For this issue’s Featured Member, LCRN slips into sleek cycling gear and puts on a helmet to embark on a thrilling ride to London Bike Kitchen (LBK), Jenni Gwiazdowski’s little bike workshop based in Hackney. Along the way, we hear all about her own two-wheeled self-discovery; her iron determination to help others overcome self-doubt, roll up their sleeves and join her in her do-it-yourself journey. Time to hit those pedals!
As with so many other great stories, Jenni Gwiazdowski’s begins with a small, seemingly unimportant detail: an old bicycle frame she bought at a bike jumble back in 2009. Having been based in London for barely two years at the time, the California-born former English teacher made a decision: the frame would become the foundation stone of a brand new bike she would build with her own hands. The idea came back to her in January 2011, when Gwiazdowski took it up as a New Year’s resolution. Sheltered from the relentless February rain behind the four walls of her London Bike Kitchen, we speak of the intriguing journey that took her from that bike frame to the thriving DIY workshop that she runs today.
Back in 2011, you were a newcomer to the world of bike building. How did it feel to jump into uncharted territory?
I realised I had absolutely no idea how to build a bike, where to do it, the tools I needed. I began asking around for a place where I could sit and learn everything about it, as I respond very well to that kind of environment. My flatmate had just moved in from California and she suggested visiting a bike kitchen. I was instantly curious about the idea, did some research on it and wondered whether I could set up my own. Before I even realized it, it had all turned into this massive passion and I remember thinking, ‘I have to do this’.
Once you were set, what were the next few steps?
I started out by e-mailing a survey to all the people I knew who were into bikes. I was trying to figure out whether they knew how to repair their bicycles, whether they’d be interested in learning more about it, and the response I got was really positive. I decided to apply for a London Cycling Campaign grant and I got the money when I didn’t even have a space for the store; I eventually spotted this location as I cycled past it every day on my way to work. I then crowdfunded an additional £1,700 that paid for all the work benches and stands. By March 2012, we were ready to open store.
What kind of system did you set up then? How does it all work at the London Bike Kitchen?
We have adopted a £10/year membership scheme. Although you don’t have to be a member to use our facilities, it definitely saves you some money, like the 15% discount when purchasing parts and accessories. We also run loads of classes and workshops and we like to place a special focus on maintenance, with our Introduction to Bike Maintenance classes. There is a difference between maintenance and repair; maintenance is prevention, and you really want to avoid having to repair stuff because it takes longer and it is more expensive.
What about those cases where repairs are unavoidable?
That’s what our Wednesday to Sunday drop-in sessions are for. People can just come in, hire a work stand for their bike and run repairs with a mechanic always close by to answer any questions. Some of our other classes involve learning how to build wheels and how to build your own bike from scratch within an 8 hours session. After Introduction to Bike Maintenance, that’s our most popular workshop.
It sounds like more and more people are looking to join the ranks of the do-it-yourself community, fix things in their own terms.
I think people are more and more interested in getting back to working with their hands. We get people returning and telling us, ‘if it wasn’t for your class, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now’. I know two women who started off just knowing nothing about bikes yet after being with us, they have gone on to become cycling instructors. It just opened up a whole new world for them.
Once a person learns to fix his or her own bike, is it easier for them to then go on and fix everything else in their lives?
Absolutely. It is a knock-on effect. One of the key terms that we use in the London Bike Kitchen’s business plan is empowerment, we want to make sure that what we do empowers people. For instance, we run women and gender-variant nights where we try to provide an environment for those groups to learn about bikes and bike maintenance and, at the same time, discover a bit of a safe space where they feel like they can talk about their issues. Bicycles can be a vehicle for change in people’s lives.
Did bicycles change your life, then?
I come from California, where the transportation culture is terrible, there are just too many cars. Although some older US cities such as New York and Chicago have really good transportation systems, some Californians still hold the belief that public transportation is for poor people. In my case, change took place when I moved to Japan to teach English and began wondering how I’d get to move around. Everyone was like, ‘you should use a bicycle’. I remember my first ride there; I was so wobbly and unsure on my seat!
Did things pick up as time went by?
Over the course of the three years that I lived there, going around with my bike ended up becoming second nature to me: I just hopped on and went wherever I needed to go. I was on my own schedule, I didn’t have to wait around for the bus or the train, I didn’t have to pay for gas… It was great! Bicycles became a part of my life at a time when I was also developing a bit of an environmental conscience.
Having incorporated those two-wheels to your day-to-day routine, how are you finding London as a cycling environment?
I consider London to be a safe cycling environment; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t go out there every day. That being said, the infrastructure here still leaves a lot to be desired. When I get to a traffic intersection here and I’m forced to wait for a couple of minutes to cross the street, I think ‘I’m not being prioritised here’.
Might it be that the minds of people still have a long way to go so that non-drivers become an integral part in the way our cities and infrastructures are designed?
The majority of people – drivers, cyclists, pedestrians – are good; it’s just a few bad apples that ruin the experience for everyone else. However, driving is not a right, it’s a privilege, and driver education needs to improve. One of my friends, also a cyclist, was learning to drive. Going down the street, he spotted a few bikers and he wanted to give them some space as you’re supposed to do, but the instructor grabbed the wheel, turned it towards the cyclists and said, ‘you don’t worry about the cyclists, you worry about blocking the incoming traffic’. That is the wrong thing to say!
Looking back, would you say getting London Bike Kitchen up and running has always been an easy ride? Do you have any piece of advice to those wishing to follow your steps and set up a do-it-yourself business?
Don’t do it yourself [she laughs]. Get a group of people to help you. Running a business is such a challenge and I had zero experience back when I started; I am still learning. Also, make sure your idea is marketable and relevant. It is not enough that you think that it’s a great idea, others have to think so too. Be ready for your idea to follow a completely unexpected route once it gets going. Whatever you imagined at first, it always ends up being an entirely different thing.