Russell Silverwood needed to fix his bike. “When I first heard about Mechanical Tempest, it was like an urban myth. It was this magical place with all these bike parts,” he tells Amanda Witherell. Turns out the myth was true and more – benches and bike stands to make tuning easy, essential tools like pedal wrenches and tyre irons, all styles of handlebars, forks, frames, wheel sets, brake cables, tyres, tubes. Even entire bikes are up for grabs at the little ground floor shop that’s helping to make Wellington a community of bikers.
Many months later, Silverwood is now one of at least a dozen volunteer mechanics who take turns tending Mechanical Tempest, a combination do-it-yourself bike shop and community space on the ground floor of 128 Abel Smith Street. Festooned in banners and murals at the edge of the motorway, the old, beige Victorian house has a long reputation as a home base for radicals.
But, it’s also home to a community garden, Revolting Books anarchist library, a women’s safe space, a new organic food co-op, and the bike shop, which pays the most rent, occupies the most space, and operates entirely on koha. The shop opened in 2003 and slowly grew into a variably-organised, overstuffed jumble of donated bicycles and parts, but in the past year a dedicated core of volunteers has emerged and transformed it to a more usable place with twice the workspace, regular hours and regular activities – like the Wenches with Wrenches women’s repair classes on Tuesdays and the twice monthly working bees to keep the place tidy and functional.
One Sunday afternoon working bee has bluesy riffs murmuring from a boom box on the floor. Silverwood is sorting drawers in a file cabinet where kilos of metal bicycle parts have replaced paper folders, while Stephanie Cairns sweeps out the dark corners behind the work benches. Ania Upstill expertly strips tyres off donated wheels and hangs them by size and style from hooks on the wall. Rosie Rowe uncovers a sign amongst years of accumulated bicycle bits: it reads ‘skill is appreciated but not necessary.’
“It’s very much a do-it-yourself thing. You can’t bring a bike in here and expect a mechanic to fix it. You have to bring your own energy to it,” explains Cairns. Open to the public every weekday evening, experienced mechanics are there to help, though more often than not other attendees are just as quick to teach newbies new tricks.
“When I started doing stuff here I didn’t know much, but I learned so much helping people. There are no experts,” says Cairns, who’s now one of the Wenches with Wrenches.
So is Rowe. She relocated here from Portland, Oregon, and says Mechanical Tempest reminds her of home, where she was involved with a similar women’s workshop. “It had a large following and a real riot grrl vibe, but in Wellington it feels so good to have this workshop because women seem way more timid and not the type to elbow their way to the front of the class.”
Cairns says they deliberately try to provide an atmosphere different from walking into a commercial bike shop. “They tend to be very male-dominated and focused on sports. We’re trying to get away from bicycling being seen as a sport and more like a form of green transportation. It makes it seem expensive and unreachable, like you have to look a certain way.”
“And it plays into capitalism,” pipes up Rowe.
“Bikes are really easy to work on and the industry has done a good job making it look expensive and complicated,” says Cairns, who’s finished cleaning and is now adjusting the brakes on her blue-framed granny bike. “A big part of the ethos is to enable people to work on their own bikes if they don’t have a lot of money.”
However, adds Rowe, you’d be surprised by the clientele. “It’s not what you’d expect, which is what we want. We don’t want cyclists to be marginalized. We are professionals, doctors, lawyers, filmmakers.”
Though based in a building that describes itself as a radical social centre, the shop doesn’t formally get involved in cycling advocacy or actions. The most revolutionary acts at Mechanical Tempest are learning how to true your wheels and spin a wrench. If riding a bike is an act of independence, then fixing that bike takes it one step further.
“It’s about people taking control of their own transport.”