Breaking Old Chains

Last Saturday the 6th day of April was the first warm day of spring – a mix of sun and cloud and 14°C.  When I arrived just before 3pm, the shop was busy with all the stands occupied. First things first though, I poured in some water and put the kettle on. Sam and John were busy helping out people at the stands. Brad had just arrived to take over from John. Kathleen was up at the front desk, answering questions about parts and accessories, and cashing people out with their purchases and donations. It had been busy – the racks at the front of the shop had empty spaces and Kathleen said three bikes had been sold since noon.

The coffee was brewed so I poured myself a cup and went up to the front of the shop. Just then someone came in with a bike. Her name was Nora and she’d never been to bikeSauce before. I pointed out the signs hanging down from the roof. “That’s the lowdown.” I explained that bikeSauce is a DIY bike shop, 100% volunteer run and we would do what can to help her, but that she was the mechanic. She was fine with that.

A couple of stands had just come free so we got her bike up onto one of them. She was from out west – west Toronto that is (Yonge Street being the marker of what marks east & west) and had somehow heard of bikeSauce after looking up Bike Pirates, a west end bike collective similar but not identical in scope to bikeSauce. Nora didn’t have a specific issue she needed to address, but wanted to get her bike back in shape after the winter. 

I suggested that she check the wear on her chain. Often I find that people don’t realise the significance of taking care of their bicycle chain, of keeping it clean and lubed and what it means for the good functioning of their bike and the enjoyment of their ride. Replacing the chain when it reaches 75% wear extends the life of the cassette and the chain rings (crankset) of your bike – which is good because those are more expensive to replace than the chain.

I handed her the chain wear tool from the tool board, and the reading she got from the tool was 100% wear – time for an immediate replacement. Nora had a 7 speed system and her new chain – in stock – came in at just under $14. I handed her the chain breaker tool and showed her how to use it. “Keep the old chain so you can measure out the length your new one should be alongside it”, I said.

There was a new visitor to the shop so I went to say hello and see how she was doing. Evelyn had been to bikeSauce and wanted to get some feedback on her brakes and do some general maintenance. We got her bike on the stand, a green 9 speed Norco hybrid bike with disc brakes. Both Sam and Brad came over when they had a chance and checked out her brakes. Avoid touching the rotors, Brad suggested. Apparently the oil from our skin, if transferred to the rotors, can contaminate the brake pads. Otherwise, her braking system got the green light. 

With that established, I handed Evelyn the chain wear tool and she mentioned that her bike had been serviced in bike shop in the last couple of years. She dropped the tool into her chain and the reading was an immediate replacement too. In a typical bike shop, she could hand her bike to the shop staff, who would check the wear for her, install the replacement and charge for the parts and service. But here at bikeSauce Nora and Evelyn were the mechanics of their own bikes, and we the volunteers, are more like facilitators and guides, giving suggestions for where the visitors to the shop can find tools and parts, or how to go about dealing with an issue on their bike, to other suggestions beyond what we do at bikeSauce ourselves.

This different way of being can feel a little bit strange at first, especially in a society where we are so used to being served and paying for it and not being encouraged to question things beyond just the surface. The only real considerations we might have are whether the service provider is competent, and that they are not ripping us off.

But at bikeSauce there is a certain bravery involved – since you the patron are the one who decides what you are going to donate – if anything – while the volunteers are coming in and giving of their time and life to help you. Why would they do that? Perhaps when we really come face to face with each other, there is the subversive implication that a different world is possible, and each person responds to that uniquely.

It was past four thirty and the shop was still busy, with Brad and Sam continuing to make the rounds. Somebody was trying to pry loose a tight bolt. A courier who had come in with a kickstand issue was looking for degreaser and some rags. A lady had come in with a bike without a front brake, ripped cable housing and frayed cable. A couple of people were in looking to buy a bike. There were other people in doing repairs and I never got to find out what their bicycle issues were.

At some point during the rush Arnault had come in to help. Now it was approaching five and the shop was quieter and more relaxed and he was sitting on a stool by the door. Sam had gone and I was about to follow. I fetched my Raleigh and the sunlight was flooding the inside of the shop. I stood there and faced it.  It felt good to be able to take in the April sunlight with that angle. Though Nora had gone, Evelyn was still cleaning off her drivetrain. I knew she’d be in good hands with Brad and Arnault. She said bye as I made my way to the door. I never got to tell her that she should wipe that new chain with degreaser to get the shipping grease off it, or to keep her new chain clean and lube it regularly. Maybe there’s only so much you can say in a given period of time else it might be overwhelming. 

bikeSauce to me seems more like a process than an event. That becomes apparent when you come back again and again. I think it’s worth it. I hope that by starting up this blog again you’ll feel inspired to come visit and experience it like a process too. There’s something special about growing in community and the great thing is we do that every time we invite each other and maybe even more when we accept.

Mandeep.