In the loft of a warehouse on Causewayside, Bike Station manager Steven Hynd is doing some quick mental arithmetic.
The Edinburgh-based charity recently recycled its 40,000th bike, and its general manager is trying to put that into understandable terms.
“Going on a very rough calculation, 40,000 bikes would fill over 1800 tennis courts. It would also fill the pitches at Murrayfield, Tynecastle and Easter Road twice each,” he says. “That’s a lot of bikes.”
It all began 13 years ago, when cycling campaigner Ian Maxwell and the Bike Station’s fellow founders started a swap-shop for children’s cycles in Sciennes. By the end of the day, 40 had been donated.
At first, they were kept in someone’s empty greenhouse. Then the greenhouse filled up – followed by the garage, then the garden. That was when the Bike Station’s founders knew they were on to something.
It has kept growing ever since. At first it was located at Castlecliff, then moved to a space in the bowels of Waverley Station, below the ticket office – the “station” in the name is a lasting memento from those days.
It quickly outgrew its surroundings, moving to a pair of warehouses not far from the Meadows seven years ago. Its current home is an Aladdin’s cave for bike buffs, with tyres and wheels hanging from the ceiling, and its corners bursting with filing cabinets and boxes full of recycled parts.
“Without a thing like the Bike Station, a lot of people wouldn’t take up cycling, and a lot of bicycles would just go for scrap,” explains Ian. By lowering the cost of buying a decent bicycle, he says that the charity has made a significant contribution to making Edinburgh a cycling city.
The number of bike journeys being made in the Capital has risen significantly in recent years, particularly on segregated bike paths. “You just need to go to any advance stop box at a junction – 15 years ago you might well have been on your own, or possibly see another cyclist away in the distance. Now you almost always see two, three, four or more. It is very noticeable.”
Steven has been involved since the earliest days, and was the charity’s second employee when it secured funding for the first time. It now provides work for five mechanics and two office staff. The 40,000 bikes it has been donated have been turned into 27,000 for resale, meaning the charity has had a hand in producing a sizeable number of all the bikes on the streets of Edinburgh.
“We all recognise every bike that we ever worked on, which is quite sad,” jokes Steven, who also says he makes a mental note of bikes he expects to see handed in before long. “Myself and all the other mechanics would totally admit that when we cycle up behind other cyclists at traffic lights, part of our brain is analysing what is wrong with their bike, and working out where that noise is coming from. You can’t help doing it.”
Sometimes the urge to point out some much-needed repairs gets the better of him. “It takes an awful lot of willpower not to do that, and an awful lot of skill to do it tactfully.”
Even when a bike can’t be saved, very little goes to waste at the Bike Station. “What we don’t use then gets stripped down for parts, and then ultimately all the metals get taken away to the scrapyard to be recycled,” says Steven.
The hardest parts to reuse are the tyres, which unlike car tyres don’t provide enough rubber to be economical to recycle. The odd one will be given to art students, and bizarrely, people sometimes ask to make them into belts.
The charity is best known for taking in old, unloved bikes that might otherwise have been taken down to the tip or left by the side of the road, and restoring them for sale as affordable second-hand cycles. But the Bike Station does a lot more besides.
“The core mission is to reduce the barriers to cycling. That may be a little sentence but it covers an awful lot of stuff,” says Steven.
And it certainly does.
As well as recycling bikes, the Bike Station runs a repair department, using reclaimed parts wherever possible. It is also one of the few bike repair shops to allow cyclists to use its facilities to repair their own bikes, so that they don’t have to pay for an expensive set of tools.
The Bike Station runs industry-standard Velotech courses to help train the next generation of mechanics, drawing students from across the UK who are keen to pick up on its recycling philosophy.
“People travel from as far afield as Cornwall to do that,” says Steven.
But the most rewarding of its outreach activities, he says, are the youth work courses the Bike Station runs for disengaged young people.
More than 600 youths have taken part so far in a week-long programme that teaches them to build and ride their own bike, which they get to take away with them.
“If you give a young person a bike, and show them how to go out and explore on it, they might expand their horizons beyond the three or four streets they hang out in all the time, physically and mentally,” says Steven. “It’s great when you see one of them years later, on the bike, riding around. Then I know the course has done its job and created another cyclist.”
During the lifetime of the Bike Station, there has been an explosion in the popularity of cycling, with Olympians Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, then Tour de France winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome making a national pastime out of putting on the lycra at the weekend and going for a spin.
That hasn’t mattered all that much to Steven and his mechanics, however. They want ordinary folk to take to two wheels, and believe having Sir Chris’s mountainous thighs to live up to isn’t the best inspiration.
“I don’t know necessarily whether the Olympics has encouraged people to buy a bike to cycle to work or get around town,” says Steven. “I think Usain Bolt is pretty amazing, but he hasn’t convinced me to run anywhere.”
Getting more cyclists out on the streets will take more than just inspiration.
Ian, who is also chairman of cycling campaign group Spokes, wants to see more segregated bike paths on major city arteries, including Princes Street and Lothian Road.
“We feel there are an awful lot more standing by the sidelines who would take it up if they were a little more confident. We need more of these direct A to B routes through the city centre that are pleasant,” he says. “It’s not that they’re unsafe at the moment, but they don’t feel particularly safe. You have to be pretty determined to cycle along Princes Street at the moment.”
And Steven agrees, hoping that eventually people who commute using their bikes in Edinburgh will start thinking of themselves the way commuters in bike-friendly Holland do: not as cyclists, but just as people getting around.
“I think people are just realising that bikes are a sensible way to get around. It’s faster than walking and more convenient than waiting for the bus or trying to park your car,” Steven says. “I think it’s changing that mindset, that you don’t have to be a Chris Hoy, you don’t have to think of cycling as a workout – it’s just another mode of getting from A to B.”
The job of getting people to think of cycling less as a strenuous sport and more as a fun way of getting around has to start earlier than with commuters, and earlier even than in school.
The Bike Station’s next scheme is to give every nursery in the city two free balance bikes, made from recycled children’s bikes with the gears and pedals removed, so that toddlers grow up thinking of bikes as another toy to play with.
Cycle safety lessons in school can be intimidating and off-putting, says Steven. “We’re trying to get in below that. We won’t really see the results until about 15 to 20 years from now, but the idea is to try and change the next generation’s attitudes.”
The next milestone for the Bike Station will come around a lot sooner than that. With 200 bikes being donated every week, the 50,000 mark is just around the corner.
Long journey ahead
THE Bike Station’s mechanics know they have touched parts of people’s lives in recycling 40,000 bikes, but they know frustratingly little about the stories behind some of the historic cycles they have refurbished – the oldest dating to 1896.
That’s why they want to make the 40,000th bike live forever, on the internet at least, by telling its story using Twitter and Facebook.
The Bike Station hopes that the bike’s followers will see how much use and enjoyment its new owners get out of the second-hand cycle, but also how long a second-hand bike can last.
The red 24-inch frame children’s bike is now in the hands of
architect Akkiko Kobayashi’s daughter, Mia, eight, who is already using it to ride to school and to music lessons.
“I just think there’s no point paying for a new one, and I like the idea that the Bike Station is a charity and the money you spend goes towards all their other activities as well,” says Akkiko.
The bike used to belong to teacher Debbie Bently’s son Josh, 11, before he outgrew it.
Debbie says: “The whole concept of the Bike Station is really good. We’ve bought bikes from them previously, and we’ve gotten really top bikes from them for a really cheap price, so it feels like a bit of give and take.”