Build a bike, build your confidence

Girls part of the Build-A-Bike Program, Sonic and Kinchy, happy to be test riding.

Build a bike, build your confidence

Interview by Tammy Thorne and Alex Chronopoulos

Photos by Ainsley Naylor and Thea Jones 

New this year, Charlie's Freewheels has started the GIRLS Build-A-Bike Program, teaching basic bike mechanics, tips and tricks to young girls. In an industry that is primarily male-dominated, the program works to encourage and inspire young girls to begin and maintain a healthy, active and cycling lifestyle. Headed by Bike Pirates' Ainsley Naylor with help from Thea Jones, the program ran once a week from March 27 until May 29.

dandyhorse spoke with Ainsley and Thea about the girls and the program. This is what they had to say:

Tell us the impetus behind doing a girls-only build-a-bike program and when it started and how long it ran for? Do you know if there are any other girls-only build-a-bike programs in the world?

At Charlie’s FreeWheels (CFW) we run a series of Build-A-Bike classes for youth (14-19) in the Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhoods. These classes run for eight weeks and are three hours long—two hours for lessons and building and one hour is dedicated to cleaning up and eating dinner together. While these classes are always open to boys and girls the classes tend to be male-oriented. Because of this we wanted to emphasize girl bike power and focus our spring programming on a girls-only class. Ainsley Naylor helps run a Women and Trans DIY class every Sunday (for the last four years) at Bike Pirates and has created a safe space for them to work on their bikes. Her initiative at Bike Pirates seemed like a natural fit for her to help facilitate the first Girls Build-A-Bike class at CFW.

How did the two of you become involved with Charlie’s and the girls Build-A-Bike program?

Ainsley: I have been involved with CFW since the beginning, either as a partner, teacher, supporter, or just someone with opinions. When Charlie's first started they used Bike Pirates  for their workshops. As a member of Pirates I gave insights and suggestions, support, and helped out. The role of Bike Pirates was to help facilitate a space where Charlie’s could teach. A few years later Charlie's moved into their own space where I taught a class. Recently CFW asked if I was interested in helping launch a Girls' Program!

Thea: I am the program coordinator at CFW. Through the hard work of CFW’s Board Members and Director and assistance from the Ontario Trillium Foundation we have the means to facilitate a series of Build-A-Bike classes for 70-80 students. At CFW we have the opportunity to expand our initiatives and programming, in consultation with Charlie’s Bike Joint mechanics Jon Carroll and Sohel Imani (CFW’s lead mechanic) it was decided that a girls class was not only a great idea but also a necessity. It was only natural to invite Ainsley to teach this class at CFW.

Sonic with her bike on the last day of the program.

Why do you think a program like this is so important for the girls but also for communities?

Ainsley: You can look at cities all over North America and see evidence of the good that comes out of programs like the ones running at CFW. Education, empowerment, the self-sustainability of having an efficient, functional, and affordable means of transportation. Teaching youth bike repair can create job skills, self-confidence and civic engagement. Firstly, you are helping them understand the thing that they are going to use, making it less intimidating. And with girls there is also the larger issue of generally not being taught about or encouraged to engage with mechanics. Putting your hands on tools gives you a means to engage with the physical world around you.

Bicycles are also a means of independence and mobility. Most women I know feel safer riding their bikes than walking down the street – especially after dark. And you can get where you are going without needing anyone else.

Thea: Since CFW has been at the Queen East location, our outreach has focused on youth in the Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhoods. The build-a-bike classes establish consistency for eight weeks where the same group of youth will be at the space with the same people, and dinner is always prepared. I believe that this method allows the students to rely on CFW as a community location that is safe for them. Furthermore, the self-reliance and empowerment that is gained within the classes also translates to the space itself, as it becomes part of their responsibility to take care of Charlie’s too.

It is important for all our students to know that after their classes are finished they can always come back to hang out or fix their bikes. Charlie’s doors are always open.

What are your personal relationships with your bikes? Did you grow up with knowledge of their mechanics?

Ainsley: I didn't ride a bike that much growing up. I couldn't go very far, so I wasn't exploring and riding bikes with friends (the way I do now!). I may have learned to fix a flat at one point but I think like most people I didn't even know how my gears worked for a very long time.

When I was in university a boyfriend bought me a $10 Supercycle at a yard sale and then I started riding. I lived in Halifax where everything is close enough to bike, and it seems like a great way to get around. By the time I moved to Toronto, 10 years ago, I had decided to be a cyclist, and that's when I started to learn about repairing my bikes and maintenance. Honestly, I think my interest in bike mechanics came from my DIY philosophy, and also being cheap. I hate paying for things that I could do myself!

Thea: I grew up in small town in British Columbia and biking was something my family and I did all the time in the summer searching for new beach accesses. I remember riding down dirt roads with friends to see who could do the longest "skid". Bikes have always been a part of my life, however, I only recently starting building bikes since my involvement at CFW in 2013.

