A pile of bike frames and wheels suspended from the wall at Bike Kitchen San Francisco on Jan. 31, 2022. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

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City bicyclists went hard Monday night, descending on the Bike Kitchen San Francisco tucked between Alabama and Florida streets near 19th to relieve the volunteer-run, Mission-based workshop’s unique problem: too many bikes. 

They were like kids in a candy store, these bicyclists in a bike workshop where used commuter, trail, and kiddie models were being sold for between $20 and $80. 

A woman had just selected a Public brand bike with a deep beach cruiser-style handlebar for which she would pay $80. “If that was brand new, it would be like $800 to $900,” said volunteer Jerome Navarro.

“We were shut down for a long time because of the pandemic … but the donations to the shop have not stopped,” he said. “We’ve just been overstocked.” 

Navarro, 28, who is a civil engineer by day and volunteer staff mechanic at the Bike Kitchen by night and weekend, had rushed to the workshop that evening without even eating dinner to help the Bike Kitchen chairman of the board De Ming Liu.

“We’re definitely caught off guard,” said Navarro. He had been so busy helping patrons select bikes and troubleshoot repairs that he wasn’t sure how many bikes had been purchased, deferring to his colleague manning the register who was too busy with patrons to comment. 

“At least two,” said Navarro, grinning as two new bike owners exited the workshop with their  bikes.

Their space, while typically sufficient to store all their parts and projects in progress as well as accommodate 12 work stations, was chock full with a backlog of donations acquired during the pandemic.

Parts and bikes in various states of disrepair were literally overflowing into the courtyard. A pile of rubber tires sat nearly five feet off of the ground outside the shop while frames, wheels, and other assorted parts were tucked into every nook and cranny and even hanging from the walls and ceiling inside.

Several seemingly experienced individuals had already selected frames and were swapping out parts, and others inspected fully built bikes. The amateur mechanics’ click-clacking and gaiety as advice flowed from one to another almost drowned out upbeat party music drifting from an apartment above.

While the bike-curious and economically savvy browsed outside, a nerve-grating screech emanated from the courtyard as the rider of a race car red bike came to a sudden halt, bewildered.

“So, that means the brake pads aren’t hitting the frame at the same time,” called Navarro from the workshop. 

“Either one part of the pad is hitting the wheel or there’s some oil contamination,” he added. “But basically, it means you’ve got to check out those brake pads.”

The rider, Bo Sanders, was looking to be a first-time bike owner and had sought out the Bike Kitchen after seeing an advertisement for the sale on social media.

The 31-year-old software engineer got to work on the problem immediately, perusing the workshop’s floor-to-ceiling shelves and closets for a wrench and spare breakpad or two. He likes the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere of the Bike Kitchen, he said – he’s only ever changed a chain before.

After selling his car when he moved to the city some six years ago, Sanders has relied on public transportation and, more recently, Lyft bikes. 

“I thought I might as well get my own bike,” he said, especially after enjoying an East Bay Bike Party with a borrowed set of wheels a few weeks ago.

Hoists and workbenches provided space to tinker, if he could maneuver around the many piles of parts and bikes in various states of assemblage.

This was an “extreme instance,” said Navarro, since they usually focus on providing repair assistance and selling parts versus selling road-ready bikes. They’re not out to replace bike shops, he said, but rather to offer a space where people can get parts they need as well as workspace and advice. 

“If you live in a small apartment, where are you going to work? In your bathroom or something?” he said.

Navarro said they have a lot of regulars, including couriers – people who rely on their bikes to make money and are underpaid, he added – and host specific work hours like WTF (women/trans/femmes) every second and fourth Monday to provide “a safe space … a comfortable space to learn.”

A few other patrons had also dropped in looking for bikes or parts.

I realize that my helmet is missing its little clasp,” said one who approached Navarro, helmet in hand. They wondered if the Bike Kitchen could help.

“You can fish around,” said Navarro. “We also have helmets in the back. You can cannibalize it — take off the part from the helmet.”

He said they help a lot of patrons with simple fixes like pumping up tires or patching holes, but they also see a fair share come in looking to replace stolen tires, frames, and whole bikes.

One woman perusing Monday’s selection had had her bike stolen last week and was trying to replace it to continue training for the AIDS/LifeCycle race in June – a 545 mile ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles to raise awareness and money for AIDS work.

“So I think the whole build your own bike thing’s probably just not me,” she said, explaining she couldn’t figure out how to get the wheel on a frame she liked. “But thank you for all your help,” she said. “It’s cool that you do this.” 

Well, you gave it a good shot,” said Navarro. 

“The hardest obstacle to getting better at bikes and learning how to do it is a lot of times just ourselves. So this space takes as many of the other variables out of the equation,” he said. “If you don’t have tools, we have the tools. If you don’t have space, we have a space to work.”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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