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A year of covid-times at the Bristol Bike Project: one mechanic’s take

One year after Covid came to town it feels pertinent to reflect on how it’s affected our project. Rob is a mechanic in BBP’s shop and has been a member of the coop for 9 years. He shares the ups & downs of working at BBP over the last year…

Half way through March 2020, spring arrived all of a sudden and this coincided with the world turning upside down. A year later, it still hasn’t righted itself. But it seems like a good time to reflect on 12 very strange months. 

A lot has happened and almost nothing has happened in that time. Months roll by and seasons change, but life has mostly gone into stasis. It feels like that at BBP sometimes. Like we’re keeping The Project on life support until we’re able to get up and running at full capacity again.

For the first couple of weeks – the back end of that sunny March last year – it felt as though we had a meeting every day to decide how to change our operating procedures in response to the latest government advice and emerging understanding of the virus. Those meetings quickly switched from in-person to Zoom. We’re still Zooming now, well used to the screen freezes, the talking while muted, and the general awkwardness. I didn’t foresee that at the time.

I do look back on that hectic period with some pride though. With no boss (we are a flat structured members co-op) we navigated through the unknown together. I didn’t agree with every decision that was made and I expect that’s true for everyone who was involved in making them. But I’m glad to remember a lot of constructive discussion and a real effort to make responsible choices. It felt like a co-op working as it should. Although it’s sad that those choices meant pausing so many of the activities that make BBP what it is. 

Then came what I think of as ‘deep lockdown’: April and May 2020, when I once cycled up Gloucester Road for five miles before seeing a car. There was an unreal atmosphere out in the endless, empty sunshine, but in the BBP shop it was a good time. Having initially been fearful of what lockdown might do to trade, we realised almost immediately that the bike industry had lucked out with a set of circumstances perfect for getting people riding. Paid leisure time for many; amazing weather; a fraction of the usual traffic; strong reasons for avoiding public transport; little else to do. At BBP we also had – thanks to Bristol City Council – funding to offer big discounts on bikes to key workers, and there were a lot of key workers wanting bikes. Lots of people who bought bikes at BBP in those few weeks hadn’t ridden since they were kids. It was very cool to be involved in getting them back in the saddle as adults. 

For a couple of months, Adam, Julien and I just built bikes as fast as we could around the few repairs that people needed. It was week after week of fun projects in a weirdly (given what was going in in the wider world) stress-free environment. Putting swoopy bars on old steel MTBs and commuterising everything in sight. We only had a handful of customers each day, but they all bought a bike or had a £200 service.  Setting aside the context that made it like this, these are ideal bike shop conditions! The good trading meant that we could make a bit of time to do free repairs for our Earn-a-Bike community, and eventually to build new bikes for people who needed them. We did what we could to keep BBP’s community programmes running in some form while we worked out a medium-term plan. Deep lockdown lives in my memory as something of a golden age.

Then things changed overnight, or so it felt. When the first national lockdown ended and we re-opened fully after only serving key workers for two months, we were overrun. Loads more people wanting bikes and – thanks to the difficulty of buying one – loads more people pulling out ever-crustier wrecks from sheds and garages for renovation. But we were still at only 2/3 of our normal shop staffing and all doing overtime to compensate, which ended up feeling relentless. We were all glad to be working and glad that BBP seemed to have weathered the financial storm, albeit by luck as much as judgement. But we were done in, and hadn’t had a break since Christmas, so closed the shop for two weeks in early July. That way everyone got some time off as soon as possible and we could all come back fresh.

It didn’t work out quite that way. The break was very welcome, but getting back to the shop still proved tough. Looking back now on the second half of 2020, it feels like one long slog towards Christmas. Everyone working at BBP suffered on that trudge, but I’m very thankful that it remains a supportive environment even when under strain. 

In late summer The Project welcomed back volunteers as best it could with social distancing restrictions and it was lovely to have them back in the workshop, even in small numbers. But that didn’t last, as covid infection and mortality rates steadily grew through autumn and we went back into lockdown. 

So community programmes operated at a much reduced capacity for a year, which has meant a lot of saying ‘no’ to people who clearly need help and who rely on BBP. That’s been the worst part. That, and there being no learning or community-building going on. As a small staff team, we can still build bikes and get them to people who need them, but for all it’s worthiness that is a soulless occupation compared to The Project’s usual borderline-chaotic way of delivering its services. 

In some ways, BBP feels as though it’s shrunk down to a much-too-small group of people. I know that colleagues have worked really hard to find ways of engaging members and volunteers, but inevitably people are going to drift away when there are few-to-no opportunities to be involved in person. The Project has always benefited from committed volunteers and I dearly hope that people will come back when they can. We can try to keep BBP alive in its current pared-down form, but doing so only really matters if it can flourish again one day. And that can only happen with volunteers. They’re The Project’s engine. 

In the meantime, everything just feels a little bit more difficult than it should. Maybe 10% more of a pain in the bum, across the board: having the windows open when it’s below freezing because we need ventilation; wearing masks and sanitising things; still saying no to people who need help, or making them wait a long time; stock getting scarcer and more expensive (thanks, Brexit); not seeing colleagues in person because they’ve been working remotely for months. None of these things on their own is all that bad, but they make for a crappy package. 

So it’s been a year without a bustling community workshop, full of people repairing, sharing, and giving us shop mechanics a reason to be there. The simplicity of last spring’s golden age seemed a long way off from the cold, dark, midwinter vantage point of lockdown three. Any novelty, for those with the luxury of enjoying it, has long since worn off. BBP remains in survival mode. 

But there is hope that we’ll return to some sort of normality in 2021. Can society ‘build back better’? I felt quite optimistic about that at one time. It seemed as though there was a widespread re-evaluation of priorities going on, prompted by the shock of the pandemic’s early days. Now I’m not at all sure. Maybe we’ve become collectively tired enough that we’d gladly just return to where we were before: undervaluing essential workers; binging on throwaway stuff; perpetuating injustice because we’re not the ones suffering it. If that gets me down – which it does – there is at least one strong reason to be cheerful. BBP has always been part of a brighter future, so we can play our part in building back better by getting back to doing what we do. We have plenty to learn and plenty to improve, but we’re more part of the solution than part of the problem and that thought will keep me going for however much longer the covid-times last.