Swiftly side-stepping the quip that many bike shops are not-for-profit enterprises, the bicycle recycling segment seems to be thriving, with most towns and cities having at least one bicycle recycling outlet, taking in donated bikes, refurbing them and either shipping them to Africa or selling them locally for low, low prices.
Some bike shops I’ve spoken to hate these schemes, believing the ones that offer cheap servicing have a massive impact on their workshop takings. Others see them as an essential part of the sub-retail mix, taking up the slack in an otherwise underground second-hand bike scene and selling bargain basement bikes that many IBDs won’t touch.
Clearly, enterprises such as the London Bike Kitchen, in Hackney, are extremely popular with bicycle culture vultures. LBK is an award-winning non-profit that supports folks in becoming self-sufficient and proficient in bike maintenance. "We cover maintenance topics like adjusting brakes and how to fix a puncture, and riding topics like assertive cycling and fitting your bike to your body,” says Jenni Gwiazdowski, LBK’s director. “Sometimes we show films, other times we just have a chat over tea."
Similar enterprises are popping up all over the place, aiming to harness the social and economic power of the bicycle, raising money for charitable work or collecting bicycles for dispatch to Africa. Are they bad for your business or are they doing society a favour by providing cheap - sometimes even free - bicycles for those who may not be able to afford bike shop prices? The more people on bikes the better, right?
Some of the community bike schemes are run from pokey, pop-up locations, but not all. "We have the largest collection of bikes in one place," says Jole Rider's Bike Shed (pronounced 'jolly') in Tetbury, Gloucestershire. The Bike Shed is a registered charity, sells refurbished secondhand bikes with proceeds from sales and repairs going to Jole Rider's bikes4Africa project to get children to school.
And some of the cycle recyclers are based out of council or charity subsidised units.
While some bike shops may grumble about these bicycle recycling enterprises, they probably have to do it under their breath because the schemes are doing it “for a good cause.”
Bristol’s Life Cycle has its donated bikes repaired and cleaned by prisoners thanks to a partnership with HMP Bristol, a scheme funded by the Big Lottery Fund. Others “refurbish and repair donated bikes for asylum seekers, refugees and those on low incomes.” Aberdeen's BeCycle says: "We gather orphaned bikes, fix them up and bring them back to life. This is a community-based workshop which lends out bikes for free, and also offers tools, spare parts and competent help to anyone keen on fixing or building their own bike.” Is BeCycle taking away trade that should, by rights, go to Aberdeen’s IBDs or is BeCycle helping to sustain a local bicycle culture that, in a circle-of-life way, ends up benefitting Aberdeen’s bike shops? I’d say the latter but, then, I don’t own a bike shop.
I’m also biased because I’m mates with Merlin Matthews (that's his real name), founder of Re~Cycle, the UK's biggest and best-known bicycle recycling charity. Re~Cycle receives abandoned bikes reclaimed by councils and the police, as well as those donated by members of the public, and sends them to Africa where they provide transport for those who would otherwise spend significant time walking to reach essential services and resources. Re~Cycle also refurbs Pashley bikes from Royal Mail’s surplus-to-requirements postal delivery fleet.
How could you possibly grumble about such a charity, doing sterling work at getting people mobile in Africa? The Action Bikes near New Scotland Yard in London supplies bikes and parts to Re~Cycle, and plenty of other UK bicycle businesses do too. Re~Cycle - and most of the other community recycling schemes - are doing things mainstream bike shops won’t touch. Most bike shops long ago jettisoned the second-hand bikes part of the business and the community recycling schemes are filling a genuine need. Many of the recycled bicycles would have otherwise gone to landfill, a crying shame considering many of them just need a bit of TLC to make them rideable again.
Care to share what you think about these schemes? Do you grumble they’re stealing your servicing business or do you think they fulfil a societal need?