Kinchy and Susie on day one pack the bottom bracket.

What are the reactions or feelings of the girls when they begin the program?

Thea: “Uuuuuhhhhh, what?” Their reactions are similar to all the kids that start the bike-building program. It can be a big learning curve; some kids have never used a tool. The key is to maintain consistency within the instruction and patience throughout all classes; it will be through repetition that the students will truly retain the knowledge. At Charlie’s we practice "hands-off" teaching, which means that the bike mechanic instructors and volunteers must not do the work for the students but instruct them verbally through the task. The struggle is what allows them to figure it out. Encouragement is key, so half of the instruction is being a bike-building cheerleader!

What’s the biggest difference you notice about the girls when they finish the program?

Ainsley: There is definitely a shift in confidence and ease with the bikes. The first week they likely aren’t familiar with many of the terms being used. And though they may not remember all of the words or repairs that we did, they are much more comfortable around the bike and it’s workings by the end of the program, and with tools as well! Within a few weeks they became noticeably comfortable and familiar with some of the tools we regularly needed.

Thea: A sense of freedom. On the last class I biked three students home and they expressed true excitement in being able to reach their destinations without needing to rely on the TTC. A number of our students go to school outside of the neighbourhood that they live and their commute to-and-from school can be discouraging, having to ride and pay for the TTC. Furthermore, in their excitement you could see how the size of their neighbourhood, their city and their commutes diminished and all seemed more attainable.

What have been some of the best reactions from the girls?

Ainsley: One of my favourite interactions was having one girl who is super athletic be awestruck by how strong I am. We dealt with some hard stuff and old bikes with stiff parts, and when they couldn't get the tools to move I always could. I told her “this is what I do all day, every day!” I think I earned her respect that way.

Thea: What I noticed most throughout the program was a consistent fearlessness in the girls. Perhaps this came from the community and support that was established amongst the girls early on, they all bonded quickly and decided that they were figuring all this bike stuff out together, which created a confidence. This also has to do with how Ainsley encouraged the girls to work on tasks together, pairing up the girls to work on one bike and move to another as a unit. We also had one student who was learning to build a bike before she knew how to ride. Her transition, while bumpy, was not discouraged by fear and her ability to take on the challenge with grace and determination was inspiring.

Kinchy with her bike on the last day of the program.

How many girls are in the program, what age range and what neighbourhood or schools do they come from?

Ainsley: We had six girls in this program, with five able to complete their bikes. The other student just had too many scheduling issues and missed a few sessions.

Thea: Their ages ranged from 16-18. They all had affiliations with the Regent Park area whether it was where they lived, where they went to school or a community centre they attend regularly.

How is this program different from the Charlie’s regular build-a-bike program?

Ainsley: The girls' program was run completely by and for female and trans identified folks. We were not dependent on men for any of the teaching or facilitation of the workshop sessions.

This was really important to us to create a space that we could all feel safe in – where we could make mistakes and ask lots of questions. There is a certain comfort and respect that arises when women are teaching women. It is an environment where we are more likely to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

We also covered some mechanical topics that are not covered in the regular sessions including overhauling a bottom bracket! We were exploring the idea of having guests come in and speak to the group about an issue, topic, or local organization that might specifically relate to young women or feminist issues. This will be explored further in the future when we have more time to plan, and we hope to have it include other female/trans exclusive spaces, political events and organizations, female athletes, media literacy and more

Thea: Bike culture is filled with men. By having a class led by strong, knowledgeable and self-reliant women like Ainsley and the volunteers Susie, Kelly and Megz, the girls got to witness girl-bike-power in action. It was also important for the girls to meet CFW’s lead mechanic Sohel Imani, because when they come back to Charlie’s this is who they will see.

Ainsley and Susie at CFW.

What’s next for Charlie’s programming? Will the girls build-a-bike program continue?

CFW will be taking a little break from programming in June to allow students to finish their studies. Once school and exams are completed we will be starting our summer programming.

We would love to continue the Girls Build-A-Bike; it all depends on availability, enrolment and funding. We will, however, be maintaining contact with our girls who have completed the program as a way to keep them involved at Charlie’s. We already have two girls from this class participating in a workshop with Jon Carroll at Site 3 building a Pedal Powered Parts Washer!


Related on the dandyBLOG:

Youth Master Mechanics: Charlie's Freewheels

Art Starts build-a-bike program for youth in Lawrence Heights, Villaways and Glendower neighbourhoods

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

Dandyhorse asks Toby Bowers and Eugene Chao: How did you learn to fix bicycles?


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One response to “Build a bike, build your confidence”

  1. surlyqbear says:

    I love this! Almost makes me wish I were in my teens again!

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