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