Biking to work on a flat tire is the worst. On flat-tire mornings, I usually arrive a little late and feeling like I just pedaled up a huge hill – in the snow. I spring for a new tire as soon as my air pump no longer does the trick. But it turns out, I’ve basically been throwing my money away. At the Earn-a-Bike Co-op’s Bscuela class, I learned how to patch small holes in tire tubes.
A lot goes into buying and maintaining a bike. Earn-a-Bike (EAB) provides affordable access to all things bike: maintenance, education, and ownership. When youth and adult volunteers participate in the EAB community, they spend volunteer hours learning the ins and outs of cycle maintenance. Once participants demonstrate mastery of certain bike maintenance skills and log a certain number of volunteer hours, they earn a bike of their own.
"(EAB is) meeting an enormous need,” said Martha Banda, a community member at the Bscuela class I recently attended.
She was especially impressed at the co-op’s commitment to meeting participants “where they are both in (terms of) their bike skill set and their actual bicycle resources. In other words, you can walk in there with nothing, have a few parts, or have an entire bike assembled and they will support your biking endeavors.”
The co-op’s all-inclusive approach to bike ownership has the potential to make cycling – as both a sport and means of transportation – more accessible to San Antonians. EAB falls in line with the City’s effort to make cycling a more viable way of getting around town.
In addition to being a place to learn about bikes, EAB is also a place for community members to get together. Its Westside location at 2619 Guadalupe is pretty picturesque. Picnic tables and lounge chairs welcome people to balance bike maintenance with rest and relaxation.
The cooperative business structure of the EAB means that it is all about sharing resources. Collective ownership of the site and of shop tools is what makes the EAB an especially cost-effective option for bike maintenance and education. For my 90-minute flat tire training class it was only suggested that I donate a spare tire, tube, or $5.
Tangible resources like tools and land make the co-op possible, but Earn-A-Bike also sees knowledge as an important resource. The EAB’s two primary programs center on sharing knowledge about riding and repairing bikes. In the co-op’s collective workspace program, participants share tricks of the trade as they fix broken chain links and wobbly alignments.
Shop hours are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and on Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Anyone can go to the shop. Cristian Sandoval, who initiated San Antonio’s EAB, emphasizes that “it’s not only for experts.”
Fortunately for those in need of lots of learning, at least one expert will always be available during shop hours. The current expert-in-residence is Paul Magallanez. His bike experience goes back to his childhood days when he worked on bikes with his grandfather and at Jesse’s Bike Shop in south San Antonio. As an adult, Magallanez has worked for bike shops around town and owns his own shop. He has also competed in professional BMX freestyle events. He said that the co-op encourages sharing information instead of guarding it.
“If I’ve learned anything, it’s that this is a team thing instead of an individual thing," Magallanez said.
He said he's happy to be able to give people at the co-op guidance on repairs or on processes to put in place that could work in their jobs or other aspects of life. The co-op gives him the opportunity to be “an activist, teacher, instructor” through being a mechanic. The idea is that as more members train, they too will become experts and will train others.
On the fourth Monday of each month, the co-op hosts Bsceula as a how-to series. The five, Level 1 classes cover basic repair and maintenance issues. In each class an instructor walks participants through the step-by-step process of making a particular repair.
Then the do-it-yourself segment kicks in. Participants go hands-on, making the repair on their own bike or one from the shop. I have to admit, I felt pretty accomplished after taking off a tire, fixing it, and putting it back on. I’m not necessarily looking forward to doing it again, but after all these years of riding I’m glad to have this skill in my pocket. Participants are eligible to take on Level 2 classes (intermediate and advanced repair) once they complete all five Level 1 classes. Completing the classes earns you a certificate and mechanical confidence.
The EAB’s activities center on bike repair, but the organization applies similar concepts to the equally-important interest of strengthening community. The relationships built through working together and the processes of interaction are just as important as replacing a bike chain. The agency that participants gain by learning and teaching new skills is a major component of EAB.
Service also factors into the EAB’s activities. A third program called BZQuad organizes people who want to start the month by helping others. On the first Monday of every month, a group of volunteers bikes to a business, house, or garden and helps beautify the neighborhood. They see the work as a way of returning the favor for all the people who came through and helped when the EAB was just starting.
In addition to the BZQuad, the EAB also partners with the Boys and Girls Club. The co-op offers progressive workshop courses on bike mechanics, which give the Boys and Girls Club kids an opportunity to, well, earn a bike.
Currently, EAB exists as a program of another San Antonio nonprofit called FitZip which promotes healthy San Antonio zip codes by coaching youth through triathlon training.
As executive director of FitZip, Sandoval was able to set EAB in motion by securing support from a several organizations, including Via Metropolitan Transit (VIA), Bike World, and the Westside Development Corporation. VIA and Bike World donate old bikes that need fixing.
The plan is for the EAB’s volunteer base to eventually take over every aspect of the co-op’s ownership and operations. Once the co-op is an established presence in the Westside community, it will separate from FitZip.
“I would really like people from the Westside to come and own that place,” Sandoval said.
Partnerships with community organizations like VIA will likely remain intact, but board members from the Westside community will take over responsibility for guiding how the co-op develops. The transition will happen gradually, but current participation levels bode well. Two weeks after the co-op’s grand opening on June 14, resident mechanic Paul Magallanez reported 10-15 regular participants in the open shop hours. Eleven people were at the Bscuela class I attended.
“We’re starting to build steam," Magallanez said.
*Featured/top image: The Earn-A-Bike Co-op, located at 2619 Guadalupe St. Photo by Erin Hood.