Oberlin Blogs

On (the Bike) Co-op(s)

June 22, 2011

William Passannante ’14

Oberlin has a lot of cooperatives, also known as co-ops. People pool their resources and help one another. Until about midway through my second semester, though, I hadn't really appreciated just how fantastic co-ops are.

I visited the bike co-op last semester.

For those who don't know, the bike co-op is a room in the basement of Keep, home to parts, tools, and people who know how to fix bikes. My bike, Moscow1, had just come out of hibernation, and he desperately needed a tune-up. So off to the bike co-op we went!

I left Moscow outside and went in to check out the lie of the land. Inside, a friend of mine, Ben Plaut, was fixing a bike.

"How does this work?"


"The bike co-op."

Ben looked around.

"Well, you pay for parts. And you fix the bike."

I managed to contain my surprise, but inside, gears turned furiously. An excerpt from the internal monologue:

"Freaking cooperatives I do not know how to fix a bike my time is valuable and I have things to do like midterms I do not have time to fix Moscow right now I am more than willing to pay someone money to fix Moscow's brakes correctly please take my money and make Moscow better while I go write a paper."

Still, I'd made it there, and Moscow's troubles concerned his brakes - stuff you want to keep on top of. Hopefully it wouldn't take too long. I spoke to the shop at large.

"How does one fix a bike's brakes?"

A guy wearing a smock came over.

"Well, put it in that clamp. What's the trouble?"

I placed the bike in an elevated stand and showed him.

"Huh. Well, the noodle is bent.2 Pass me that wrench." I passed smock guy the wrench, and hovered around, uncertain what to do. Smock guy squeezed the wrench and a piece of metal popped free of its damaged housing. Seeing me standing, smock guy explained what he'd just done and why he'd done it.


"So we're going to have to replace the brake cable and reattach it to the front brake. Get that screwdriver and unscrew this screw."

That didn't sound good. "What will that do?"

"Well, that'll give us access to the brake cable, which lives in here. That, in turn, will let us take everything out." I unscrewed the screw.

And so we went on, smock guy giving me an outline of what to do, explaining how everything worked; me twisting, pulling, asking questions; Moscow slowly evolving from death-trap to rideable bike. As we proceeded, I was struck by the relative simplicity and fixability of the problem. That's when it really hit me:

The co-op was teaching me how to fix my bike.

Smock guy's detailed explanations - his emphasis on how Moscow's different systems interacted to form a coherent unit - suddenly made sense. He was trying to give me an understanding of how bicycles work as a whole (with an emphasis on the problem at hand, of course). The bike co-op isn't about getting other people to fix your bike. It's about spreading know-how to promote efficiency.

I could have just dropped my bike off somewhere, paid someone to fix it, picked it up, and used it until it broke again. But would that have made the world a better place? It would have fixed Moscow, making me less likely to crash and die - but would it have spread knowledge and enabled me to help myself?


I'm not intending to discredit the general efficacy of the service industry, whose model - a few people with great expertise in a narrow field make that expertise available to the general public, who are then free to focus on their own areas of expertise - makes sense. Wouldn't you rather have an experienced doctor give you radiation treatment in lieu of you strapping a stolen fuel rod to your chest? However, that model can promote a certain amount of inefficiency in less complex areas, like bicycle repair.

So how long did this repair work/lesson take? Half an hour in all, and I now knew how to fix my bike.

As I left, I shook smock guy's hand. "Thanks for your help."

He laughed. "I didn't do anything."

That's a bald faced lie.

Talk about a liberal arts education, huh?


1. Yes, I named my bike Moscow. No, I don't remember why. It's an awesome name, though. "Moscow! Clearance to launch!" And then you bike very quickly.

2. Everyone's dialogue is paraphrased, although there is actually a bicycle part called a 'noodle,' depending on who you ask.

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