One overcast Thursday afternoon, a ragtag group of students gather in the auto-repair area on the edge of the Santa Barbara High School campus. Instead of jacking up cars and opening hoods, they pull out tripod bike stands from which to hang cruisers, fixies, and mountain bikes. The bike shop, which began at the end of last school year, is a collaboration between the Bici Centro volunteer bike shop and students Pete Chaconas and Miguel Palacios, who participate in the Dons Net Café social entrepreneurship program. They are hoping to promote non-motor means of travel among their peers. Chaconas, an avid mountain biker, said that when his friends reach for their car keys to run a short errand, he tells them, “Bro, it’s five blocks. You can just ride a bike.”
The shop is also part of a bigger initiative by the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition (which runs Bici Centro) to nurture a cycling culture in the city. They know what every successful cigarette manufacturer does — if you want people to form habits, get to them while they are young.
That is why the Bicycle Coalition teaches bike safety courses at elementary and middle schools; to woo teenagers, though, safety would not be the best selling point. So, when former SBHS principal Mark Capritto asked Bici Centro to set up shop at the school, the coalition decided to go for it. Education and outreach coordinator Christine Bourgeois said, “It’s very empowering” for young people to learn mechanical skills, “especially for women.”
Eddy Gonzales, one of the volunteers who mentors the students, said that when he was a kid, a mechanical failure on his bike would be crippling. Even as an adult, he relies on his bike as his primary means of transportation. On this particular day, Gonzales, a Dons alum and father of an S.B. High student, oversees a group of students as they replace the rear brake cable on his steel steed.
At another stand, student Gabe Moran is helping classmate Michael Trapani replace the bottom bracket bearings on his beach cruiser. The Thursday shop is a gift to Moran, who is mechanically inclined and, even before the shop opened, would tinker on lawnmowers, scooters, and — when she was sufficiently distracted — his mother’s car. He says that since the shop has opened, he’s learned how to fix spokes, brakes, cables, bearings, and chains.
Louis Andaloro, another Bici Centro volunteer, has taken Moran under his wing and sings the praises of his protégé, who, after finishing the beach-cruiser repair job, pulls out a chopper bike that he is restoring. He found it abandoned behind Ironworks and plans on installing a battery-powered engine when it is back in working order.
Andaloro said, “One of the goals for me is to get more kids to ride to school.” Cycling is seen as something you do because you are too poor to afford a car or because you are a wealthy middle-aged man showing off your racing rig at the coffee shop on Sunday morning, he continued. Whereas in the past the Bicycle Coalition lobbied for bike infrastructure around the city, they have now focused their efforts on bringing cycling to the masses. When biking becomes the new normal, they reason, the demand for infrastructure will follow.
In this sense, the students at SBHS are tackling bike repairs, as well as social and urban planning challenges. Palacios smiled and said, in mock philosophical fashion, “You should know how to fix things because too many things in this world get broken.”