On the lockdown cycling boom: notes from a front-line bike mechanic

One of the few positives to have emerged from the coronavirus lockdown has been a veritable boom in cycling. People have turned to the bicycle not only for daily exercise, but perhaps more importantly for commuting to avoid the risk of infection on public transport. The bike trade has been barely able to keep up with the unprecedented demand for both bicycles themselves and servicing and repairs.

So what’s life like on the front line of this run on the bicycle? I caught up with local mobile bike mechanic Kieran Evans aka Mr. Spanner to find out.

Mr. Spanner hard at it.

1) Introduce yourself & explain how you came to be a mobile bike mechanic.

Hello, my name is Kieran, but I now call myself “Mr Spanner” – you can find me on Facebook under that name.

My entry into the bike biz was doing “work experience” (in year ten of secondary school) at a very well-known bike shop called Cycle Heaven in York (where I grew up). I then went on to being “the weekend boy” at a few other bike shops in York.

If you have been pedalling around York then you will realise that is is very much a cycling town: flat as a pancake with relatively easy roads. Most people work in tourism which mean that we are busy in the good parts of the year!
If you jump on Google Earth/Google Maps then you will see what I’m getting at.

2) How’s business right now? How does it compare to business before the coronavirus crisis?

I have got to the point that I am now turning down work. I am careful to “spec up”/ work out parts required for each job. So: how many cables and chains do I need etc? Every LBS (local bike shop) is now booked up for weeks in advance. I’m on a few bike mechanic forums and we are getting tired of being so busy!

Most bikes are being fettled for pottering about town.

3) What kind of people make up your customer base?

The vast majority are what I call “shed bikes”: they have not got the bike out of the shed for quite a few years and for some “unknown reason” it isn’t working – that might be because you have left it in a shed for five years plus!!

There is a pretty broad spread of age ranges. Youngest customers are about 20 with the oldest in their 70s. A big thing is people wanting to ride so they can avoid public transport.

4) What kind of bikes are you fettling?

The majority are relatively simple hybrids/mountain bikes. The most common problems are a flat tyre on the rear (bit of a pain in the bum unless you know what you’re doing) or a seized chain (look at the answer to question 8 in a moment…).

The lockdown cycling boom has seen many a shed bike resurrected.

5) What kind(s) of cycling are your customers mainly interested in (commuting, mountain biking, road cycling, leisure cycling etc.)

75% commuting (public transport is a bit risky these days!) Then 5% mountain bike. After that the rest are people going for a pootle on hybrids (fine by me – hybrids are easy compared to a lady’s step-through with a hub gear or (inhales then says swearwords) dedicated road bike). Road bikes with the 1/4 shift gears/brakes are a pain in the bum.

6) How many of your customers do you think will still be cycling in six months? Is the current bike boom a fad or the start of a more prolonged trend? What can we do to make sure as many people as possible keep cycling?

I like to think that regarding the popup infrastructure that has been advertised that a lot of my customers, therefore people that have not ridden a bike in quite some years, will continue do do so.
– Cycling is quicker and safer than public transport.
– Once a customer’s bike is working that means they can ride again! Most of my customers have not enjoyed the freedom of a bicycle in around 3 or 5 years!! (Judging by the state of their cables and chain etc.)

Issues with chains and gears are prevalent in bikes that have been uncherished for a while.

7) What are the worst cases of bike neglect you’ve seen over recent weeks? Are there any bikes you have refused to repair?

I like to use the expression “bicycle abuse”! I inspected a bike the other day where the lady had LEFT IT OUTSIDE UNCOVERED SINCE 1995!!! That’s just bicycle abuse. Criminal neglect! I ended up quoting her about £150 in parts, then about 6 hours’ labour on top. But apparently she loves this bike as she has had it since 12 years old and she would like it to be resurrected. I have said to her that I’ll do that after this rush has calmed down… if she is that desperate for this “bike” to be resurrected.

8) What bike maintenance tips would you give to the less mechanically minded bike owner?

Make sure your chain does not become dry. Use some 3-in-1 oil or similar. An easy way to do that is squirt it on the chain on the cogs at the back whilst pedalling backwards for a few rotations. Pay attention to wear on your brake pads. If you leave it too long then they will go down to the metal structure of the pad and do bad damage to your wheel rims. Just taking it for a ride once a month at minimum is enough to stop everything seizing up.

An utterly delighted customer of Mr. Spanner. How could one not be with all those fixed bikes!

Conclusion

So there we have it. Yet more evidence of the trend that is being observed not just across the UK, but the world. Take the cars off the road, create a safe environment and people will gladly start cycling, with all the personal (mental and physical wellbeing, freedom of independent movement etc.) and communal benefits (less congestion & pollution, more space on public transport for those who need it) that brings. And what’s more: local businesses like Mr. Spanner thrive as a result, too.

Thanks to Kieran for taking the time to answer my questions – and wishing his customers and everyone else who’s taken to the bicycle over recent months many years of happy and safe cycling.

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