This feature appears in the spring issue of Lost in London
Let’s begin this story where it ended, back in a small north London flat. A woman in a helmet bejewelled with a million rain drops, and a high-vis vest made heavy with wet, stands soaked to the skin. Messy clouds of black mascara lace her cheeks and a comic drip clings precariously to the end of her indignant nose. Her hands burn with cold. For many reasons, including the weather, relying on a bike to get about is not always fun.
But rather than feelings of hopelessness, today she feels empowered. Today, she is the master of her own machine. She’s just returned from a place where she learned more about bicycles than she ever knew before. So you can throw a bucket of dirty water over her head and she will still believe that cycling, most of the time, is the best way to move about the city. What else can magic an hour’s complicated bus journey into a free twenty minute ride?
The soggy specimen with the gleaming helmet is obviously me, and it’s my beloved bronze Claude Butler bicycle that’s just been treated to the London Bike Kitchen once over.
The newly opened bike kitchen in Hoxton is the baby of Jenni Gwiazdowski, and it was inspired by a beautiful bike frame. The frame sat in Jenni’s bedroom, where she dreamed of building it up into a bicycle. She began hunting for a course that would teach her to do just that. Although friends offered to help, she really wanted to learn in a classroom style setting. But the class didn’t exist, and the idea for a bike kitchen in Hackney was born.
“Bike kitchens are found all over the world – they’re volunteer run spaces where people can fix their own bike,” says Jenni. “You pay a small fee to use the space and tools, and people are there to help you.
“I decided to take the model one step up and run this bike kitchen as a social enterprise, so we are a business with social aims. We don’t want to make a massive profit but we do want to make a living. I’ve been talking to bike mechanics and, while they love their work so much that they’ll do it for free, they’d also love to get paid.”
The London Bike Kitchen can be found in a row of shops close to the Regent’s Canal on a fairly quiet road that’s popular with cyclists. Don’t let the ‘Kitchen’ part of the name confuse you – it’s not another bike themed cafe but a proper workshop, with a cold concrete floor and tools on the walls.
The shop had been empty for years before Jenni got the lease. When she moved in, she found the ghost of the hardware store that lived there long ago; a peg board, a grinder and a vice. She reclaimed them for use in the new workshop. Originally it was a fishmongers and white enamel tiling gives the space an old school charm.
In the welcome company of a mechanic called Lish Ng, we hoist my bike into a stand beside a slim workbench laden with tools, oil, an apron and a grease cloth. £5 gets you access to the equipment and the mechanic for half an hour.
We do an ‘M’ check to see how healthy the bike is. Moving in an M shape across it, we check key things like the wheels, brakes, handlebars and gears. My bike is in pretty good condition but the front brake pads are hitting the tyre slightly so we do some readjustments using spanners and clamps. I also oil the chain and gear cables, my hands getting suitably blackened and greasy (there are gloves on offer but the sticky dirt feels like a badge of honour).
I love my bicycle but know nothing about how it works. Spending this kind of time with it is both fascinating and useful. What’s great about Lish is that, while she’s more than happy to take charge and help out, she makes an effort to encourage me to get involved and learn what to do. She’s supportive and knowledgeable, but keen not to take over. Certain jobs need two pairs of hands and we work as a team to get those brake pads sorted.
If you know what you’re doing, the London Bike Kitchen provides you with the space and tools to do it, with parts on sale should you need them. If you’re a novice, there’s lots of advice on offer too. Optional membership will be on offer – for £10 a year, members will get invites to special events and hopefully feel part of a cycling community.
Jenni is also working on a programme of classes and courses, and is keen to encourage all sorts of people into the workshop. A critical thinking and analysis/bike building class for young people is being planned, as well as a women and gender variant night. Jenni would like to work with Muslim women and refugees, hoping the workshop will become a place that feels open to everyone.
“A lot of bike shops you walk into have got their own scene going on, and you might not feel comfortable. I want to create an environment where anyone can come and feel that they’re not going to be judged. A lot of bike places are male-centred and when you ask a question you feel stupid. ‘Any bike, any rider’ is part of our slogan” says Jenni.
“I think the biggest barrier that stops people cycling is fear. If you can feel more confident on your bike, you feel able to position yourself further out in the road – I would rather that drivers be angry at me for doing that because it means they see me. It’s when they don’t see me that they can do me damage.”
Take to a bike, and London’s face changes and same-old journeys shift their shape. Your head space alters as you move alone through uneven fields of pitted and pocked grey, and you’re forced to interact with motorists in a very direct way. Unlike them, you’re not hermetically sealed in a bubble of conditioned air. You literally embrace your vehicle and feel the skin of the terrain its wheels traverse. Understanding how your bike works surely improves your cycling.
Jenni thinks so. “You become more confident riding when you become confident fixing. I remember it took me years to understand how gears work. I know a lot of people still don’t and I’d love to teach them because it’s fascinating. The person who invented the bicycle is a genius – it’s amazing how the system works. From that understanding I realise I’m not riding a crazy computer – it’s a machine and it’s simple, and from that I feel like I have more control.”