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Wrench Raiders: a hidden bike culture

By Terris Harned, Contributing Writer

In April, 2010, C.J. Speelman founded Wrench Raiders, a grassroots organization of volunteers who help maintain bikes for people who are homeless or with no other source of income or transportation. The California transplant calls himself a self-taught mechanic who put himself in this line of work after seeing the need among people who were homeless who relied solely on their bikes for mobility, but who couldn’t afford to fix them. A flat tire or faulty breaks could be crippling and even fatal. But equally important; a solid, well-oiled steed is independence, opportunity and survival.

Wrench Raiders operates a mobile repair shop that provides repairs at no charge, but underlying the work is a message of building community and connecting social classes, inside and outside.

Terris Harned: Tell me a little about Wrench Raiders. How did you guys get started? Who do you serve exactly? Can anyone come and get assistance?

C.J. Speelman: I started a non-profit about six years ago that was primarily focused on creating a space to build community for people who were experiencing homelessness in my area. I learned a lot about my new friends and the problems and experiences they faced every day. One of the largest hurdles they faced was the issue of transportation. So many people take the ability to get from here to there for granted. I knew I did. I found out quickly that bicycles could be a great source of transportation, but they were prone to disrepair.  I began to learn how to fix bikes, building up my own bike from just a frame.  When I moved to Portland two years ago, one of the main reasons was to develop this concept of a mobile bicycle repair shop. We did some research, made a few connections and Wrench Raiders was born April 2010.

Our main purpose behind fixing bikes is this idea of creating and developing community among people who live outside and who live inside. I would guess that our mission is three-fold: We want to engage the bicycling culture of Portland in social justice, advocate the bicycle as a viable alternative to the automobile as a form of transportation and most importantly, build community.

We do not provide bikes for people. We try to limit our services to those who cannot afford to have their bikes fixed at a normal shop which at this moment are our friends who are experiencing homelessness in Portland.

T.H.: What direction would you like to see Wrench Raiders go? What is your long term- vision for the organization?

C.J.S.: I would love to be able to facilitate multiple times that we would fix bikes during the week while building a solid group of volunteers that would fix bikes among other things. Also, we are trying to find a Cargo Trike to carry our shop in so that we would be truly mobile. The long-term vision is to pretty much fix all the bikes for free we can.

T.H.: In a minor way, this sort of reminds me of that Tool Library project that has been going on. To my mind, it’s sort of ironic that we now have a centralized location to borrow tools from, where once upon a time we might just visit our neighbor, or the guy down the street. What you said just made me think, though, about community and such things, and I think that’s great. Do you see possibilities for this project to become a bridge between the classes?

C.J.S.: I really want to see the bike culture in Portland connect with the “hidden” bike culture that exists. Bicyclists generally are great at building community with each other. There is a certain amount of camaraderie that exists. If we can harness that energy and work together I think we could do a lot of good and at the same time build a stronger community for our friends who live outside. So yeah, this resembles a sort of bridge and you don’t necessarily have to be a bicyclist to hang either. We also want to be a community that empowers people. We do that at Wrench Raiders simply by fixing bicycles, but on a larger scale we want to teach folks how to fix their own bicycles.

T.H.: That was going to be one of my next questions. When you’re working on a bike, do you talk to the person you’re helping, and show them how to do it? Or is that more of a thing for the future?

C.J.S.: Right now we either allow people to borrow our tools and fix their own bike if they know how, or we can guide them through the process to make sure they do it right.  If they are not interested, we will just fix their bike, but the hope is to eventually engage them in the process of learning how to fix their own bicycle, at least basic things like changing their tires, adjusting their brakes, etc.

T.H.: If someone wants to contribute to Wrench Raiders, either financially or as a volunteer, how can they do that? I seem to recall you mentioning once in a previous conversation that you try to stay away from used parts, because they’re just too unpredictable, right?

C.J.S.: We really don’t want to use any used parts because we would not be certain if they would fit any of the bikes that we work on. Sometimes parts are pretty specific to the bike or type of bike. If someone wants to give to Wrench Raiders, the easiest way is through our Web site.

We are in need of monthly partnerships to keep what we do sustainable and ensure we meet the needs of our friends. If they are interested in volunteering, visit us at Wrench Raiders.

Terris Harned is a Street Roots vendor. You can buy a paper from him outside Food Front at NW 23rd Avenue and Thurman.