Mechanic, cycle tourer and author Anna Hughes talks about the ethics of free Dr Bike sessions and how they can affect bike shop trade

Freelance LCC mechanic
and cycle trainer Anna Hughes is currently writing 
an account of her around Britain by bike journey, and is soon to set sail on another around Britain adventure. 

A sunny day in mid September. I’m riding down a street I’ve never ridden down before, and I see a man I’ve never met before, and then I notice his finger outstretched towards me, and I hear him say,  “You’re famous!” 

This is one of my favourite moments of my life.

The man is Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network, one of the charities I raised money for as I was cycling round the coast of Britain. My picture is all over my blog so it’s no surprise he recognises me, but his unusual greeting makes my face crack into a huge smile. I had spotted him fixing bikes by the side of the market square, which is why I’d caught his eye - such a typical thing for a cyclist to home in on another cyclist and want to strike up a conversation. 

This is Totnes, the final calling point of my Otesha tour; for the past six weeks I’ve been cycling around the South West with eight other young women, performing and running workshops in schools and city farms, trying to inspire change and promote sustainable living. The tour has been intense but good fun, and we’re relaxing in the nation’s first Transition Town while we wait for a train back home. It’s pure coincidence that Ben sees me - it has been a full year since I completed my round-Britain tour, where we first made cyber contact, and he had no idea I’d be here in Totnes, just as I had no idea this is where he lived.

Every weekend you’ll see Ben with his bike stand offering a free Dr Bike service to passers-by - it’s completely unfunded and he does it purely for the love. I understand his desire to fix people’s bikes for nothing save their thanks (which is often emphatic and overwhelming, accompanied by gifts) - I volunteer at the Hackney Bike Workshop, a free fix-it evening where people can come and get their bikes checked, and fixed, and learn basic maintenance skills by having a go under the watchful eye of their mechanic.

The Hackney Bike Workshop runs in two locations: Frampton Park hall in Hackney on the first and third Tuesday of the month, and St Michael’s Church hall in Stoke Newington on the second Tuesday. The Stokie version was initiated by Transition Town Stoke Newington, and has been consistently popular since it started almost two years ago. Doors open at 7pm and there are always mechanics on hand to talk you through how your bike works and show you how to fix it. After 9pm you’ll find said mechanics at the Royal Sovereign on Northwold Road enjoying the sustainable beer.

Ben says that while his free servicing is welcomed by the punters, he is treated with a little more caution by the local bike shops, some resentful that he is taking trade away from them. I can see their point, but I disagree. Teaching someone how to fix their own bike won’t make them need a bike shop less, but it might well make them need it more. No one is going to become an expert on bike maintenance in the twenty minutes it takes to tune brakes, but they will catch a breath of intrigue. People crave knowledge. And as soon as you empower someone a little, they will instantly want to know more. Someone who never quite got round to riding their bike because it didn’t quite work will suddenly be taking it out every day because of their free bike check, popping into the bike shop on their way home for some gloves or a puncture repair kit or simply to look. 

Anna in action at a TfL Cycling Event Day

I’m the same. Since learning how to fix bikes I spend more time in the bike shops, forever looking at all the stuff I need, or more to the point, don’t need but want. I won’t pay for a service, preferring to buy the parts and replace them myself, but I’ll buy replacements more regularly, or invest in the higher quality stuff - now I know what to look out for, I have the desire to keep my bike in top condition. 

Anything we do to get cyclists on the road is good, and the more people that promote cycling the better. Dr Bikes can co-exist happily with bike shops, both helping people get out and about on two wheels in their various ways, creating a positive effect on people’s health and on the environment. I think what Ben does is fantastic, and I hope to see it more

Follow Anna's travels on her websiteFacebook page, or on Twitter @eatsleepcycle


LCC's Westminster group has organised Dr Bike session in Regent's Park on Fri 12 Apr 2013 offering free cycle safety checks and also the opportunity to sit in the cab of a lorry and learn how to stay safe. There is another Dr Bike session offering free cycle safety checks at Marylebone Station on Thurs 18 Apr 2013.

This reminds me of the assumption that libraries effect bookshops, which is of course not true.  If you borrow lots of library books you all buy lots too, proven fact.

So I would expect that once people are more aware of the need to look after their bike they are more likely to get it properly serviced and buy bits of kit.

Adam "The Librarian" Edwards

Cycle shops need to remember that for every customer there are 2-3 potential customers who don't currently cycle and getting those guys cycling needs something new - but once they've got the bug they'll never look back.

Making cycling social, visible, friendly and fun is a great way to get people trying it out (and in the end they'll all need to buy bikes, lights, pumps etc - and then a few years later they will decide to get an upgrade to a cooler, faster, shinier bike...).

When Honda went to the states they tried to compete with Harley (and failed) but ended up selling loads of Supercub scooters and created an entirely new market. When it comes to real bikes (with pedals) it might be that the new cyclists want to do things differently, but good bike shops should be able to keep all their customers happy if they stay in touch. 

Love the comments - thanks all. Ben Brangwyn, the Doctor Bike in question, has explored this issue in more depth on his own website:

Some bike shops do get it!  Kentish Town Bike Workshop (first Monday of most months, just off Kentish Town Road) is a joint effort of Camden Cyclists (i.e. LCC Camden) and Transition Kentish Town. One of our mechanics is also a founder and staff member of the excellent local bike shop Lunar Cycles

(KTBW on FB)

There's another more direct benefit for shops: DrBikes often identify problems the owners are unaware of and which are beyond the scope of the DrBike system -in short they produce work for shops.

However there are two things we need to be careful of:

firstly the qualifications of DrBike mechanics which can be quite variable

secondly the customer's expectations -DrBike is a handy phrase but a more accurate description would be 'bicycle triage'

Actually, I was relieved to see this acknowledged. I'd considered offering a Dr Bike service in my local borough (Wandsworth), which didn't work out for various reasons. But one of my concerns was weakening local professionals' livelihoods.

I think the reasoning offered above is sound. I suspect that getting more people to ride is, overall, a big bonus for bike shops, and getting someone's tired, weathered, maladjusted bike into action by Dr Bike might just be the trigger that tips them into trying riding again (and again {and again [and again <and again...>]}), and overall, more likely to need their local bikeshop.

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