Back to main Podcast Page

Veronica Gordon

In every episode of this podcast, I get to speak to so many passionate community business leaders who are inspiring positive change in their local areas. All of them have had an impact on me, and given me new and interesting ways to think about and run my own social business. Like whether charging communities for your services makes it more valuable to them than giving it away for free. And I’ve also got some great tips on how to keep volunteers motivated. But today’s guests have had an unexpected effect on my life. They’ve inspired me to get on a bike after not cycling since I was a teenager.

Welcome to “Then One Day”, the podcast that tells the extraordinary stories of community businesses throughout the UK. I’m Veronica Gordon.

Today, we’re hearing from two organisations who are harnessing the freedom and joy of cycling to help people in their communities. We’re heading into the workshop of a fantastic organisation called the Bristol Bike Project and pedaling onto the cycle track at the Capital of Cycling in Bradford. But to start, I had to find out why cycling. So, how is cycling and having a bike changing people’s lives?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

In many and incredible ways, and I’m learning new ones all the time. Something about having a bicycle, for me, the thing I hear the most and feel the most is the kind of independence of movement. So, particularly at a place like the Bristol Bike Project, where you can come and access a bike for free if you can’t afford to buy one, having a vehicle which allows you to move around easily is an incredibly freeing experience. Whether it’s because you, you know, have to get to certain appointments, or it’s to see friends or family, or it’s to get to green spaces. Just having something which allows you to do that, which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and at the same time is improving your kind of physical and mental wellbeing.

 

Veronica Gordon 

That’s absolutely beautiful. Is there any specific story that stands out for you about somebody who has been supported by the Bristol Bike Project?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

I mean, there’s so many. It is hard to pick one. But something that always sticks in my mind is someone who was recovering from drug addiction. And he came along to the Bristol Bike Project and got a bike; he was referred to through the Bristol Drugs Project. He came in one day and he said, you know, now that I have a bike, for the first time, I’m able to cycle past the place where he would normally go to pick up his drugs. He said, I’m now able to cycle past for the first time and not be drawn into that space. And I think that was a really powerful thing to hear of perhaps the speed of a bicycle allows you to kind of move on through places.

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

There was a guy that came repeatedly requesting a bike to Capital of Cycling, who’d told us a story about having his house bombed in Iraq and his house had collapsed. And he’d lost his family and it was just him in the UK. He had a back problem as a result of injuries sustained. So, he just wanted a bike to be able to get to the doctors basically; it was a simple kind of thing. So, you know, just a simple connecting a person with an item, you wouldn’t think it was a very complicated thing. But for those people, it can make quite a significant difference.

 

Veronica Gordon

You just heard from Krysia Williams, the Community and Communications Coordinator at the Bristol Bike Project. And Dave Robinson, Director of the Capital of Cycling. I wanted to involve them both in this episode to highlight that even though there are many similar community businesses in the UK, they are all run in slightly different ways, offering unique services tailored to their communities. Let’s head up to Bradford now and join Dave.

Dave, it’s really, really nice to meet you. First of all, I have to ask, the name Capital of Cycling is really interesting. How did that name come about?

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

It’s an interesting story about that actually because several of the people that were involved in starting this charity don’t actually agree on how that name came about and whose idea it was. But as a phrase, it was a bit of a joke really because Bradford, where we’re based, although it does have some nice cycling countryside nearby, is not known for its like, shall we say, pleasant driving styles and so on, and it’s quite hilly and quite often rains. So, there was a bit of a joke in calling it the Capital of Cycling. But beyond that, the word “Capital” implies a few different things. So, not just the capital, but the capital that it brings, be it social capital. It can lift people out of transport poverty, which is something that people struggle with. But the central idea of capital is, you know, something that everybody can go to.

 

Veronica Gordon

I like that. So, with the central idea with somewhere everyone can go to, what does Capital of Cycling aim to do?

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

Well, in a nutshell, it’s trying to get more people on bikes more often, but with an emphasis on meeting social needs. So, rather than seeing cycling as a competitive sport, or something that’s just a leisure activity, it aims to kind of bring about types of social change by using cycling as a tool. So, we do things like teach people to cycle who can’t cycle. But there’s also kind of like a maintenance workshop, which does lots of work with, for example, kids at risk of exclusion, support for refugees and asylum seekers to get bikes.

