It can take a village to care for a bicycle.

Written by Aaron Traywick and Edward Badham

Photographed by Edward Badham

Without a doubt, in the car-crazed city of Birmingham, the folks that gravitate to cycling  are a diverse and eclectic group. From the perspective of a rear-view mirror, all bicycles and cyclists may seem the same, but the community is quite diverse and there is a vast selection of bikes to match it. Whether the ride is done for the sake of transportation or  recreation, exercise or trail blazing,  road racing or cross-county endurance, one thing is for certain;  taking care of your ride is as important as the ride itself.

As Birmingham’s system of trails and greenways becomes ever more expansive and inviting, the city is witnessing an explosion of cyclists.  This multitude of users is also employing  a diverse and complex assortment of bikes. Just 25 years ago, if you were purchasing a new bike, your options would have been fairly simple: road bike, mountain bike, or hybrid. A few nuances in the selections certainly existed, but in general, some quick answers to a few short questions would have put you well on your way to the bike of your needs: “Do you prefer riding in the dirt or on the road? Are you riding for fun, exercise, or simply transportation?” Today the questions remain the same, but the choices and categories have grown tremendously.

You decide on a mountain bike, well this leads to more questions: “Do you want a full suspension, hardtail, or a single-speed? Do you prefer cross-country, all-mountain, or downhill?” For a road bike; are you looking for a touring model, a racer, or a commuter? Or would you throw yourself out on a limb for the unique experience of a single-speed or a fixie?

Whatever your preferred style of riding, one aspect of cycling will never change—if you own a bicycle, and you ride your bicycle, you will have to maintain it, and maintenance requires time and money. In days long past, the do-it-yourself bike mechanic was a simpler role to play; nowadays, with the emergence of so many different models, riding types, and ever-changing technology, repairing and maintaining a bicycle has become a daunting task

If you have the time and the cash, Birmingham has an abundance of shops all of which have trained mechanics that can take care of all of this for you. But it can get very costly and often there can be a week or more turnaround time. Luckily in Birmingham we have other options.

In recent years we have seen the emergence of bike cooperatives or co-ops. So for those of us on a tight budget and do-it-yourselfers who don’t  mind getting your hands dirty, there is an alternative. Co-ops are radical spaces where anyone can come with bike in hand, or even bike-less, to learn alongside trained bike mechanics and knowledgeable peers. Surprisingly these co-ops receive support from local and regional bike shops so they are able to provide high-quality donated and refurbished parts at universally reasonable prices.

Such is the case with Birmingham’s own Bici Coop, the city’s largest cycling cooperative, founded in 2009 by Alan Barton originally as a get-together spot for tinkering and free-form artistic exploration of cycling in general. The entry of entrepreneurs Anna Ball Carrigan and Elisa Munoz have helped transform the shop into a veritable “community center” for the ever-growing metro cycling community. At a flat rate of only $5 an hour, and $5 per part of any kind, visitors can affordably learn firsthand from some of the city’s finest mechanics—provided that they agree to hands–on participation in the repair or maintenance of their bike. For those who can’t afford even these rates, have no fear; volunteer service is also accepted as payment.

The shop is an established “safe space,” or intentionally tolerant environment for all gender, race, and sexual orientation. This status, furthers the co–op’s goal of education by working to increase female inclusiveness in do-it-yourself bike repair. It also aligns the shop with the national movement in the cycling community to increase access to historically underrepresented populations.

The co–op does more than just teach; it also hosts and organizes some of the most unique and fun inner–city races in Birmingham. The Alley Cat, hosted multiple times throughout the year, is a unique race where riders are given a series of destinations and invited to create their own routes; each destination has a themed challenge and riders compete to win the most challenges in the fastest time. The Kitty Cat race is a female-only version, males may participate provided they are donning a dress or a skirt.

Bici is also teamed up with Birmingham’s “Local Bike Rack Company” and installed a number of aesthetic bike racks around the city in recent years, including Samford University, Brown Mackie College, and Homewood’s Little Donkey, among others. Bici is also an active participant of the Health Action Partnership, working alongside healthcare professionals, environmental non-profits, and members of the business community to increase pedestrian and cyclist access in the city for positive health purposes.

Bici’s success has inspired the creation of other co-operative programs. Redemptive Cycles, is a Christian–based coop operating in the historic Woodlawn community. They partner with BiciCoop as well as the local YWCA chapter to increase youth access to cycling. With tools and equipment supplied by Bici, Redemptive owners Erik Webb and Marcus Fetch have created their own build-a-bike/earn-a-bike program, where visitors can work alongside coop mechanics to create their own bike from scratch. Redemptive currently maintains their relationship with the local YWCA by repairing and donating bicycles to children of the local community.

Both coops share a unique vision for the city, centered on growing the Birmingham cycling community from the focal point of UAB. BiciCoop alone has been responsible for the UAB Bicycle Master Plan, an ambitious project that seeks to expand the disconnected network of bicycle lanes encircling the campus into a comprehensive network of commuter routes. The plan doesn’t stop there. It also recommends partnerships with the school’s Art Department for the creation of bicycle parking racks that would double as public art sculptures, stationary public-access outdoor bike repair kiosks, and a cross-campus bike-sharing program.

Redemptive is also supporting  a new initiative to provide bicycles for UAB’s large population of international students. These students, many of whom live and work on the UAB campus and have arrived from overseas, often do not have adequate transportation that will support their lifestyle within the Magic City. Redemptive hopes to change this, and allow these students to make stronger connections within the city that educates them daily.

As the cycling community grows the emergence of the cooperatives is an organic continuation of that growth. They then feed the growth and enthusiasm themselves by keeping people riding, introducing new people to cycling and making bikes and repairs available to a more diverse population. The co-ops are an innovative business model and they move  The Magic City in a  progressive direction toward becoming a more cycling and pedestrian friendly city.

4 Responses to “Cooperation”

  1. Cindy Tennimon says:

    Fantastic program Birmingham, I hope the city of Montgomery will see the value of this in their overall plan for downtown revitalization and not just more bars and restaurants!

  2. Bobby Riggs says:

    Nice article. I know Redemptive is moving into a new space, but did I miss the address/location of the Bicicoop?

  3. liesa Cole says:

    I believe there is a Healthy quotient for a community that is directly proportional to the degree to which it is “bicycle friendly.” Thanks to these wonderful organizations for their efforts to increase awareness, interest and access to self-propelled, 2-wheeled transportation.

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