You don’t have to do it alone
Adam Ianni, head mechanic at the GOBike Buffalo Community Workshop reflects on when he first landed in Buffalo back in 2009, “This is just my impression, but I was pretty sure I knew everyone on a bike in Buffalo. I’d ride downtown and I’d see someone and say – Hey how’s it going? – We’d ring our bells. Now I really don’t know everyone anymore.”
The price of being effective at what you do.
Adam came to Buffalo in 2009 from a cross country adventure. It was just after the economic crash of 2008 and gas prices had skyrocketed. GOBike Buffalo’s previous years of hard work creating an advocacy to lay down complete streets initiatives was beginning to really take hold.
“It used to be that the bike punks were the bike community.” Adam recalls, “They ran Critical Mass, it was a very tight knit kind of family. Now it’s a more diverse swathe of the general population cycling around Buffalo.”
Part of the growth of this bike community is due to Slow Roll but much of it dates back to the first days of “Buffalo Blue Bike,” and the accompanying “Recycle a bike programs” that Justin Booth, the Executive Director of GOBike Buffalo founded more than 15 years ago.
Adam had experienced community workshops like the Bike Kitchen in San Francisco, Plan B in New Orleans and BICAS in Tucson. For a guy who grew up in New Jersey, community workshops were branch offices of a larger bike community he called home. “I used those bike programs as a way to plug into the community,” he remembers. “That way, I wasn’t just the weird guy in town,” he had something to offer, volunteering to fix bikes.
Stacy Sauvageau, the shop manager at the 98 Colvin community workshop, also found her people through bikes, “ I love all my bike people!” Stacy got into bikes through GOBike, “I’m actually kind of terrible at riding bikes, very clumsy actually.” She got into it through a guy who was volunteering at the shop at the time. “He said – hey do you want to come and help me organize parts? Sure I love to like play with nuts and bolts! I walked in and it was just a bunch of you know 30-40ish year old men hanging out drinking beer talking about wives and kids it was very manly and man-centric so it was kinda weird. But I started volunteering and volunteered for quite a few years here.”
It’s always been a place where you can just drop in and become a part of something. There is something that emanates from community workshops. They attract people who like to tinker, people who want to give back to their communities, people looking for more community in their lives. There is something simple yet profound about the act of fixing a bike, sharing that knowledge and then watching a person’s confidence grow in ways they never imagined. It’s addictive. There is that pure feeling of accomplishment when you win a mechanical victory.
“I learned you could get paid to teach kids how to work on bikes,” Adam recalls, “I said, you gotta be kidding, that’s the dream!” To get the job he wrote a resume and put it on cardboard that he’d spray painted with chain rings. He wanted his love of bikes to be obvious, part of his credentials along with his mechanical skill.
He got the job. Now he is the head mechanic, runs recycle a bike remote clinics at schools and is a problem solver in chief. Stacy coordinates a lot of the programs with outside entities, looks for funding and manages the shop. Sometimes she’s the education director, sometimes she’s bike parking planner depending on who she’s emailing, her signature block changes accordingly, but Goddess of bike would cover it all.
The aim is to get more people in Buffalo riding bikes. They try to make the initiation to riding as pleasant as possible. For some people, decades have passed since they rode seriously. It’s the low-bar for entry bike shop in the city. Some shops are very high tech and have top of the line bikes which can be incredibly intimidating to someone with limited finances and experience. At the community workshop you can purchase a refurbished bike for less than $200 complete, or a variation of “fixer-upper” which could be as cheap as $20. You won’t be on your own though, for the price of a membership, you have access to the tools and the mentoring every aspiring new mechanic needs. There is a complete lack of attitude, or pretense in the shop.
The walls are a garish but cheerful green with sunshine yellow accents. The constant inflow and outflow of bikes and parts leads to inevitable piles of possibilities in corners necessitating a little agility when you’re leaning over to grab a wrench off a wall. The bikes are fiercely non-uniform, the place, indeed everyone within, is dripping with personality.
Adam puts his finger on why the shop has been so successful drawing people in and helping to build a bike community from the ground up, “I think what we do here for cyclists is kind of unique in that we’re not a typical shop. So when someone comes in here, my first thought is not trying to sell them something. I worked at a commercial shop and you have that pressure that when someone comes you want to sell them a bike. Your pay depends on it. Here I put people on bikes because I love to put people on bikes. But if you need something we don’t have, I’ll send you to Campus, I’ll send you to Ricks.”
When I first came into the shop to do the interview with Adam, he was helping a guy with his seatpost. The tendency of novice riders is to want their seatpost low. It makes them feel more secure. I’m always encouraging people to raise their seats because from my own personal experience, it leads to getting fatigued faster and having some very sore knees. Adam was really cool about it, “Hey man you could raise your seat a little more, but do what makes you feel comfortable.” He later told me, “We’re a starting point, I give them what they can handle until they are comfortable. We have access to something I think will make your life better, how much of that you want to accept is up to you.” In the meantime Adam and Stacy are there to guide people along in the process.
Stacy acknowledges that bikes and the people she met through bikes have done a lot for her, “Half of my friends are because of bikes and it’s been an awesome thing.” Just like when you’re building a bike in the shop and run into a problem, this community treats real life like helping someone with a unique mechanical problem. They talk about it, ask questions, they put a lot of serious thought into it and then they execute. Stacy fondly recalls, “They’ve been asking me what I need for my wedding, so they can start collecting for me.” One day when Stacy was really sick, all the regulars at the the shop implored Adam for progress reports, to make sure she was getting better.