 

Veronica Gordon

That sounds like you’ve got lots and lots of activities going on. Where does most of this take place?

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

So, we’ve got a large city centre venue, which is a kind of mean well use space. It’s kind of the size of the ground floor of a multi-storey carpark, which is exactly what it is. So that within that we can create a kind of learn-to-ride space, and a sizeable workshop, and a kind of retail space as well.

 

Veronica Gordon

That’s lovely. That’s lovely. And I’m really intrigued that you said your hub is the size of a car park. Give me a tour; walk me through.

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

From the outside, it’s like a large shopfront with glass windows. It’s on a main road right in the very centre of Bradford, opposite the city hall. So, you’d see a sort of slightly dingy exterior with Capital of Cycling written on the windows. But as you came in, to your right, there’s a maintenance workshop with various stands and lots of activities going on with volunteers and so on. And then you’d walk into a large cycle track area. So, it’s not like a velodrome or anything posh like that. It’s a concrete floor that’s quite big, with weird and wonderful bikes stacked up around the edges, including a range of adaptive bikes, and reclining bikes, and four-seater bikes and things like that. If you walked into the next big room, you’d find a huge treasure trove of semi-working bikes and broken bikes. And then another large room is like the retail and events space. It’s kind of like a shop area for secondhand bikes. But we’d also do things like art exhibitions and film screenings and talks and stuff within that space

 

Veronica Gordon

And pre-lockdown, tell me a typical day. Who’s coming in? What activities are happening?

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

It was really starting to build up. We’d spent the first few years really trying to get to that state where it really felt like a buzzing space. There were people coming in and out all the time – collecting bikes; taking them places; activities; training going on in the maintenance workshop; learn-to-ride stuff going on in the cycle track. We were doing sessions for people with substance misuse issues. Young offender groups were being given activities to do.

 

Veronica Gordon

You mentioned you’ve got some bikes available for people with disabilities. How does that work? And what types of projects do you run there?

 

Dave Robinson, Capital of Cycling 

So, our connection to disability focused activities initially came about through working with Bradford Disability Sports and Leisure. The clue is in the name – they run lots of leisure activities for people with disabilities. But they have in their care, some very interesting bikes that range from a mechanical reclining bike that you can turn your head to steer and it’s electric – so, literally someone without use of arms or legs could potentially control a bike. To trikes that maybe someone with cerebral palsy, who’s never going to quite get the balance to ride a two-wheel upright bike, can use. To just kind of like family fun bikes that are four seats that you might see in a campsite in France or something like that. So, yeah, that’s how we kind of got involved and they were running sessions in our space basically through the winter. Yeah, they’re just kind of like families with maybe a child who has a disability of some kind, would come along and just have a bit of fun really; there’s not much more to it. They do a two-hour session and leave with big smiles.

 

Veronica Gordon

Someone who is familiar with smiles is Haroon. He’s a teacher and Head of Sports at a local school. He’s also a keen cyclist, something his students couldn’t help but notice.

 

Haroon, Bradford 

I’d be biking to school and the kids would see me. They’d be asking me, “Is that your bike, sir?”, “Do you like biking?”, and all of this and I’d be talking with them. So, I’d ask them, “Do you bike?” They’d say, “No. No, we don’t sir.” So, I asked them why and they were like “we don’t have a bike”. And there’s so many children in our school, because of the area we’re from, that they didn’t have bikes.

 

Veronica Gordon

At this point, Haroon had already been volunteering at the Capital of Cycling, and so put his school in contact with the organisation.

 

Haroon, Bradford 

We’ve been offered courses to train up our staff in bike safety and taking children on bike rides. We’ve been offered bikes; we’ve been offered helmets. Just today, we’ve took a group of children out for a biking session. And we specifically chose the children who knew how to ride a bike but didn’t have a bike. And for one kid, it was the first time he said that he had rode a bike in three years. And even though at times we’re like explaining this is how we do safety, and this is the different parts of a bike, they couldn’t stop riding and riding around. And I didn’t know even want to tell them off because it’s their 45 minutes or an hour, the first time in three years they rode a bike. So, I could just really see him going around and around and keep going and enjoying themselves. That was just today.

