This is a short tale about the kind-hearted and generous people who help us when we get stuck, and an adventure in the world of secondhand bikes.
It’s a funny feeling, that moment when you see impending disaster and somehow know there’s nothing you can do about it. I was coasting downhill on my bike, and the car coming up the side road was moving too fast to stop at the stop sign. My subconscious did the calculations and realised it was on a collision course. I instinctively hit the brakes, and was able to slow down enough that when I collided with the car’s side the front of my bike took most of the impact.
I yelled and swore and cursed at the driver as he pulled over, and then a moment later apologised for behaving so unseemly. The driver was a kind and apologetic young Nepalese student, on holiday with his extended family and not used to driving in Australia. They all came over to see if I was okay. I told them I was fine, just a bit bruised, but that my bike was mangled. They saw that my legs were shaking, and made me sit down.
Upon closer inspection I saw that my handlebars were askew and my front wheel was bent. I was able to straighten the handlebars, but the wheel was another matter; the rim itself was bent, and no amount of spoke adjustment would make it spin true.
Their car was too small to fit my bike, so eventually they said farewell. We took a group photo together before they left, and the driver’s brother-in-law repeatedly thanked god that nobody was seriously hurt. I was left alone on the side of the road with my broken bike.
Bellie has a big beard, a friendly smile and seems the type of person who is always happy to help. He and his wife Alicia live in a tiny house at Commonground, an intentional community on a bush property near Seymour, about 100km north of Melbourne. It was the time of the Easter Gathering, with many people coming for the weekend to help with fruit preserving and gathering firewood for the winter, and Bellie had been preparing for this when Alicia told him of the distress call she’d received from me. He dropped what he was doing to fetch me from the side of the road in his ute, and then he and Alicia arranged a room for me at Commonground for the weekend.
The next morning he offered to take me to see what bikes they had in their shed. We discovered that one of them had the same size wheels as mine, and Bellie kindly offered to donate one to me. But unfortunately the wheel’s hub spacing didn’t fit in my bike’s front forks.
A secondhand bike conundrum:
It was important to me that I try to find a secondhand replacement wheel, if possible. I originally bought my bike secondhand for $80 from a community bike workshop, and I likely wouldn’t be on this bike journey if I hadn’t found it that day, and at a price I could afford. The challenge is that it’s a vintage bike made in the ‘70s and has a lot of non-standard parts. I needed to find a front wheel 27 inches in diameter, where nowadays wheels are made with metric measurements.
I phoned Bicycle Recycle, a secondhand bike shop in Melbourne that was open on the Saturday, but they didn’t have what I needed. I also searched Gumtree, looking for a bike enthusiast who collects and salvages old bikes. I found one near Melbourne who had 27 inch wheels, but he needed them for a bike he was working on.
Many of the other visitors at Commonground wanted to help me, and they phoned their spouses or housemates back home to see if they had a wheel of the right size.
Duncan works as a nurse at the Peter Mac Cancer Hospital, and is also one of the lead volunteers at the CERES Community Bike Shed in Melbourne. I sent him a message explaining what happened and asking for his advice.
He’s one of those special people who seem to spend their time helping others, and he always appears to have more energy than the rest of us. He decided to drive all the way from Melbourne to Commonground to try to fix my wheel, bringing two spares that he’d picked up from CERES to see if they’d fit. After an hour of re-bending and truing my wheel it was in much better shape and I could ride again, but it would be foolhardy to go a long distance on it.
Duncan drove me back to Melbourne to stay a night at his place, and then the next morning we headed over to CERES together — it was a public holiday, but Duncan had a key.
The CERES Bike Shed is a non-profit organisation in Brunswick where volunteers salvage, repair and sell secondhand bikes cheaply. It’s a way to get more people riding who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. They also provide a workshop, tools and spare parts for you to repair your own bike, with the guidance of their volunteers.
We arrived to find that dozens of bikes had been dumped on their doorstep over the long weekend by well-meaning donors. It was impossible to access the workshop and its collection of spare wheels without first moving the piled bikes one by one. Less well-meaning people had come and stolen the most valuable parts off some of the donated bikes, leaving behind only junk. Duncan told me these are common challenges they have to deal with, and a lot of their volunteers’ time is spent sorting parts and sending away scrap metal to be recycled.
We searched through scores of secondhand wheels, but the rarer 27 inch wheels were proving elusive. The couple we did find each had problems, such as a bent rim, poor bearings, or the wrong axle size.
I was on the verge of giving in and spending $100 for a new wheel from a bike shop.
Duncan went above and beyond in his effort to help me, and I feel sad that he didn’t get the satisfaction of his efforts bearing fruit. But in a way he did, as he put me onto my third rescuer.
Gayle is another kind-hearted person who runs a non-profit called We-Cycle in Northcote, where volunteers salvage secondhand bikes and provide them to newly-arrived refugees. Their workshop was closed for the long weekend, but when she heard about my situation she offered to make a special trip in and invited me to meet her there.
We-Cycle are less well-known than CERES and don’t have the problem of people dumping bikes on them, so their workshop was ordered and neat. While I searched I heard Gayle on the phone making arrangements to provide bikes to some new refugee families.
They had about fifteen wheels in their collection, and I assumed my chances of finding the right wheel were very slim. But remarkably there it was: a secondhand 27 inch alloy wheel with good bearings that fit my bike well. I felt immensely relieved. Gayle kindly donated it to me, along with a new inner tube.
After installing my new wheel I re-loaded my bike and boarded a train to Seymour, near Commonground, ready to continue my journey. Bellie and Alicia drove in to meet me there, delivering my special bike touring hat that I’d accidentally left behind at Commonground.
How did I find all these nice people who were willing to go so far out of their way to help me? I felt unworthy and immensely grateful. A huge thank you to Bellie, Duncan, Gayle, and the volunteers at Commonground, the CERES Bike Shed and We-Cycle, for all their help getting me back on the road.
Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?