Dandyhorse asks Toby Bowers and Eugene Chao: How did you learn how to fix bicycles? And how did you get involved in teaching bike mechanics to youth?
Photos and text by Sarah Greene
dandyhorse recently visited Central Commerce Collegiate's high school bike repair and maintenance class, and we were wondering how instructors Toby Bowers and Eugene Chao first got the bike-fixing bug, and also how they got involved in various empowering non-profit community bike repair initiatives.
Here's what they had to say about it:
Toby Bowers (pictured above):
When I was 21, I was living downtown and using a bike for transportation. I taught myself to do very simple things but then a few things happened: I lived farther away from the core and kept commuting by bike, which surprised me that I could go so far so easily (I was living near Dundas and Leslie, not that far) and fixing more problems, and I found out that the university was starting up this bike repair place [Bikechain]. So I went there a couple times and thought that was a pretty neat idea. And then I moved and was living in the Annex with other students and people asked me to help them; I also visited Bike Pirates at their old location on Bathurst, south of College (across from the Beer Store).
Then, when I was finishing university I thought to myself, 'I've never got a job in what my degree was in (Biology and Biological Anthropology) so maybe I can find a way to fix bikes better.’ I went to Bikes On Wheels for the Park Tool School, which wound up being nine evenings with a very experienced mechanic, Shannen Leslie (who now owns his own shop, Red Arrow Bikes).
Before that I could fix a flat tire and change pedals and change brake pads ... there was a basic four-week [course] that I went for all the evenings and then there was an advanced four-week [course]. I ended up getting an extra evening cause there was a snowstorm and I was showing up just as the instructor was wanting to leave. I had the added benefit of no one else was showing up to these classes, so it was just 3-4 hours once a week with somebody who had decades of experience fixing bikes. I overhauled several bikes over two months.
I got a job at Bikechain for a summer (this was the first time -- I worked there twice) after that I was volunteering and got a job at the Community Bicycle Network, so I was learning more and more. I have always had the benefit of being in places that function principally as educational spaces rather than money-making spaces. So I've always had people being able to show me big and little things, like, "here's how you can do this a little better, here's how you can do this neat little thing, here's a little trick that will help you to make this easier."
After the CBN I took other jobs ... my wife was immigrating so I needed to get a year-round job, and later applied to be coordinator/executive director for Bikechain, which is where I met Eugene Chao. I finished that up in August and then started to work at Central Commerce.
In a short time I've spent a lot of energy on getting to know how these machines work and I'm constantly trying to push myself in terms of knowing where my boundaries are but also going past them. This year, overhauling internally-geared bikes was something I'd never done before – I did that with Eli Legere and some of the other students at Central Commerce Collegiate Institute.
When I was still a student at U of T and knew nothing about bikes, I had two friends who were kind enough to lend me their bicycles, as I had none at the time [editor's note: he now has four and a half]. Knowing essentially nothing about cycling in the city, I promptly had one stolen, and lost the quick-release wheels on the other one. After replacing them for both friends (resulting in my first trip to Urbane Cyclist, actually) I decided to spare myself the expense and embarrassment and get my own bike, proceeding to purchase an absolute wreck of a third-or-fourth-hand bike.
This ensured frequent visits to Bikechain, where I spent much of a summer learning to overhaul my own bicycle. I'd always been fairly academic-focused most of my life, so it was really my first in-depth opportunity to work with my hands, and to my surprise I discovered I was not only pretty good at it, but actually quite enjoyed it. This led to volunteering, and then three years of employment at Bikechain, where I worked with Toby, and eventually a job at Curbside. I was then approached to run a Focus On Youth program, where students selected, sanded, painted, and overhauled a bicycle out of parts from the Igor Kenk collection (sound familiar?) and asked to create a curriculum out of that summer program, which eventually became the for-credit TDSB bike program based out of Central Commerce.
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