Any Old Iron – The Spokes Project
Back in the late summer, as the school holidays were becoming more like a chore than a pleasure for my eldest son Joseph, his mind turned to the question of how he would be getting to and from his new senior school come September. Thankfully he is graced with a desire to be out in the open air as often as possible and so a new bicycle was the perfect solution.
Whether he has spent too long around my office or whether the retro biking activities of editor Richard Hallett, who for some inexplicable reason [Innate taste? - Ed.]he seems to regard as ‘cool’, prompted his decision to build himself a single speed road bike for under £25 I have yet to fathom, but the results, as you may have already seen on the site, were impressive.
In fact, building a single speed road bike would have been a lot easier 20 or even 10 years ago but, as the modern bicycle world is dominated by cheaply produced and widespread mountain bikes, finding a good quality, unwanted road frame to fit an 11 year old was a lot harder than anticipated.
Thank heavens, then, for bicycle recycling. After nearly a week of trawling the local municipal waste sites and the back yards of West Midlands bike shops for cast offs, we were pointed in the direction of Spokes, a Kidderminster-based charity organisation started in 2005. It proved to be an Aladdin’s Cave.
Stuffed to the gunwales with everything you will ever need to refurbish or build a bicycle, Spokes is an outfit that combines business practice with social welfare, in the process knitting itself into the fabric of the greener transport agenda.
One of a group of small businesses known as Work Match, which includes horticultural, furniture restoration and two other bicycle recycling projects in Hereford and Ross-on-Wye, Spokes provides local employment preparation, training and support for disadvantaged and disabled people of all ages.
“For some of our staff the simple process of coming to a place of work can be a challenge, never mind what they can do when they arrive," comments Ian Plumley, Assistant Manager of Spokes. “However long someone is here with us, whatever they do here, our aim is to watch them leave happier and better prepared than when they arrived."
Ian’s confidence and enthusiasm is heartfelt. Having relocated to the West Midlands after a long career as an engineer in the Royal Air Force and with big upheavals in his personal life newly behind him, Ian badly needed a change of life direction. Along with Unit Manager Paul Ravenhill, Ian has turned his skills and passions into something special at Spokes.
“It’s a wonderful place to come to work everyday," says Ian “it’s immensely challenging but I go out of the door each day with a smile of my face."
Run with a mix of volunteer and placement staff, there is no clocking in and out at these premises. Workers are free to come and go as it suits them and to do as little or as much as they wish to. It’s clear that this ‘no pressure’ ethos produces results. Great racks of components ranging for the 1950’s onwards ready for sale or re-use butt up against the walls and lines of fully-renovated bicycles prepared for sale to the public occupy much of the available floor space.
There is a close, family feel about Spokes which makes it a joy to visit, yet the project has always maintained a firm grasp on the need to balance its support and training roles with the realities of running a business. Bicycles are sold for profit and each client placed at Spokes is regularly assessed as an employee.
It’s a formula that works, says James Sendell, one of Spokes’ three full time staff: “I came to Spokes through the Job Centre on the New Deal Scheme. It’s great here! I love my mountain bike and I get to work on bikes all day long. We even get a few trick bits come in, most of which are now on my bike!"
And trick bits they certainly do have. Amongst the hundreds of cheap Shimano one- piece crank sets I found a mid 1980’s Dura Ace set, some beautiful Campagnolo brake callipers, a brand new 18 tooth BMX freewheel and a lovely straight Carlton road frame to hang it all on. You want a pair of period 70’s rims, a new old stock Gran Sport rear mech or a fully restored Moulton? This is the place to come.
Extraordinarily, despite the ever increasing governmental clamour about living in a greener society Spokes largely relies on the generosity of the public to source its donor machines.
“The local authority here in Kidderminster took some time to get on board by putting scrapped bikes aside for us but now they have seen the benefits they are behind us 100%," comments Ian, “Wyre Forest too have now started putting machines aside but I still find it astonishing that some of the big metropolitan areas like Birmingham have no facility like this."
Just one rebuild project like Joseph’s instantly highlights the fact that ‘recycling’ has differing definitions when it comes to bikes thrown out with the rubbish. Try and get a discarded bike from the local tip these days and you are likely to be met at many a municipal site with a smart rebuff as you peer into the scrap metal container. Yet Spokes and projects like it around the country offer virtually complete recycling, putting machines back on the streets where they should be instead of into the crusher. It’s a crazy situation and one that I would lay money on extending well beyond recycling just bicycles.
Having brought in a batch of machines, they are stripped to the frame, checked and cleaned and the individual parts sorted and then the process of re-building bikes begins with new parts used where safety dictates.
Every conceivable form of bike is on offer to the public with the vast majority being the mountain bikes. Top whack for a complete adult’s machine is around £75 but most retail for between £30 and £40. Children’s bikes start at as little as £10.
“We have seen far more families this year coming to buy bikes; I think the whole green thing has increased interest," says Ian “mind you, we don’t often have 11 year olds looking for old road bikes!"
Whether you are looking for a complete machine, restoring a classic or just want a good old rummage, give bike recycling projects a go. Joseph now rides his recycled road iron everyday and, guess what, I’ve already got another order from one of his friends and plan a concerted rebuild of a vintage tandem with all parts sourced from Spokes. Recycling, it appears, can be addictive.