There are so many benefits. I know, because I’m in charge of sport at our school, I know first-hand how just now in the pandemic, that in terms of fitness, stamina, and other health issues that have come about, biking is one way they could just easily take all of that and put it aside and get themselves fit again and do it in a fun way. But not only that, just like again from today, the biking session, there were people from different classes, different friendship groups even, who all got along, who were all talking, who were all excited. And it really helps their social skills as well. So, that’s another way that it can really help out with.

 

Veronica Gordon

And so, from Bradford to the Bristol Bike Project in the south west. In normal times, hundreds of people come through its doors each week, whether the staff, volunteers or service users. Krysia Williams is their Community and Communications Coordinator.

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

We’re a member led co-op. And what we do is we repair and rehome unwanted bicycles within the Bristol community. So, we aim to get as many people as possible out on two wheels and for it to be an inclusive and empowering experience. And the way that we do that is we have bicycles that are donated to us from around Bristol. We repair them with the help of volunteers. And then, normally outside of COVID times, people would come into the workshop and learn how to fix a bike and in the process earn a bike and be able to come back as well and repair it for free with our support as well.

 

Veronica Gordon

That sounds great. And when did the organisation start?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

We started in 2008. And it started off as a very tiny operation but grew very quickly. It was a partnership with Bristol Refugee Right. One of the founders of the Bristol Bike Project, he was volunteering at Bristol Refugee Rights at the time and saw that transport was something that would have been really useful for people who are members of Bristol Refugee Rights, who people seeking asylum with very little access to funds who needed to get around the city. And so, his solution was, well, let’s see if we can get some bikes sorted out. And very quickly, we had a lot of people knocking on the door saying, “Hey, I’d benefit from about too”, or “I know someone who would benefit from a bike”. And so, the take up of that programme really grew and expanded. And at the Bike Project, our eligibility criteria is relatively free and relaxed. We don’t want it to be kind of pigeon-holed into boxes. But we generally say, if you’ve been experiencing long-term unemployment for six months or more then you are eligible to come and receive a bike from us. And we take lots of self-referrals. And we also take referrals from between 50 and 60 organisations from across Bristol as well.

 

Veronica Gordon

How about you? How did you get involved in the project?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

So, I’d heard about the Bristol Bike Project long before I got involved. I wasn’t living in Bristol and I was really keen to find something like it. I started learning mechanics and helping other bike projects that I found. I was living in London for a while, and I was helping out with some projects there. And when I moved to Bristol, I thought right, I’m going to get stuck in straightaway. And I think I volunteered once or twice before this job came up and applied for it and then it was like a dream come true to get the job and start working there.

 

Veronica Gordon 

You are smiling so much when you talk about it. How is working and being part of Bristol Bike Project improving and enhancing your life?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

Well, my mechanic skills are getting loads better. And that’s brilliant. Also, from arriving in Bristol and starting to work there, I met so many different people and had conversations that were so eye-opening. For me, it’s been a constant experience of learning more every day about, not just mechanics, but people’s experiences and people’s world views, and that’s been an incredibly enriching experience. Yeah, and being part of a co-op as well. Learning and trying new methods of decision making, and how we run the projects, which is aiming to be as grassroots as possible and as member-led as possible.

 

Veronica Gordon

But at the Bristol Bike Project, it’s not just users who benefit from their services. Volunteers do too. Meet Dean.

