Each morning, I ride down into a concrete loading bay, up the cargo ramp, past blue paper recycling bins and into the seldom-seen hallways in the depths of the old SUB. Dismounting, I peel off my gloves to hit the small numbers on the lock box on a door covered with STAFF DOOR ONLY signs. Fish the key out of the box, open the door, walk in, lean my bike up against a dusty black leather couch and then stand still for a moment, taking sweaty deep breaths in the darkness. I walk to a front door that’s covered in rusty hubs, cranks, chains and other forsaken bike parts, and open up the Bike Kitchen. It’s a place I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good chunk of the last seven years of my life, and by the end of this summer, it won’t look anything like it does today.
For the uninitiated, The Bike Kitchen is UBC’s full-service, not-for-profit bike shop. Essentially it’s the biggest project of the AMS Bike Co-op, a non-profit association and student club dedicated to bicycle education and advocacy, led by a board of directors composed of UBC students, managed by a handful of staff. The Bike Kitchen is the service center where the Bike Co-op’s programs are run, and have been for the last 13 years. Courses are taught, volunteers build bikes, and a campus fleet of bikes (the Purple and Yellows, or P&Y’s) for member use has been faithfully maintained. As a bike shop, the Kitchen offers repairs, sales, rentals, as well as tools to use and instruction for the public (for a fee).
These days, if you were to come to the Bike Kitchen, dear reader, you first walk down a flight of concrete stairs. After yanking open the metal-adorned front door, inside you are greeted with rows of bikes suspended from hooks and cables behind a red sign saying BIKES FOR SALE, and a large yellow poster board advertising programs, shop rates, and other goodies. You’ve never been here before, and there’s so much to look at everywhere, even before you turn to the left and see the actual work space. Bikes are propped up and clamped in stands. Color-coded tool sets line the walls. A mix of people are working, making messes, chatting, grabbing tools, focusing, torquing, cleaning and wiping.
If you were to wander further in, passed the crowded gridwall displays of new tools, accessories and disposable parts, the what-the-fuck vibe intensifies. You might spy a lifesize cut-out pasted-together image of David Bowie on the wall behind a row of bikes. Chalk on the far wall reminds you not to drink the water, (which can be seen leaking through the concrete on rainy days). You look around a corner and glimpse a bunch of yellow milk crates and red bins filled with all manner of used parts, crudely labeled, with hand-made cardboard signs everywhere. There’s a sink and wash station, with some soap warning you it contains nuts.
Turning back towards the door, you quickly glance at the glass display case, as that must be where some fancier stuff is kept (you’d be right, in a sense). Before snagging a free bike map on your way out, you get momentarily distracted by a mini-TV playing obviously dated videos of people mountain biking. All this, amidst the clamour of tools landing on benches, laughter, grunting, metal scraping and clanging against metal, all with some excellent music in background.
The sense of accumulated history is readily apparent, the shop space has changed a lot over the years and, believe it or not, the current incarnation of the Bike Kitchen is probably the most organized it’s ever been. The physical space itself used to be much more chaotic. Random projects, overstock, recycling, tools were stashed into any and all nooks and corners usually with only a passing attempt at organization. Now, all parts, donations, tools, and projects have their assigned places. Though the little treasures that hang around (like the gummy bear on the ceiling, the subject of an unsettled bet between former staff members), offer a capricious reminder of the space’s past, and add to the eccentric charm the Bike Kitchen has.
Things were not always as stable as they are today. For years the work of a few extremely passionate and dedicated individuals kept the Bike Kitchen and Co-op from collapsing. Emergency meetings were called and very heat-of-the-moment decisions were made about just to make sure programs like Purple and Yellow would keep going. Our membership hovered at around 50 for years. Now we have over 300. Entire events or initiatives used to hinge on board members scrounging up donations or putting in their own time (various group rides, PNY Bike Polo, etc.). Many unpaid hours were spent chasing grants, and trying to gain recognition and campus presence. The Kitchen in particular, has survived bankruptcy, endless bureaucracy, and management overhauls (the shop used to be collectively managed). Our first manager worked about $5000 worth of unpaid hours in a single year sorting out finances, making additions to the space, working on a business plan and networking to bring the Kitchen out of bankruptcy and into the black. All this from a concrete basement with no windows and no internal heating.
Both the Kitchen and the Co-op are now grown up enough to have multiple staff members who oversee and administer a myriad of programs, a separate office space, and somehow manage to mostly keep up with the demands of a massive and incredibly diverse campus community (still no internal heat though). Impressed? Yeah, I thought so.
Okay, shameless plugs and heavy exposition aside, you’re probably wondering, dear reader, why you should care? Well, as anyone who has ever stepped foot on campus knows, UBC is perpetually under construction. The big shiny new student union building was recently finished, and UBC has decided that the old SUB will be renovated and re-purposed instead of being torn down. Accordingly, the Bike Kitchen will be relocated from our hated/beloved concrete bunker, while the renos take place. At some point in the future, we will move into a new space in the old SUB.
It is truly the end of an era. We will never again be in a space that’s quite like the one we’re in now. Soon, we will pack up all the tools, donations, inventory, appliances, and other necessary swag and clear out of our bunker, leaving the chalk on the walls and the dripping ceiling for good. As always though, our mission is to educate, empower and advocate for folks to take charge of their own mobility using bikes.
This, dear reader, is why you should care that the Bike Kitchen is moving. During the incoming upheaval, we’ll need continuing support from everyone who has any connection to the Kitchen to see this move through to the other side. We’re not going away, just getting some minor (okay, fairly major) surgery done. Even if you’ve never heard of the Bike Kitchen before reading this, I encourage you to keep a look out for us. When we settle, I implore you to stop in. Fix your bike or get us to do it, or better yet, get us to teach you. Ask questions, come to a volunteer night, sign up for a mechanics course or a workshop. Who knows who you’ll meet or what you might learn.
And really, learning is what the ride is all about.
By Jordan Mackinnon