On a Saturday afternoon in March, I rush along overcast streets to find an old brick building on Queen Street West for an interview from someone who keeps the heart of the Community Bicycle Network (CBN) pumping. Entering the CBN bike shop, the first person I meet is an earnest but pleasant man in his early forties, standing behind the counter. I introduce myself and he puts out his hand warmly.
“Yes, I’m the one you have been emailing. I’m John,” he says simply.
John Hanje exudes kindness and patience. I feel very welcome on his territory, despite his being a mechanic whose history is tightly interwoven with the reserved courier community.
This is their first day being open after the winter, so business is light. The room buzzes with anticipation. The expansive room with its cathedral ceiling has a venerable feel to it; hundreds of bikes, wheels and parts hang from racks along the walls and from the ceiling in organized disarray. Tools are carefully arranged within easy reach of the repair stands. I wonder in passing if this wouldn’t be like a Jet Fuel Coffee Shop for Miss Jackson, a roomful of companionable bikes and people who only want to enable cyclists in their search of a safe and affordable cycling experience.
The Community Bicycle Network was established in 1993 and is actively involved with a range of community-based bicycle initiatives in Toronto. Their core mission is to make sustainable, community-friendly transportation accessible to anyone in the city of Toronto.
It began as the typical volunteer-run program, where you could buy or rent a recycled bike, or you could rent the equipment to fix your own, on a pay-what-you-can basis. CBN offered a program called BikeShare, which was partly started as an opportunity for revenue. The CBN proudly stands as the first unionized bike shop in Toronto. Because bike mechanics are considered the working poor, the stability a union offers is important.
John is the head mechanic here. In addition to repairing bikes, John assists with the Bike Mechanics classes, offered each week all season. CBN also offers the Wenches With Wrenches classes, an all-women program meant to take the intimidation out of repairing a bike.
Once seated, John and I get talking about bike shop ethics and immediately I sense frustration. Last winter, he was asked to service the same faulty bike twice. The first time it came in, he told the owner that they’d just been sold an unsafe bike because the frame had been compromised. He couldn’t repair it properly, so it should be returned and they should get their money back from wherever they’d gotten it. Two weeks later, the same bike showed up again, but with a different owner: an unscrupulous shop was selling compromised bike frames without consideration for safety.
Apparently, you don’t even have to have ever ridden a bicycle to sell and repair bikes in a shop. And John is horrified that there are unqualified mechanics working on equipment that shares the road with cars and trucks. John always serviced the fleet of bikes in BikeShare himself, to prevent problems.
BikeShare, a bike lending program in Toronto from 2001 – 2006, provided a sustainable, community-based transportation alternative. For $25, you could borrow a bike between April and November. Most of the bikes were recycled. Each bike was numbered (and named!) and plugged into a database.
In 2006, someone took a dislike to the BikeShare program and began vandalizing the bikes. There were sixty-two tire punctures, all done with a sharp, pointed object. John’s first comment is an upbeat one: the program must have been doing something right to get such a strong reaction. His second is not so happy: because there was so much work to be done, John couldn’t keep up. The board of directors pressured him to let volunteers service the bikes.
“Would you have a volunteer fix your car?” he responded.
While BikeShare was Canada’s largest and longest-running project of this kind and won several prestigious awards both here and internationally, it was shut down due to lack of funding. John laughs that he still gets calls about it from all over the world, five years after the program’s demise.
In North America, bikes are viewed as toys. The average person feels that bikes don’t require much skill to repair, yet regular commuters know it takes time and patience to learn bike maintenance.
For most of the year, my bike is my vehicle. I keep the moving parts relatively clean and know when and where to oil it. The wheels are pumped frequently, since she gets so much use. And she and my mechanic have a hot date at least twice a year. I actually value my bike mechanic more than my car mechanic, more than my dentist, and even more than my doctor. I use my bike daily, and unlike my personal maintenance—which so far I’m pretty good at handling—I don’t have enough faith (yet) in my ability to service my own bike.
John sees himself as a trained professional.
“I follow the motto ‘Don’t kill the customer,’” he explains, which at first seems overstated to me. And then he explains rear-wheel coaster bikes, like those on the BikeShare fleet. You brake using the rear wheel, but if that’s installed incorrectly, there are no brakes. You can’t know that until you try to stop. I blanch.
“Yes, I think I’d prefer having you service the vandalized bikes,” I tell him.
Apart from these frustrations, lots of endearing things happen at CBN. For example, one day an eight-two-year-old woman shuffled into the shop, looking for a single-speed coaster bike with baskets. She had just lost her license because her eyesight was going and she needed a way to get her groceries. John calls back to Jerusha, the other long-time mechanic in the shop today.
“What was her name again?” John asks.
“Dolores,” Jerusha hollers back.
Dolores walked through the shop with her daughter, pondering the bikes for sale; everything the daughter had recommended struck the mother as “too complicated.” When she found what she wanted, John and Jerusha realized it represented the classic World War II bicycle, which is what she would have last ridden, as a child. Jerusha joins us now, laughing but shaking her head.
Dolores bought the bike. They lifted her new wheels out the back door, where Dolores had wobbled down the lane slowly and unsteadily toward home.
“She got better as she went along,” Jerusha admits, admiring Dolores’ determination to remain independent despite her failing eyesight.
“I have to be able to get my groceries!” she had snapped at her daughter, as they left.
I fantasize momentarily about tracking down Dolores, and then realize how unlikely it would be that I’d ever find her. Nevertheless, Dolores is my new favourite cyclist, while John and Jerusha are right up there with my own bike mechanic.