I finally got the chance to visit the Caltech Bike Lab last Saturday when I attended their free bike repair workshop. The Bike Lab is a small bike workspace tucked away on the Caltech campus, run mostly by students, and membership is open to anyone affiliated with Cal Tech or JPL. I’ve been aware of the Bike Lab for about a year, since I saw them sponsor an online petition in 2012 urging the City of Pasadena to make the streets around Caltech more bike friendly. Hey, anybody who’s pushing cities to make their streets more bike-friendly gets an “A+” in my book. When I recently saw they were hosting a free bike repair workshop open to the public, I jumped at the chance learn a little more about bike repair and meet this great group of people.
When I arrived on campus, I had a little trouble finding the lab. It’s not on any campus map, and several students were not aware of it, but I finally found a student who directed me to it. (Note to Caltech administrators: the Bike Lab is a great resource, and bikes are a “green” technology that can combat climate change and a whole host of other problems. Put the Bike Lab on your campus map—literally.) The Lab itself is located in a modest utility room, but the members (who help fund the shop’s operation with their dues) have access to an array of tools, bike stands, and space to work on their bikes. Students or faculty who pay the small membership dues can come in and use the shop at any time. Non-members may work on their bikes at the shop during certain hours when the shop is staffed by a volunteer (hours are listed on the Lab’s web page), but during such hours, understandably, priority is given to Caltech students and faculty.
At the workshop, I was among the seven or so “students” who got some hands-on experience working on their bikes. Three friendly Bike Lab members (Davin, Jeff, and John) led the workshop, which consisted of lessons on fixing flats, adjusting brakes, replacing brake cables, and chain maintenance. Workshop leaders patiently answered questions, and there was a feeling of collaboration that made it comfortable to ask questions. It made me feel like I was wrenching with friends in a welcoming atmosphere where no one judged you if your bike knowledge was rudimentary (or non-existent). While I have plenty of experience changing flats, as a result of the workshop, I now have more confidence to try adjusting my own brakes and derailleurs in the future. It also whetted my appetite to try bigger wrenching projects on my bikes.
Later that afternoon, the Lab hosted a more advanced workshop on wheel hubs, and I think I have enough knowledge to try an advanced workshop in the future. I hope the Lab will host more such public workshops in the future that focus on specific repair jobs. As important, perhaps, I had fun learning about bike repair and I’ve been introduced to this bike space with its vibrant group of students.
While the Bike Lab is a great place for the campus community to work on their bikes, it’s membership is understandably limited to members of the Caltech/JPL community. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed to learn that I could not join the Bike Lab. There are similar bike clubs and groups on other college campuses, such as CSUN’s Bike Collective or Cal Poly Pomona’s “Bike Shop,” but insofar as campus-based co-ops and clubs are primarily run for their respective institutions, the access to such venues is somewhat limited. I’d love to have a place close by where I could work on my bikes, hang out, and meet other bike-minded people.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that there really is a need for a community bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley in general, and the Pasadena area in particular. There are two excellent community bike co-ops I’m aware of in Los Angeles (Bicycle Kitchen and Bike Oven), and others in the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, but there are none that I am aware of in the Pasadena/west San Gabriel Valley area.
Community bike co-ops are usually located in a small commercial space, run primarily by volunteers, and are open to the public. They usually charge a small fee to use the space to work on one’s own bike under the supervision of the volunteer mechanics. These spaces become a resource for bicyclists and bicycle activists and often do outreach to underserved members of the local bicycling community. By teaching people to fix their own bikes and providing a safe space to do so, bike co-ops of all kinds enhance bicycling as an economical, self-sufficient mode of transportation. Equally as important, by creating a space for advocacy and activism, they help expand the movement for bicycle transportation.
The Caltech Bike Lab does a wonderful job of serving the Caltech/JPL community and I look forward to watching it grow and attending more of their workshops, but we need a thousand more flowers to bloom. More bike co-ops anyone?