Central Commerce Collegiate’s innovative and popular Bike Repair and Maintenance Course

Popular Mechanics: New high school program gives students hands-on bike repair experience

"Bikes that have actually gone out and lived a real life as bikes are more interesting ones." ~ Instructor Toby Bowers describing the massive but-lightly-mangled bike stash the class has to work with.

Story and photos by Sarah Greene

Can you imagine if your high school had had an entire hallway of classrooms devoted to bikes, bike repair and bike maintenance? How about if your school had so many bikes (over 2,000) that they had to put some on the deck of the unused swimming pool as well?

It may sound like a fantastic dream to regular readers of dandyhorse, but it’s a reality at Central Commerce Collegiate Institute, a west end high school on Shaw Street in downtown Toronto that, since last year, has been offering a course called Bike Repair and Maintenance as an elective tech course for Grade 11 and 12 students (although, some younger students take the class as well.)

This is the first program of its kind to be offered by the TDSB.

Toby Bowers, former coordinator/executive director of U of T’s Bikechain and one of the two current mechanic-instructors for the course, meets me in the basement hallway to show me around.

In the middle of the hallway there’s a classroom equipped with bike tools, chairs, tables and stands, and to the left there’s a room with the students’ bicycle projects and parts. Students call the piles of parts “the boneyard."

Students' bike projects (note the clever use of reusable MEC bags to hold small parts)

There is also another room full of all kinds of “troublesome” (that is, more challenging to fix) used bikes, some predating WWII and from far-flung locales, or manufactured by companies that don’t exist anymore, almost all are from the stash of bike thief and hoarder Igor Kenk (via the Cabbagetown Youth Centre).

Students get to pick the bikes they work on, and, as long as they pass the course and learn their safety training (including hand signals), they get to keep their bikes. Students like Jonathan Serrano Echegoyen and Eli Legere, who have completed one or more bikes, are working on bikes that will either be donated to CCCI’s nascent Bike Club (so students who don’t own bikes can go on group rides) or may, in the future, be sold by the school to raise money for parts and equipment for the program.

Instructor Eugene Chao and student Eli Legere, working on a 50s-era 3-speed internal hub.

The rear hub of Eli Legere's bike.

Jonathan Serrano Echegoyen: "I've already done a bike; if I finish this one, they can donate it."

Many of the students at CCCI are older or have transferred from other schools; and for some, the bike repair and maintenance course is the only one they attend. “It’s a fact that makes me both happy and sad,” says Eugene Chao, the other instructor for the course (Chao and Bowers, who first met each other at Bikechain, teach the course with TDSB auto mechanics teacher Ken Hamilton.)

Bowers says that the popularity of the course is in part due to the fact that it is hands-on: “You can give a visual demonstration of what is happening,” says Bowers, “And there are things that you can explain more easily using your hands.”

“We have a lot more latitude to allow students to express themselves as individuals and engage with what they’re learning about,” He adds, “And be able to approach us. We’re in a sort of weird in-between teach and not-teacher space – I don’t want them to call me Mr. Bowers, that’s weird.”

Youthful-looking Chao jokes, “I’ve heard that being called ‘Mr.’ followed by your last name repeatedly causes you to age many years overnight.”

Toby Bowers (right) assists Ugo Break with fixing spokes.

This is Shafi Sultan's first bike: he has done everything from finding parts to fixing a crooked frame.

I ask Bowers and Chao what they’ve learned from the bikes in CCCI’s basement and from their students.

“It’s a fun opportunity,” says Bowers, “because a lot of brand-new bikes, you can take them out of a box and put them together with a torque wrench, and all you need to know is how tight to make anything that is loose. You are assembling. Bikes that have actually gone out and lived a real life as bikes are more interesting ones.”

“Like Toby was saying before about 3-speed hubs...” says Chao, “This class provided me with my first time overhauling such an internally-geared machine. There's lots of old parts to learn about – but a part is a part, right? You take it apart and you order it and put it on a clean cloth. Most of the time, if you're careful, you get it back together, no problem.”

Chao says, “People are different though. Working with the students has probably been the biggest learning experience of my time here and it has been the most rewarding.”

For example, this semester they saw a large group of Chinese students enroll. “At the very beginning of the semester, before they got to know us and we got to know them, they were watching their Chinese soap operas and you'd ask them to do something and they'd look at you as if to say, ‘Is he really serious about that? Do I really have to do it? What will happen if I don't do it?’ – and then look back down at their iPad,” says Chao.

“But some of them have become some of our best students and I’ve had a chance to practice my own Chinese… I have actually passed on instructions to one student and later heard that student passing on those same instructions in Chinese to another student.”

Minhaz Uddin is in his fifth year and doesn't need the credit; he's taking it as an extra class and to make new friends.

This is Autumn Hughes' second time taking the course; she's showing off her cool fenders.

The day I visit, Autumn Hughes, who is taking the course for a second time and also took auto mechanics at Central Technical School, is the only female student present. So I ask Bowers and Chao if they have issues getting young women to participate in the course.

Turns out that though male students outnumber female ones, three of the top students in the second period class are female (and two, who share the name Tenzin, are earning marks in the very high 90s).

Eli Legere, an advanced student who has stayed with Bowers and Chao and I after class, says it’s a kind of self-perpetuating problem, “Because, I think a lot of girls might be scared that they will be the only girls there, and maybe because a lot of them think like that, none of them will go -- or very few.”

Bowers says they are working to make sure it isn't a hyper-masculine environment and talking to people about ideas of competency:“We can point out to other people in the school that our highest performing students are young women.” He adds, “There are a number of students who are over and under confident, and I think it’s the students who are over confident who are more prone to making errors and [breaking] stuff,” he says.

So what is the future of bicycle maintenance and repair classes in high schools across the city, the province... and beyond? Will the program at CCCI continue?

“The principal is very pleased with the program,” says Bowers, “as are the superintendent, our area trustee and the person who manages trade programs – they all drop by regularly [and see] the way students are engaged. I know the school board would like to be able to expand this into a couple other schools because a lot of students see it as relevant. If they are already cycling and already living downtown, and they know that [cycling] is cheap, which is really important to them.”

Bowers and Chao hope to see the program continue, of course, and expand… just don’t call them “Mister.”

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