Off the Chain Bicycle Collective in Anchorage. (Photo Courtesy of Troy Mustache)

Off the Chain Bicycle Collective in Anchorage. Photo Courtesy of Troy Mustache

Bicycle co-ops (and collectives) are an invaluable resource while on tour. As not everyone knows what a co-op is, or what they do, I’d like to first lead you on a guided meditation to bring you into their magical world. Close your eyes and have the person next to you read this aloud:

You are riding your bicycle through a magical land. In this magical land, there are neither hills nor headwind. There are no honking cars speeding by, perilously close. Every road has two bike lanes and a single car lane. Dragons and Pegasuses (Pegasi?) frolic in the sky above you. It is truly a wonderful place.

But then an evil wizard appears! “Oh no,” you exclaim, for as we all know, the things evil wizards hate most are bicycles! “How dare you bring your non-automotive form of transportation to my mystical roads,” he bellows as a blinding flash is released from his wand. You are thrown from your bicycle, having been struck directly in the front wheel by his evil spell.

As you lay on the ground, half conscious, the wizard cackles, “Have fun riding with a broken spoke,” and disappears with a puff of smoke. Your mind clouds with unanswerable questions. How do I fix a broken spoke? Will I ever be able to ride again? Why do wizards hate bicycles so much?

Suddenly, you hear a voice, “A broken spoke is no work at all / We can help you after that wretched fall.” You turn and are face to face with a magical being that looks like a human that has been rolling around in grease and dirt. Sporting a wide smile, they say, “Hand out flat, eyes closed tight / Remember to tighten from left to right.” You close your eyes and open your hand and suddenly you feel an object in your palm. You open your eyes. It’s an enchanted spoke! A spoke that when touched imbues the knowledge of spoke replacement to the possessor! “Who are you,” you ask. “A humble helper, when wheels stop / Just a friendly face from your bike co-op.”

Neighborhood Bike Works in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Salamon)

Neighborhood Bike Works in West Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Shelly Salamon

Ok, you can open your eyes now and start reading for yourself (be polite and thank the person next to you). At this point, you should have a pretty firm understanding of what bicycle co-ops are and what they do. But just in case you don’t, a bicycle co-op is typically a community focused, not-for-profit, volunteer assisted bicycle shop that runs under the belief that teaching someone how to repair their own bike is far more important than the money that could be made from doing the work for them.

This teaching focus is why co-ops are so amazing for touring cyclists. Anyone that sets out on tour needs to know how to repair their own bicycle. There are going to be times that the nearest shop is hundreds of miles away, and if your bike breaks down, you either have to fix it or hope you can hitch a ride (with all of your gear). But you don’t work at a bike shop and YouTube videos can be tough to follow. How are you going to learn how to repair a broken derailleur cable?

For most people, myself included, the easiest way to learn how to do something is to learn hands-on. This is why co-ops are invaluable resources. A bicycle co-op is a fully stocked bike shop (stands, tools, etc.) with people (many times volunteers) there to guide you through bicycle repair. When you walk into a co-op with your broken down bicycle, they will not fix it for you. Instead, they will start by introducing themselves and getting to know you and your bicycle problem(s). Then you will be taken to a work stand (when one is available) where you will learn how to clamp your bicycle into place. After that, the two of you will look at what is exactly wrong with your bike, diagnose the issue, decide on the best course of action, introduce you to the tools and parts required to make the repair, and then guide you through the repair process. This way when you leave, you’ll not only have a bicycle that you repaired with your own two hands, you’ll have the knowledge of how to make the same repair later, should you ever run into the problem again.

Bicycle co-ops are also very helpful for repair veterans that don’t need assistance (or are too proud to admit it). Not only do they have workstands and tools that you may not normally have access to, they also have stockpiles of previously used parts as well as new, maintenance based parts (cables, housing, etc.) all for sale at reasonable prices. Did you need new pedals for cheap? They have some. What about new handlebars? They have those too. You name it, and they probably have a previously used version of it.

Help like this can be found at all bicycle co-ops and collectives.(Photo courtesy of Shelly Salamon)

Help like this can be found at all bicycle co-ops and collectives. Photo courtesy of Shelly Salamon

On top of all of that, bicycle co-ops have one thing that is not guaranteed at a bike shop: friendly assistance. At a regular bike shop, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be made to feel stupid for the questions you ask. It’s why I refuse to ask for help at Home Depot, and why many people can be scared away from getting that rusty old Schwinn out of the basement. Bicycle co-ops are focused on being patron-friendly. No question is ever stupid, and no person is unimportant. Additionally, co-op workers typically have a high enough self-esteem that they don’t need to condescend your knowledge level in order to make themselves feel better. They just want you help you to be a better, more confident mechanic.

Finally, bicycle co-ops (remember, they can also be called ‘collectives’) are everywhere! Most major cities have a bicycle co-op. So if you’re in the middle of a big tour, and your bicycle is acting a little funny, stop into one and give your bike a once over. Even if you don’t need to work on your bike, stop in to meet some friendly face folks with similar interests. In fact, start by going to your local co-op and introducing yourself. The co-op in Philly is Neighborhood Bike Works.

So in summary, bicycle co-ops are great places to go to learn bicycle repair before you set off on tour, to work on your bike even when you know what you’re doing, to get low cost, used parts, and to meet nice people with similar interests. And very importantly, when you leave, please do what all good bicycle co-op patrons do and donate what you can (on top of the cost of parts), as donations help keep the co-op open. If you can donate, but don’t, I hope a wizard curses your spokes.