People

Birmingham Bike Foundry

A community-led vision

By Maryam Pasha

The Birmingham Bike Foundry is a cooperative project dedicated to serving the British city’s ever-growing cyclist community. The aim of the Foundry is not only to affordably service and repair bikes, but also to foster a community and champion sustainability in their practices. 

 

In a city that’s expanding its cycling infrastructure, the Birmingham Bike Foundry is carving out a necessary space for itself. 

 

“We’re definitely trying to serve cyclists as much as possible and try to encourage it as a sensible, enjoyable and sustainable way of getting round the city,” says Ben Hudson, who works at the Foundry.

As it stands, Birmingham Bike Foundry houses Vulcan, the only frame building shop in the city. It therefore plays a key role in encouraging people to take advantage of the new substantial bike lanes being installed across Birmingham city centre.

 

When asked about this, Hudson, mechanic for the project and Vulcan’s frame builder, speaks on the significance of the Foundry’s position in Birmingham’s cycling culture.

 

“It is poignant that a city like Birmingham that has a very long history of industry and manufacture, and tonnes of cycling manufacture history, that a lot of this has been lost. It does feel nice to be picking up that industrial tradition and we’re very lucky a lot of the supply infrastructure is still there.” 

Hudson’s work in creating custom frames is mainly about creating machinery that serves a practical community use. What he finds most compelling about the work is producing interesting fixes to utility problems. He speaks fondly on adding extras such as custom mudguards and internal cabling solutions for both commuter and leisure cyclists. 

 

“There’s something very special about a bike that’s designed to live up to all your practical expectations. It’s not about making something that’s a flashy toy but something that has a beneficial effect on the rider and is something that you actually use.” 

The Foundry separates itself from other bike shops not just by offering custom frames built in-store, but also through the way it operates day to day. It offers a personalised and involved service in order to keep the price low and the sustainability factor high. Hudson likens the process to a social good, rather than selling.

 

“It’s about creating good work, but it’s also about serving an essential service rather than making loads of money.”

 

Karen Key, one of the Foundry’s other team members, is proud of the way the project offers a personalised refurbish and repair service. She highlights how the Foundry seeks to reduce waste by reusing parts from old, donated bikes to help maintain newer bikes, in turn making them last longer.

 

“We accept donated bikes, refurbish them and sell them on at affordable prices. If someone comes in and needs their brake cables replaced but not their pads, we’ll only change the cables and only charge them for that. We make sure it’s safe, reuse parts from one bike on another and mend them.”

The cooperative’s community work extends beyond just personalised bike repairs. In their “community room” the Foundry facilitates a variety of community projects, including a book club and a tool-renting system, where customers and cooperative members can use the Foundry’s specialist tools on their own bikes.

 

Most people who use the Foundry’s specialist tools are taught how to do so by the Foundry itself, which offers its own courses in basic bike maintenance, home mechanics, gears and wheel-building. The objective here is not for the Foundry to make itself obsolete, but rather to continue to enable people to foster community bonds by cementing itself as a cycling hub in the city. 

Many of the Foundry’s courses, workshops and training are delivered to students from a local SEN school. Students are able to sign up to do work experience at the Foundry and develop skills in areas such as mechanics or the history of bicycle manufacture. Key speaks of the joy found in combining her work as a bike mechanic with her background as a teacher, delivering key community service work with local students. 

 

“We do brakes, we do problem-solving, we look at how to make sure the bike is safe so they can then start to gain some skills, it can always be tailor-made,” she says. “I get the opportunity to enjoy being a bike mechanic and being in the shop, meeting customers and also training students.”

The Birmingham Bike Foundry is just one in a collection of local cooperatives working to improve services and resources in the area. One project they are particularly proud of is being achieved in collaboration with several other local cooperatives: buying land to develop not only into new, larger premises but also to provide social housing.

 

“It’s a big long-term dream for us to build this development which will be permanently collectively owned housing which will be managed by the coop forever, we’re really excited about that project,” explains Hudson. 

 

The Birmingham Bike Foundry provides an undeniably essential variety of services to their community. Having stayed open all throughout 2020’s Covid-19 lockdowns, they provided a lifeline for many people. Their aim of supporting the local community has been realised countless times, whether it’s leisure cyclists or commuters.

 

“It’s about getting people back on their bikes, key workers, people who don’t want to travel on public transport can all travel by bike.”

 

Indeed, this project is changing the very definition of what a ‘bike shop’ can be.

Photography by Jim Holland. Follow him on Instagram at @j.h.o.l.l.a.n.d

To learn more about the Foundry and Vulcan, visit birminghambikefoundry.org or vulcanbicycle.works.

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