From Sprocket to Chain, Yellow Bike Project Fosters Cycle of Independence
By Rachel O'Donnell
Photography By John Flynn
The people at Yellow Bike Project believe anyone’s place, and especially a woman’s, is in the shop.
Volunteers at the eclectic bicycle workshop and warehouse in East Austin help riders of all genders and skill levels learn bicycle maintenance and repair. They also teach independence and empowerment through a mastery of mechanics, from changing a tire to rebuilding an entire bike.
The donation-funded program began 20 years ago in South Austin as small backyard shop devoted to teaching people to repair bikes and repairing others for charity. YBP has since moved six times and developed broader programming, including regular workshops for a growing number of participants.
It’s where James Mescall found their calling. Mescall, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun, graduated recently from The University of Texas without a plan. Mescall chose YBP because they were interested in volunteering at a nonprofit that benefitted the environment.
Mescall has been riding bikes since childhood. The program provides a connection to that past.
“Riding a bike is freedom. You can leave and go wherever you want. That is something that is really important to me,” Mescall said.
The YBP hosts an array of free workshops led by Mescall and the other mechanics, some of them women. The monthly Women’s Trans Femme workshop is led by a female professional mechanic. The kids-only workshop is designed to teach kids early on about maintained and safely operate a bicycle. There’s also a bilingual workshop.
The program also offers specialized classes such as Shifting Gears (how to maintain drivetrains), Unbearable Brakes (brake systems), and Wheel Truing (wheels).
Rows of newly polished bike handles, piles of repaired tires and countless cluttered tool benches are scattered around the open-roomed warehouse. Bikes repaired by YBP mechanics are fixed with recycled chains, seats and gears. The mismatched masterpieces are sold to customers during the retail hours.
Lila Haham, a mother of two, began dropping in on YBP open workshops to volunteer in her neighborhood.
She observed the eagerness of the YBP mechanics when people would come in with flat tires or broken chains. YBP members would not only assist in fixing the problem, but teach them how to handle it in the future.
Haham started bringing her two daughters to YBP to volunteer and build their own bikes. One of them is in one of YBP’s most popular programs, Earn-A-Bike.
Earn-A- Bike participants work through a checklist of repair basics, from fixing a flat to straightening a stem to overhauling a bottom bracket. They also are required to complete 24 hours of volunteer time over a three-month period. At the end of the program, they get to pick a bike to keep.
To Haham, an environment like YBP is critical to a young woman.
“I love what they do here,” Haham said. “Learning how to fix things themselves, it teaches a valuable lesson. It makes (her daughters) more independent.”
Through YBP, Haham said, her oldest daughter is more intuitive and curious, and proud to show her mother how to apply a tire patch. She now has more role models to look up to.
The members of YBP strive to create a safe space that allows participants to further their educationd and enrich their passion in cycling.
Michael Conti, a full-time staff member, described how building a welcoming community brings people back.
“One of the coolest things about this place is you meet people from such a wide variety of life,” Conti said. “People will drop in who we haven’t seen in years.”
The program changed Mescall’s career path. Mescall has since decided to enroll in welding school after following their calling at YBP.
“When I think about it, it’s very empowering,” Mescall said. “I feel like you’re giving the freedom to feel like you can make anything possible.”