It wasn’t always smooth and busy. Adam remembers, “I can only speak about when I started, we were just becoming a 501 c 3 and I remember getting our business number and doing all the paperwork. We were a lot smaller, there were four of us including Justin, Leslie, Stacy and me. Recycle a bike was going, but only a few classes, not nearly as many as we have now. We didn’t have the same reach, not a lot of people knew about us. The shop has always been here we always had the same capacity but were open a lot fewer hours. Even so, we still had a steady group of people coming in.
At one point grant funding ran out and everyone had a choice, stay and hang in there, or go and look for another job. Justin broke the news, “So we don’t have any money to pay you guys, but I’m working on it.” Adam and the gang just kept on working, volunteering to keep the shop going, “So we volunteered through it, stuck it out. It didn’t go on too long because I don’t remember starving.” Being something of a bike punk myself, I read through his nonchalance. You stick it out because you believe in what you’re doing. They were all working together to make it happen because getting cheap working bikes into the hands of more Buffalonians, is good idea on so many levels. Quitting wasn’t an option.
When I first started riding in the 80’s, the street was a really scary place because motorists seemed to genuinely believe that cyclists belonged on the sidewalk. Through my messenger years in the nineties I had my life threatened countless times for the crime of riding my bike. Usually I wasn’t even doing anything illegal, just moseying along the side of the road near the curb. I’ve been beaten up, ripped off my bike because someone was certain that even though they cut me off and almost killed me with their bad driving, I was not allowed to scream out in shock or warning.
I’ve been riding for 41 years and I can say that cycling has gotten a helluva a lot better. I am pretty sure a lot of that improvement has to do with the fact that more people are cycling. Numbers matter. The Navy is 17% female, the Marines is 7.6% female. Yet the Marines have 20% more sexual assault than the Navy and it is a far smaller service. Having lived in that reality, more women means more sympathetic eyes and ears. It means more people see when you’re doing something wrong. The same goes for cycling.
It also matters, when things are less than ideal, that you have company, and support. “Justin is really adamant about paying people he’s good about it. I trusted him when that happened, that it was beyond his control, and like he said he would, he took care of it as soon as he could.” Trust at the GOBike Community Workshop is baked into the formula. So many times in Buffalo, people expect you to work your rear off volunteering. The only payment you receive is the satisfaction of doing something good for the world. Volunteering is great, but to make a shop really work, you have to pay people. The East Side Bike Club, with our brand-new shop, can’t pay anyone, as a consequence we can only be open a few hours per week, people have to work, pay bills. Volunteering is nice, but it doesn’t pay the rent.
Last year, GOBike’s Community Workshop sold about 280 bikes. 130 were refurbished and 150 were unfinished and people worked on them themselves. There might be a couple thousand people who come to the shop. Their recycle a bike programs is in 15 schools across Buffalo, compared with Recycle a Bike Programs in 17 cities across New York City. This is a huge number when you compare it with NYC recycle a bike statistics. NY, a city with a population of 8.54 million works with 1000 kids in recycle a bike and earn a bike program. GOBike, in a city with a population of 235,000 practically achieves parity.
Saturating Buffalo with bikes and creating the biking critical political mass has been a steady climb from averaging 100 customers visiting the shop per year. In winters, generally, it was usually just Adam and Stacy. Now there is a cast of characters throughout the whole winter. Membership has been steadily climbing. This growth has changed the nature of Buffalo’s biking public. Where it used to be just bike punks, guys down on their luck, or lycra-clad racing types, now anyone you can imagine, can be seen riding their bike around town. It’s a sign of a bike community maturing quickly, catching up to the big boys of bike community like Portland, San Francisco, DC and even NY. People are imagining different ways to convey themselves, their stuff, their kids and their pets around town. The bike is becoming more and more of a variable in that equation.
GOBike, the Recycle a Bike programs with Stacy and Adam at the helm, is still working hard to put even more people on bikes in Buffalo, for longer in the year.
Adam, recently returned from safe riding training sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists, admits he has a hard time convincing people to take up cycling. “We were all talking about the vehicular riding course at the GObike staff meeting and we realized there wasn’t anyone who hadn’t been hit by a car.” He says this and he’s now a certified instructor on how to ride to the letter of the law. “It’s hard to tell people to not be afraid when I feel they have just cause.” To his mind, the biggest hurdle in cycling in Buffalo is fear.
Every few years they draw up a plan about the future of the GOBike Community Workshop. Both Stacy and Adam wish there were branches all through the city, in neighborhoods that need them. Loosely affiliated with GOBike, our East Side shop really has no business calling ourselves a shop. As we grow and improve our service, maybe get some grants of our own, perhaps we’ll emulate our older sibling on 98 Colvin.
As economics for the 99% worsen, riding bikes will naturally become a more and more palatable option. For a lot of people who do not see themselves as bike commuters now, it only takes a jarring macroeconomic event to change that attitude overnight.
When I was in the Marine Corps, missing my bike messenger days, I started commuting to work on the base by bike. All my super macho, solidly middle-class SUV driving compatriots would laugh at me when I rolled up. I was often told how stupid I looked on a bike, since after all I was supposed to be a tough bad-guy killing Marine, bikes were not considered very tough.
Then gas went up to $5 a gallon, and that same year our economy blew up because of mortgage backed securities.
The week after gas hit $5 a gallon I had about 20 people begging to me to share the secrets of bike commuting.
When it happens again, and it will, Stacy and Adam and the friendly crew at GOBike Community Workshop will be ready for you. You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to do it alone.