Exploring a different kind of “Open Shop”

West Town Bikes in Humboldt Park hosts a variety of workshops and youth programs for the community. Women and tans night provides a safe space for learning.

Article by Elyse Samuels
Photo-slideshow by Elyse Samuels

The mixed aroma of bike grease, wine and a leftover burrito fill the air as seven women work in a small bicycle shop covered with posters of bike parts, bumper stickers and such slogans as “believe in coexistence.” Light laughter and grumbles of focused concentration fill the room.

This is the scene at West Town Bikes in Humboldt Park. West Town, a bike education and training center, offers “Get Your Fix,” a women’s bicycle mechanic workshop series that began running on Wednesdays starting February 24.

On West Town’s website the event page reads: “Need a comfortable place to work on your bike with the assistance of our staff? Want to wield a wrench in a non-patriarchal environment? Then check out Women and Trans[gender] night at WTB! This Open Shop is for the women and trans-gendered bike-lovers ONLY!”

These workshops teach women and transgendered people bike basics. No experience is necessary. In fact, the workshops are meant to facilitate learning in an unintimidating space.

Emily Leidenfrost, program coordinator and instructor at these workshops, explained West Town created these workshops in response to an existing culture in the cycling community.

“It’s a very male dominated space,” Leidenfrost said, “and that’s because a lot of men and boys are taught how to use tools and how to be self sufficient with fixing things themselves. Girls aren’t necessarily taught that in the same way.”

Leidenfrost said many bike shops already host what is known as “open shop,” a time when cyclists can come into the shop to fix their bikes. She said beginner cyclists, especially women, often feel uncomfortable in these spaces.

“Men can kind of be subconsciously condescending,” Leidenfrost added. “They’ll say things like, ‘Oh you don’t know how to use that tool? You don’t know how what a big adjustable is?’”

Other barriers for women cyclists include being catcalled, feeling unsafe on the road, lacking access to a bike, even not knowing how to ride a bike in the first place.

Lauren Crabtree said she agrees that most women she knows who don’t bike are afraid of the physical dangers of riding in the city.

“The perception of danger is higher than what you’re actually facing,” Crabtree said. “I think we can build confidence, we can feel comfortable being on the street on a bike. Women and trans[gender] night does that.”

Leidenfrost said she hopes women and transgender night can provide that confidence for people. However, she admits the group is self-selecting. The women they want to reach out to the most are unlikely to attend.

“This is geared towards women who are already biking for the most part,” Leidenfrost said. “They already have a bike; they’re coming here to work on their bike or learn more about it. They’re already open to that.”

Although the workshops might serve a more insular community of bike-lovers, these women are still grateful. For example, dedicated participant Claire Roggeveen said she takes great pride in learning how to fix her own bike.

“Bicycling means so much to me, I believe it’s a tool for change,” Roggeveen said. “I feel like I need to take responsibility of such an important part of my life. It’s empowering to do that.”

“I think that women’s night is really important because it gives us a kind of sisterhood,” Leidenfrost said. “It reminds us that we can do things together.”

Photo at top: West Town Bikes in Humboldt Park hosts a variety of workshops and youth programs for the community. Women and transgender night provides a safe space for learning. (Elyse Samuels/MEDILL)