Born to Ride
When I moved to San Francisco five years ago, one of the first places I visited was The Bike Kitchen. I’d heard of this DIY co-op paradise back in Seattle when I had my ear to the ground in the punk art networks. The Bike Kitchen turned out to be everything I imagined it would be – a small, dark workspace housed on a dirty alley in SOMA filled with dozens of bins of derailleurs, brakes, pedal clips, random screws for random parts, and a crew of young folks wrenching on bikes.
Like most of us, The Bike Kitchen has grown up. They’re in a new, shiny location on Florida Street in the Mission, have a functioning website, and a full schedule of classes – free and otherwise. But unlike most of us, they didn’t lose their co-op values along the way.
Trying to pin down the person in charge at The Bike Kitchen is almost as hard as finding two matching brakes in the overflowing bins of metal. I send an email introducing myself, saying I’d love to talk with someone at the helm of the organization. Wrong words.
Five days later, an email comes back informing me that, “No one is at the helm so our egalitarian model doesn't become a case of too many chefs spoiling the broth.” Shoot – the old co-op-savvy me should have known that. “The only way to find out about us,” they wrote, “is to drop in.”
I pull into the shop at 6:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, just 15 minutes after the drop-in session begins, and the place is already packed. People are cranking on their bikes at every work stand inside, and the six overflow ones outside are taken as well. I put my name on the waitlist and join the other latecomers in line. I don’t really mind. It gives me a chance to ogle the vintage frames on the walls.
I also get to chat with John-Paul, who is overseeing the front desk. John-Paul sits on the board, volunteers his time and expertise once a week, and knows virtually everything there is to know about The Bike Kitchen. In between cutting cable and hunting down tubes for people, he fills me in on the organization.
The Bike Kitchen is a nonprofit co-op shop that teaches people of all ages and backgrounds how to repair their bikes. Their aim is to make biking affordable for everyone, and to empower people of all backgrounds to learn to work on their bikes. It costs just $5 a day to use the shop, or $40 for the year, and you can also volunteer your time in lieu of paying fees.
If you want to build up a full bike from scratch, you can pay a $30 “digging fee,” which gets you one of kind of every part. John-Paul warns me that building a bike from scratch isn’t as easy as you might think. All of the frames and parts in the shop are donated (you can just drop off a bike or parts and they will take them and sort them for you), and the most commonly donated bikes are old steel mountain bikes from the ’90s. “Every hipster today wants a sleek fixie,” he says. “We don’t really have enough of those parts to go around.”
My project today is to turn my old steel mountain bike into a bomber winter city bike. John-Paul seems excited. “Yeah, that’s what most of us who work here have. I love a good Frankenstein bike,” he says.
He points out the different areas where I might want to dig around for parts. There are fenders in the far left corner, maybe even matching ones; tubes for my new skinnier tires near the wheel truing stands, and if I’m really lucky, I might find a rigid fork on the wall to replace my busted shock. I’m starting to get excited!
I ask him what happens if I find a part I want – do I just take it? “You have to pay for it,” he says, in a forceful but still sweet tone. There are no price tags on items, so you take it up to the front desk and they assign a value. I start tossing out hypothetical purchases.
How much for tubes? Used tubes are free, or new ones are $5. Mountain bike tires? Those are free too. A fork? Depends, but maybe $5 or $10. Not too shabby.
“Oh, you’re up,” says John-Paul. I race over to the open stand, ready to start working on my Frankenbike. The workspace is immaculate with every tool I need: a full bottle of chain lube, and some clean rags ready to be dirtied. There’s only an hour of work time left, though, so I roll up my sleeves and dive in.
After such a productive first experience with The Bike Kitchen, I decide to go back for WTF (women, trans, and femme) night, which occurs every second and fourth Friday of the month. They hold these drop-ins for people who are often dismissed by the dude-heavy world of bike shops.
WTF night is so markedly mellow compared to the previous night, that when I arrive I actually press my face up to the glass door just to make sure it’s open. I walk quietly inside so as not to disrupt the Zen feel of the space.
“I’d like to work on my bike,” I whisper. No comment from Deb. “I have a year membership.” She seems suspicious. Deb walks over to the counter and looks my name up in the computer. “Wow, you are a member. I thought you were lying.” I can’t tell if she’s joking or not, but I guess a lot of people use the “I’m a member” line.
I hitch my ride to a stand next to a girl named Dawn, who is busy building up a sweet little steel frame she’d found on Craigslist. Like many people at The Bike Kitchen, she’s taken on the ambitious task of building a bike from scratch.
Watching Dawn wrench away on her bottom bracket with a woman mechanic beside her makes my heart swell. It reminds me of the women’s skill shares I took part in during the ’90s when I would hitch rides to Olympia to see Sleater-Kinney and stay to learn screenprinting. Who knew The Bike Kitchen would elicit so much nostalgia?
In the last week, I’ve been to The Bike Kitchen three times and made some decent headway. I have new tires, a rear fender, flat pedals, a new rear brake, and my whip is well tuned. I’m still looking for a front fender and the perfect fork to complete my Frankenstein masterpiece. I may not ever find them at the Bike Kitchen, but once I do, I know I can bring them over to my new Friday night home, where Deb and my new friends will help me out.
Want to learn to wrench on your bike? The Bike Kitchen is open Tuesday–Thursday 6–9 p.m., and the second and fourth Fridays for women and trans-identified folks. Pay $5 for a day fee or $40 for the annual membership. There are always mechanics available and plenty of knowledge and parts to make any project possible. The Bike Kitchen offers multi-week classes on everything from basic maintenance to wheel building. Want to build a complete bike from scratch? You can pay $30 for “digging rights” and get one of every part you need to get pedaling. If you’re already a mechanic, consider volunteering and lending a hand – that free membership will be worth your while.