 

Dean, Bristol Bike Project 

I come and volunteer on a Thursday on the Earn-a-Bike scheme, where people from all walks of life come in and work on a bike for a few hours and do some general maintenance. And I help on the system with that. I’m an addict in recovery and I’ve always found it difficult to relate to people. I don’t know, from where I’ve come from and how I grew up and the place I grew up and the people I hung around with, it was all sort of a front; everyone had a front. And basically, coming here, clean and sober, it was like that front was stripped away. I had to go through like a transition period of stripping the front away and coming in as I really am, rather than with the front and the ego that I have always had. After the few times being here, that started fading away and I just got more comfortable and more comfortable in the environment. And then working with people from all walks of life, from all different nations, and some can’t speak English, some have got learning difficulties, some have got all sorts of issues. And I sort of had to work through my own issues, whilst working with their issues. See I had to work with someone who couldn’t speak English, in my head, I’d be thinking how I am going to handle a situation. But every situation I’ve come up against, I’ve just worked through and yeah, it’s just a perfect environment for me to work on my stuff. And I’ve discovered that like, I’ve got attributes that I didn’t know I had through coming here. I didn’t know I could like the people; I didn’t know I was a good communicator with people; I didn’t know I could be patient and tolerant and generous and helpful. And I was really surprised just how sort of genuine and honest and friendly all the people who run the project were. Because I’ve never sort of come across many people like that. So, being here has just give me an opportunity to work on all that stuff, as well as working bikes. I built a bike, and I can maintain my bike here. It’s been a sort of very important part of my recovery.

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

And we have sort of spin-offs of that programme as well. So, we have a women’s only one, which is for women and non-binary people. And all of those programmes have opportunities for people to come and learn to fix their bikes if anything goes wrong.

 

Veronica Gordon 

Tell me a bit about the women and non-binary project that you’re on.

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

Yeah, great. It’s the same as the Earn-A-Bike programme, but it’s specifically for women and non-binary people. And it’s women and non-binary lead as well. So, typically, we have one person running the workshop, and we have two people who come along to learn about basic bike maintenance. And it’s about providing a space that feels comfortable and empowering away from the kind of dynamics that you might normally find in a bike workshop. And also, every Monday night, we do something called Wxmen’s Night, we spell women with an X so that it’s also for gender non-conforming or non-binary people as well. And that’s a workshop where people are coming in to learn how to fix their bikes with the support of our mechanics and volunteers. Yeah, it’s my favourite workshop, the Wxmen’s Night.

 

Veronica Gordon

I was just going to ask what your favourite one is. And so why is the Wxmen’s Night your favourite one?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

It’s the place I feel most encouraged to be myself. You know, I co-ordinate those workshops and often I’m asking other people in the workshop, “I don’t know how to do this, can you show me how to do it?” and that feels ok. There’s very much that spirit of togetherness.

 

User 1, Bristol Bike Project 

I’ve never been on a bike before but the first time I tried; I feel free. I feel free. I feel like I’m in control of something.

 

User 2, Bristol Bike Project 

It’s just a really welcoming, warm, open environment where women can learn, skill share, get better at mechanics, and fix their bike.

 

User 3, Bristol Bike Project 

I’d not long moved to Bristol and I had no friends. I had no one here. And I’ve made a lot of friends here and I just feel really safe and I look forward to coming here. It’s like a home to me.

 

User 4, Bristol Bike Project 

Everyone is very inclusive, very welcoming. Everyone helps you out if you don’t know what you’re doing. So, if you’re new mechanic, people are there to show you what to do. It’s very very supportive.

 

User 5, Bristol Bike Project 

Wxmen’s Night is different because there is still the stigma that we don’t fix things, or we don’t repair things. And it’s almost like the sisterly support of the “Yes, you can!” feel to it.

 

Veronica Gordon

Brilliant hearing from some of the women taking part in the workshops. But there was still something I was particularly curious about. And where do the bikes come from?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

So, the bikes come from anywhere and everywhere. Yeah, there is a lot of unused bikes sitting about in Bristol. We get lots of individual donations, people who have bikes in their gardens that they’ve not been using. You know, we struggle to keep up with the number that are donated to us and we do refer them on to other projects as well. But we also get places who are getting in contact with us, like Bristol Temple Meads when they have to clear out the bikes that have been abandoned there or housing associations.

 

Veronica Gordon

So, how is the Bike Project funded?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

So, we’re mostly self-funded. We generate about 80 to 85% of our own income. So, we run a bike shop, kind of just like any other bike shop, except that all the bikes that we sell are second-hand. So, they’ve been donated to the project, and we refurbish them. And we do bike repairs and sell accessories and all that kind of thing. And then aside from that, we have a supporters’ scheme; we get one-off donations; and we have the odd grant that we get in to startup new community programmes and that kind of thing.

