By Greg Basky
For the staff and volunteers at Saskatoon’s Bridge City Bicycle Coop, working side by side with people helping them build a bike of their own and teaching riders how to keep their steeds in good running order is what they do. So the arrival of COVID-19 in mid-March threw a major wrench into their operations just as they were moving into their busiest time of year.
Most springs and summers, the BCBC weekly schedule is jam packed: Monday night, women and queers; Tuesday, general open shop; Wednesday, youth build-a-bike workshops; Saturdays, open workshop. But when COVID hit, the Coop was forced to shut down completely. “Nobody was in the building, bikes weren’t being repaired or restored,” says BCBC co-chair Bill Henley.
As a result, their spring rush never happened in April and May. And demand for their other workshops and programs was down through the summer, compared to previous years. Henley chalks that up to them having to be shut down in the spring, when things are usually “bananas.” “We missed all that. We didn’t have our first open workshop or workshop day until the end of June.”
BCBC rents space in a building owned by the Core Neighborhood Youth Coop, and stockpiles their bikes in the attic and two steel shipping containers. At any one time, their location on 20th Street West can have as many as 200 bikes in various states, ranging from ready to roll, to those needing some serious mechanical TLC. Cream of the crop bikes are set aside for sale.
After paying a $20 annual fee or volunteering for two hours, Coop members can come in, pick a used bike from the BCBC inventory, then get help from staff and other volunteers bringing their new wheels into safe working order.
The bikes that BCBC makes available come from two sources. They’re either dropped off by people who are clearing out their garage, shed, or basement. Or they’re recovered from the city landfill. In 2015, the Coop signed an agreement with the City of Saskatoon that sees any bikes brought to the landfill set aside in a shipping container. On weekends BCBC volunteers sort through those bikes and harvest all viable parts — tires, shifters, brakes, seats — or bring the entire bike back to the shop.
Some bright spots despite pandemic
One bright spot for BCBC this summer was their successful pivot from in-person bike sales to an online bike shop. People can now visit their Square site to browse and purchase bikes. The site is divided into adult and kids models, complete with a sizing chart to help people pick the appropriate sized bicycle. Shoppers select a bike, pay online, then BCBC schedules a touchless pickup at their facility on 20th St. Graeme Donaldson, BCBC’s other co-chair says that, since launching their online store in May, the Coop has already sold nearly as many bikes as they typically would in two or three in-person sales sprinkled throughout the year.
Donaldson is concerned though that they are falling short when it comes to delivering on the how-to, skill-building aspect of their mission. A lot of the grant funding they receive is specifically earmarked for their youth build-a-bike program, which they weren’t able to offer this year. BCBC receives another grant for giving bicycles away to kids. While the team wasn’t able to go into schools this spring to do that, Donaldson says they were fortunate to have a number community-based groups reach out to them for the first time. “So that’s been a channel for us getting bikes out to people.”
Making bikes accessible to all
Located in one of the city’s core neighbourhoods, the Coop provides a valuable service by making bicycles accessible to people who might not be able to afford a new bike. For many members, the bicycle they purchase then maintain with the help of BCBC staff may be their only form of transportation.
Newcomers to Canada are another group who benefit from the work of the BCBC team. Henley recalls a recent Saturday, when a family of immigrants with three kids stopped by the shop. “Within two hours, all three kids were riding bicycles out of there,” says Henley.