Wellington’s community bike workshop Mechanical Tempest has come a long way since its radical roots in 2003, but is still providing a radically good space for a community that needs it.
Long-time Mechanical Tempest volunteer Arthur Price said it was all a bit more anarchistic when they started out 15 years ago: “It was a dark room full of bikes and parts only accessible by the punks that lived in the house.”
Its first home was at 128 Abel Smith, a dilapidated two-storey villa in central Wellington which has long been home to groups fighting racism and oppression, and now calls itself the 128 Radical Social Centre.
Mechanical Tempest was reportedly born when a couple of 128 punks with $100 of tools decided Wellington could do with a bike kitchen.
While they’ve never kept numbers, Price estimates that thousands of bikes have been repaired in their community workshop over the years.
The workshop eventually out-grew that dark room, and since about a year ago has been operating out of an old service station in Newtown.
Mechanical Tempest share the space with ReBicycle, who themselves have repaired close to 1000 donated bikes in the three years they’ve been running, and gifted them to people who need them.
Between the two organisations, there are three shipping containers full of tools, parts and bikes, most of them donated by the public or bike shops.
The new workshop offers more light to fix the bikes by and they open more reliably than they used to, but Mechanical Tempest holds strong to their radical roots with anti-racist flyers still on the walls of their workshop.
Arthur says while those using the space has changed a little, from students and homeless people to anyone in Newtown or nearby in need of a tool or a hand, but they still have a political ethos.
“To me it’s the idea of mutual aid. I want to live in a world where people help each other and share their knowledge freely – I get to be part of making that a reality here. Everyone who wants to ride a bike deserves to able to ride one, and this is a way we can achieve that.”
I visited the workshop on a chilly Tuesday evening, arriving a few minutes after opening – there were already four people hard at work fixing up their bikes and more awkwardly pushing through the glass doors.
Among them is Kay Marriott, who has come in from Lower Hutt on her son-in-law’s recommendation. Kay moved back to Wellington about 18 months ago with little money, no job and no car.
She soon bought two bikes from an op shop for $30 and has steadily been doing them up. One she fixed up to the point where she was able to sell it, and the other she’s sprucing up to use to get around on.
Kay as multiple sclerosis, and some days one side of her body doesn’t work so well – so while walking can be hard, biking makes it possible for her to get around okay.
While she’s still building up her biking confidence, she’s been very thankful to have the support of Mechanical Tempest to get on the road.
“I really love the fact that they’re experts, people that really know what they’re doing, who are non-judgmental, friendly, who give their time.”
Tempest volunteer Mark Johnston, who’s been involved for about four years, says he stays involved because he loves the people and loves sharing the knowledge he’s built up.
“It’s really special because of the people that run it, we’re all on the same page. We make sure we never take the tools out of people’s hands. If someone’s struggling, we help them and check things for them, we’re building people’s confidence. That’s a great feeling.”
Mark says while there are plenty of places to take your bike to be repaired around Wellington, Mechanical Tempest exists to be a more accessible place.
“It’s a very open and friendly space for people to come and repair their bikes. A lot of bikes shops in Wellington can be negative about the bike you bring in, like say it’s not worth repairing. We’re able to repair any bike they bring in, we don’t turn people away.”
As well as being good for people, it’s good for environment.
“It operates on two levels. It helps to get more people riding their bikes, replacing short car journeys… It’s also preventing things from going to landfill.”
Mark says they can use almost everything that comes through the door, but even stuff they can’t use they’re able to get to scrap metal recyclers instead of chucking.
For Nicole Gaston, another of the Tempest’s long-time volunteers, sustainability is the most important aspect of what they do.
“I am really committed to having as little impact on the planet as possible, and one way I do that is by cycling everywhere. I just wish we could get more people out of cars and onto bikes.”
Nicole still remembers how proud she felt when she replaced her bike’s entire bottom bracket and trued her wheels at a workshop in Montreal many summers ago.
“I got totally hooked on community bike workshops. It’s such an empowering practice and always full of the raddest people.”
It was a 1970s Raleigh Sun 10-speed that got her hunting for parts at 128 and then about five years ago she started volunteering for them.
Nicole says the existing volunteers knew the workshop could be “a bit of an intimidating dude space” and that women volunteers made it a little more accessible.
“All of our volunteers, male and female, are awesome, and I really wish I could say we live in a post-gender world where it doesn’t matter, but in general it’s good to have people you identify with modelling new behaviours.
“So to achieve my dream of everyone riding bikes, we should have women and men and trans people and people of colour and mums with babies and every kind of person demonstrating that anyone can ride and fix a bike.”
Volunteer bike mechanic Koen Greven says there are few bikes they won’t attempt to fix.
“Our ultimate goal is to get as many functioning bikes on the road as possible, there’s nothing we can’t fix.”
On the odd occasion they are defeated, they strip the bike for parts “like vultures” and everything gets a chance at new life.
Koen says his time at Mechanical Tempest is downtime for him because, although he fixes bikes for a living too, it’s a low stress, low commitment way to help and empower people.
He talks about bike riding as a way to level people: on a group ride you might have someone who has paid thousands for their bike and someone who has paid $50 for their bike, and they’re both having the same amount of fun.
“In fact the guy who paid $50 for his bike is probably having more fun because he fixed his bike himself, and there’s a satisfaction in that.”
Koen says the beauty of the workshop is that people learn how to fix their own bikes, but there are also experts there to check that what they’ve done is safe.
Asked about what it’s like cycling in New Zealand, Koen says there’s just no downside.
“In my mind there’s no negative – assuming critical mass – there’s no downside to it. Essentially it’s a fun thing to do, that’s a reason on its own, but for the environment it’s positive, for your personal health it’s positive, and there’s a mindfulness or sort of awareness about it too.”
He clarifies that what he means by that ‘awareness’: “New Zealand’s culture and infrastructure hasn’t caught up yet, so you have to be aware.”
Alixe Föllmer, recently arrived from France, is undaunted. She started her hunt for a bike as soon as she arrived in Wellington.
Her new flatmates told her about Mechanical Tempest and she came straight down. She then had to wait four days for it to open, and as soon as it did, she negotiated a koha for one of their bikes, which she is now doing up.
“Yesterday I got this bike and I’m really happy about it, and I’m trying to make it beautiful for riding.”
Alixe knows a little about bike repair but needed a refresher on some stuff, and also didn’t have the tools she needed – Mechanical Tempest has provided the support she needed.
“It’s amazing because you feel supported, and you don’t have to buy a new bike – it feels like you’ve been helped by the universe.
“[Mechanical Tempest] should be everywhere – it’s encouraging people to ride bikes and not take the car. You can learn [to fix bikes] so you feel empowered.”
Find out more about Mechanical Tempest on their website or drop in to their workshop at 224 Riddiford St on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm.
There’s a similar bike kitchen in Auckland, find out more on their Facebook page.
Or if you want to start your own, here’s a good resource on getting started.