 

Veronica Gordon 

That sounds a lot. 80% is quite a strong core percentage to have. And so, the Power to Change Trade Up programme, I understand that the Bike Project was part of that. How did the Bike Project benefit?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

I was the person that did the Trade Up, because it’s a training programme and grant as well. I mean, the grant was brilliant and really beneficial. We spent the money on setting up and piloting a new volunteer training programme. And we also spent it on developing a new website and developing our communications materials. And I think the training programme as well is probably the most beneficial part of the Trade Up thing because it gave us access to all different areas of like expertise and knowledge, from marketing, to governance structure, to anything you could think of that’s involved in running a community business. And as well as the kind of training and resources, you’re surrounded by lots of other people who are working in community businesses who are having the same struggles that you are, and you can problem solve together. And I think that kind of peer-to-peer learning is really valuable.

 

Veronica Gordon

So, I know there’s bike projects up and down the country. And, you know, there may be people thinking of starting their own ones. Have you got any tips for a person or community who are thinking of starting up a bike project in their area?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

Well, this is interesting because, you know, it’s on my mind as well. I have plans to move to Sheffield and I’d like to think about doing something there. And the main tip I would say is, don’t try and do it all at once. Start small. Because if you want something to be really grounded in the place that you’re doing it and you want it to be built up and developed by the people in that place, if you start small and you think what’s the key thing I want to do first – for me, it might be setting up a women’s night – start with that, bring people together and see where it grows from there. But don’t try to have everything mapped out and then start it because it’s too much to do at once. And I think, you know, when it comes to bike projects as well, there’s a very logical source of funding, which is a bike shop, you know. It’s very logical that you would run a bike community workshop alongside a bike shop. But also setting up a bike shop is no easy feat. So, finding seed funding, finding grant funding that can get you going with your work from the very beginning, and then developing in the trading. That’s the way that things happened in Bristol. It started off as a community thing; it got some grant funding, and then they started to build in the trading. And that way as well it was always rooted in the community and started from that point of focus. And the trading came in later.

 

Veronica Gordon

For people who are thinking of setting up a similar project, where would they go to get seed funding?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

The first suggestion I want to give is SSE. SSE is the School for social Entrepreneurs, and they sometimes work with Power to Change on various things. And they’re who the Bristol Bike Project had our Trade Up funding from. We also recently got some funding from Coretech Community Foundation, who have been supporting organisations through the pandemic.

 

Veronica Gordon 

So, for someone like me…I used to love riding as a child, and I haven’t actually got on a bike now for about 20 years. What would you say to someone like me to get me back on a bike?

 

Krysia Williams, Bristol Bike Project 

Oh. Well, it’s tricky, isn’t it? Because, you know, for someone who has not ridden a bike, I don’t know why that is. Is it that the roads are busy? Is it that there’s a barrier there for some reason why you’re not wanting to get on a bike? And I think for me, it’s finding people who you relate to, you have something in common with, who you can think, “Ok. I’m going to go on a bike with you and I’m going to feel good about this”. And I think, you know, for me, what really improved my confidence cycling, was learning how to fix my bike. Before I knew how to fix my bike, I would get a bit worried if I heard those kinds of clicks and creaks. And then just learning the very basics. Suddenly, I was able to tune into a bit of, oh, you know, maybe I’ve got a puncture, or maybe my brakes aren’t working so well. And I can feel that better now.

 

Veronica Gordon 

That’s really, really helpful. Thank you.

For quite some time, I’ve been trying to find a way to keep fit that’s also enjoyable too. Hearing today’s stories makes me think that that way just might be cycling. I’ve already found a couple of similar community bike shops in my hometown, and I will be checking them out soon.

Join me in two weeks’ time where Krysia Williams will be back to share her top tips on how to really engage with your local community. You’ll hear how to make sure you’re catering to their needs, and how you can ensure that your staff reflect the community that you serve.

This has been a Pixiu production for Power to Change. Extra thanks to Touchstone Productions for footage from the Bristol Bike Project session.