I Tried to Fix My Bike at a Bicycle Collective

©. Ilana E. Strauss

This shop teaches people to fix and even build their own bikes.

My bike was in storage for years. I've been all about buses and trains, which is to say, I've been lazy and scared of cars. But I recently discovered a tree-lined bike path that stretched for miles, so I took my old bicycle out and attempted to ride from one city to another.

I only made it halfway and took a bus the rest (thank god for bus bike racks). But I felt amazing for days, thanks to all the serotonin and dopamine flowing through my veins. Delicious, delicious chemicals.

I hate going to the gym — it makes me feel like a slave in the Matrix. But cycling with a purpose was more fun than running on a treadmill like a hamster trapped in a cage of its own design. It was settled: I'd become one of those bike people I hear so much about.

"Get a tune-up," my Dad told me when I regaled him with my plan. "You haven't ridden that thing in years."

I called some bike shops in the area and was horrified to discover a typical tune-up costs $120. I once bought a bike for less than that.

So I searched for an atypical tune-up. I'd heard about "The Recyclery," an educational bike shop and cooperative in Chicago. There, volunteers teach people to fix their own bikes or even build new bikes from scratch.

"My bike needs a tune-up," I told a Recyclery volunteer over the phone. "Can I, like, come in, and someone will teach me to do that? Is that a thing? I mean, is that possible?"

The volunteer chuckled. "That's what we do here," he told me.

I doubted I'd learn to tune up my bike in the hour or two I was realistically willing to commit, but it seemed worth a try. Worst case scenario, I'd at least get some air in my tires.

I wheeled my bike into what looked like a regular bike shop full of bike repair stands.

"I don't know anything," I told a volunteer.

me with my bicycle at a make your own bike shop

© Ilana Strauss

"That's great!" he responded, sounding genuinely excited.

Over the next two hours, he worked with me one-on-one. He explained each step, demonstrated and made me do it. I tested my brakes, gears, chain and wheels, cleaned and oiled my chain and scrubbed the metal on my wheels. One of my gears was broken, so he taught me to adjust it. That is to say, I tuned up my bike. I even attached a fender.

I'd always thought bikes were unimaginably complicated devices, but as the volunteer told me, they're actually quite simple. They're made of a frame, wheels, a couple wires for brakes and a chain for gears. I still don't completely understand how bicycles work, but they're no longer so mysterious to me.

me with my bicycle at a make your own bike shop

© Ilana Strauss

At the end, the volunteer directed me to the cash register. For the first time, I remembered I'd still have to pay for this, and I mentally steeled myself.

"Let's see. All you bought was the fender, and that was $5," he told me. "You can give a donation if you want. But only if you want to."


I gave him $15. I should have made a bigger donation I thought as I rode into the night on my freshly tuned bicycle.