By Natalie Davenport
This is a picture of me last year with my new bike, The Horse, which I built piece by piece in spring 2015.
I first fell into bike culture in the second half of my senior year at Michigan State University, living in East Lansing. Many of the people around me were into bikes and that was a thing we did together. The dudes I hung out with rode hard and did all their own mechanics, so naturally I rode hard and started to learn my own mechanics.
The bike I was riding at the time, which I nicknamed Pistachio (the frame is close to a pistachio color green, but mostly I wanted to give it a cutesy food name), was an old 70s road bike that had average components when I bought it. I started to ride Pistachio for bike delivery and worked through the snowpocalypse, the snowstorm of the decade that pretty much shut down our school and city for two days.
The snow and salt tore up the old components, and it was quickly apparent that I needed to tighten some parts and lube up some others if I wanted to continue to ride through the winter. I decided that in a three-days window I had off work I would take everything off, clean it and put it back together — a full overhaul to fix the parts worth saving and to put new parts on where others just didn't work.
I had a lot of help from the mechanics at the shop I frequented, and the dudes in the crew were excited to help. In the process we lost a lot of parts, put things back together wrong several times, broke a lot of parts and bought new parts that didn't fit. I wasted a lot of time reading mechanic books and dreaming about fancy bikes that would be easy to put together. The folks around me were excited by the strange parts on my old bike and gave me history lessons about the evolution of bike parts, usually stopping in between work and class to maintain their own bikes through the erratic winter weather. In those three days I learned about every piece that was on my bike and soon became confident I could fix everything in the future when I needed to.
“They were so ready to escape, right as I felt like we had built something important — something worth staying for.”
This crew and I continued to hang out and maintain our bikes after the initial overhaul, which turned out to be an incredibly important foundation for my understanding of bike culture. I liked finding a role in a space that was designed for men, learning by watching as others worked on their bikes and having the freedom to mess up on my own knowing that most things can be undone. I like that our group rode hard, and often I could feel myself shaking from exhaustion, but I was able to keep going. I liked that bikes could be used for necessary transportation and exploring and making money as a delivery rider and as an excuse to be alone or an excuse to get a group together. I liked that as I gained knowledge I felt like I could help other people understand their ability to fix their own bikes.
In all of my learning and exploring I fell in love with one of the guys who was helping me overhaul my bike. He knew enough about bike mechanics to be helpful and yet vulnerably admit what he didn't know. While doing mindless tasks or waiting for help we learned worlds about each other and the things going on for us outside of bikes. Later I realized I felt safe at the shop, a space of mostly men, because he was standing up for me when he noticed the flash of terror in my eyes, not knowing how to respond to some seriously sexist shit. Leaving the shop we would check in about the vibe of the day, making sure the dude/bro culture wasn't wearing us down. For months we met at the shop on a pretty regular schedule, and the vulnerability and care soon moved outside of the shop beyond those scheduled hours.
Just as I was falling in love with my new hobby and the people I was doing it with, my friends, who were so enamored with bike culture, decided they needed to bike cross country. They would leave after graduation, heading West with no real plan for a return. Being the rooted, stable person that I am, I didn't invite myself along and instead tried to be supportive as they prepared to leave. The boy I loved and our friends prepared their tour bikes and bought new racks; they talked about departure dates that were eventually moved back. They were so ready to escape, right as I felt like we had built something important — something worth staying for.
New relationship energy was high regardless of impending distance and our different life goals. Communication would be very different, but my partner and I decided it was important to continue caring for each other.
When they left, I found myself missing a large part of the community I had established and desperately looking to recreate that space of mental stimulation, physical health and relationship building. I tried to go back to the shop — maybe I could grow closer to the people working there — but my bike was in pretty good working order, and it was summer so they were busy and didn't have time to talk to me. I tried to take rides alone. I tried helping other people working on their bikes. I tried to find a social group to ride with. Nothing came close to the feelings I first felt when working on my bike with my friends. I missed them, and I was jealous of their tour. I began thinking maybe they had the right idea when they decided to escape this place.
“While yes, I am very proud of this bike and the fact that I built it mostly on my own, I also hate that I had to do it on my own. It would be too simple to call this a story of realizing the only person I needed that whole time was myself.”
So, like any good consumer, I bought a toy to ease my pain. I bought a shiny new bike frame, All-City’s Space Horse, in July 2014. But I did not put one ounce of effort into assembling it until my partner returned home early from the bike tour and suggested we could work on it together.
Finally I thought we would be back to our old selves, making time to be vulnerable building something together. But we both had limited patience for picking out bike parts when there was so much other stuff to get done between work and school. Building the bike became a weekly conversation about a chore we just really didn't want to do.
Winter set in, and I thought maybe it would be a good winter project — like rebuilding Pistachio last winter, while the shop was quiet and people were looking to hang out. But then he decided to take a semester off school to travel for six months, see Europe with his family and explore himself, returning to East Lansing for visits when possible. We again agreed that communication would be tough, but we wanted to continue to care for each other.
I kept busy that winter and didn't have the time or energy to go to the bike shop. The Horse lived in the attic in a box, while I organized in my community and worked a soul-sucking job, my best friend living a thousand miles away.
There was always a glimmer of hope that maybe he would come home early again or take up an interest from afar in helping me pick out parts for my new bike. But when it became clear his trip was solely about himself and his own self-discovery, I’d finally had enough. By spring I had quit my job and decided I wasn't waiting around for anyone to build my bike with. I would do it alone and enjoy it, and things would be different but OK. Make no mistake, it wasn't lost on me that the unbuilt bike was a metaphor for my failing relationship.
And so I did it. I built this damn bike, picking out each component, sometimes with no real thought except just getting the damn thing built. The mechanics at the shop stood by as I inevitably needed their help — I no longer had a crew of friends to help me.
And while yes, I am very proud of this bike and the fact that I built it mostly on my own, I also hate that I had to do it on my own. It would be too simple to call this a story of realizing the only person I needed that whole time was myself.
For me, biking is about the people around me who help me be a better mechanic or faster rider, and while this fancy bike does make the mechanics a whole lot easier and the riding a whole lot smoother, it's nothing compared to riding an old bike I fixed up with some seriously awesome people. My friends have scattered across the country, my relationship can't be rebuilt, and my desire to crush out 20 miles just because has faded.
Now, it's my turn to escape. This picture is me holding my head high, knowing it is only a matter of time until I leave the area too — until I find another group of friends and bikers who want to build something together.
Natalie Davenport is a community organizer working with local food systems in Lansing, Michigan.