends her time bikepacking, wrenching, educating future health care workers, gardening, and generally trying to make the world a better place. She does all these things imperfectly, but with love and passion.
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