Cycle of life: community bike sheds
How pre-loved bicycles and a little know-how can help turn lives around.
It’s a cool spring afternoon in Brunswick East and Kim Mitchell is tinkering around with a step-through commuter bike. Her mum is in town and the bicycle they’ve borrowed needs the seat adjusted. But neither Kim nor her bike-lending friend had the right tool. So they’ve dropped in here at the CERES Bikeshed, a community resource centre that helps people assemble, fix and maintain their bicycles.
“When I first moved to Melbourne three years ago I started commuting to work every day,” recalls Kim, who works for the Red Cross. “I have an older bike and I wanted to learn how to service it myself – doing things like adjusting gears, replacing brake pads.”
Lacking the tools or know-how, she began showing up on weekends at the Bikeshed, where people volunteer in the spirit of learning by doing. “I started learning how to do all those things and, I guess in the process, learnt that I’m quite happy for someone else to do the bigger jobs! But it was a great experience to just understand what tools are required, what would constitute a complex job, what was simple, what was something that I was able to manage.”
The CERES Bikeshed is one of the oldest bike resource centres in Victoria, but it’s by no means the only one. As cycling grows in popularity, bike repair centres are mushrooming. Social media is also helping communities create skill-sharing networks, and recycling-minded people are converting unwanted pushies into transport for the needy.
Spare wheels at Back2Bikes.
Building networks in the Back2Bikes tea room.
Surrounded by public-housing high-rises in Collingwood, Second Chance Cycles has been giving people who have been in trouble with the law a fresh start in the business of bike repair since 2009. This community program is part of the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO), which is supported by the RACV Community Foundation, City of Yarra, Bendigo Bank, Equity Trustees and local bike shops.
There’s nothing more exciting than to see young kids who can’t afford their own bike riding off on one.
Second Chance Cycles gave away more than 800 bikes last financial year, and manager David Jablonka says those who take part in the program benefit in several ways. They give back to the community (restorative justice), learn work skills, and socialise with the public. Then of course there’s all that great recycling – many donated bikes are from council hard-rubbish collections.
“Participants fix the bikes, they’re proud of the bikes and then they see where the bikes go,” says David. “You get a family with four or five kids come down and they all pick out bikes – there’s nothing more exciting than to see a group of young kids who can’t afford to own their own bike riding off on one. There’s that joy in giving.”
On the other side of the city, in Port Melbourne, software developer Mike King, 60, had recycling front of mind when he founded Back2Bikes in 2012. “I had an idea that I wanted to rescue bikes from people’s sheds that were being neglected and bring them back to life,” he says. The not-for-profit has grown to an organisation with 250 volunteers, with professional-looking facilities open six days a week. “The social networks that we build between the volunteers is just phenomenal,” says Mike.
But bike networks take many guises. There’s Good Cycles, a social enterprise started in 2013 that offers bike-based vocational training for young people, among other things. There’s Bicycles For Humanity, a charity that ships donated bikes to Africa and turns the shipping container they arrive in into a micro-business to empower locals. Bikes 4 Life does similar work, sending donated adult bikes to remote regions of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Uganda and Cambodia. And Mottainai Cycles in Collingwood reclaims and restores old, used and vintage bikes for customers who want to take a detour from mass consumerism.
It’s that type of thing where you gain a bit of knowledge and therefore you empower yourself.
Meanwhile, every June in Melbourne, up to 2000 people wearing all sorts of costumes take part in the Melburn Roobaix, a non-competitive ride down inner-suburban back streets and laneways. Organiser Andy White describes it to his young daughter as “the bike party”. “It’s not a race… It really is just a celebration of people connecting with other people who are just into the same kind of simple fun.”
Based in a small, cream-brick community house in Northcote’s Batman Park, Gayle Ilievski is co-founder of WeCycle. Here two dozen volunteers repair and restore donated bikes to give to refugees, asylum seekers and others. “We get some gems sometimes – old-school bicycles, some beautiful Italian racers,” says Gayle, adding that they have gone from supplying 50 bikes in their first year (2016) to about 100 in 2018.
The bike bug has bitten in regional Victoria, too. Castlemaine’s population is only about 7000 but bike education and maintenance classes are booming.
Secretary of the Castlemaine Rocky Riders Mountain Bike Club, Carrie Edney, says the organisation recently ran four free bike workshops, with numbers averaging around 25 for each. In the summer months the 80-member club hosts social “Dirt Crits”, where riders of all ages and abilities can race an outdoor dirt course. “Riders learn how to pass, how to talk to other people around them, and a bit of sportsmanship,” Carrie says. “It’s very much about grassroots.”
Elena Hartley at Back2Bikes.
Madeleine Hayward at Back2Bikes.
Brian Fullwood at Back2Bikes.
Meanwhile, Castlemaine’s big brother Bendigo has two-wheel enthusiasts of its own. Bike Bendigo started in 2014 to get more everyday people on bikes. “What we want to do is help build community capacity and culture and, at the same time, get more people out on their bikes,” says Bike Bendigo treasurer, Robert Kretschmer. Bike rides, festivals and fixing up donated bikes are all part of the fun.
Back at CERES Bikeshed, Kim Mitchell has made the necessary adjustments and the borrowed bike fits her mum perfectly. Kim is not a regular any more down here but she won’t forget the experience. “I guess it’s that type of thing where you gain a bit of knowledge and therefore you empower yourself,” she says.
Recycle that cycle
If you’ve got a neglected kid’s bike or adult pushie lying around the back yard, it’s time to do something good with it. Here are five places that will gladly accept your donations (check with them first to be sure your bike is suitable).
Second Chance Cycles
44 Harmsworth Street, Collingwood (Thursday and Friday, 11am to 3.30pm)
Bicycles For Humanity
Batman Park, Northcote (Saturday, 10am to 3pm)
Bikes 4 Life
26 Gwynne Street, Cremorne (Sunday and Wednesday, noon to 5pm)