Davide Mesa used to zip about town in a black Mercedes, but last October he traded his car for three bicycles and “a pile of vintage bicycle frames.”
Now, Mesa, 21, is about to become one of six co-owners of Richmond Spokes Spokeshop Bike Lounge, the only full-service professional bike shop in Richmond.
“Our team dreams,” Mesa said. “We see in the future of the Spokeshop a huge space for multi-use projects that include protecting the environment, helping local businesses and keeping the community together.”
Mesa started cycling seriously at age 16 when he was given a work bicycle. When he got the opportunity to get involved at Richmond Spokes, it was easy to give up his car and turn to the passion that had changed his life. “I was working as a gardener and I weighed about 300 pounds,” he said. “Then I started cycling and gradually lost a lot of weight and I’ve never stopped since.”
Mesa, along with the others, will be given part ownership of the shop from Richmond Spokes Executive Director Brian Drayton in the coming months, and it is a role they have been training for the past year since the shop opened in October 2011.
“They came in as volunteers and have earned their place,” Drayton said. “Through their commitment, they have shown their determination and responsibility to the place and I’m handing it to them to manage while I reach out to other cities.”
None of the co-op members receive a salary at the moment and though there is a weekly schedule, the team says that work-hours are flexible. Each of the members also has separate personal and professional commitments on top of the area he or she is trained in.
Mesa specializes in bicycle safety and said he hopes to improve bicycle infrastructure in Richmond. He explores the city on his bike whenever he’s out and marks down spots where he feels stop signs are required. He also takes pictures and videos of areas he feels are dangerous to cyclists.
“I spend about five hours cycling every weekday around Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland,” he said. “I think a lot about people who can’t bike within their own community and those who feel unsafe riding on the street or at night. Infrastructure needs to change, drivers attitudes need to change.”
Mesa attended a recent City Council meeting to call for more bike racks, bike lanes and bike-only roads.
The interest in cycling safety isn’t just professional: of the six co-owners, including Drayton, five were involved in accidents this year.
James Johnson, the team’s lead mechanic, was hit by a car in May while riding a block away from the Spokeshop.
“He broke his neck, spine and two ribs,” said Drayton, who heard about the accident when a man ran into the shop saying a cyclist had been hit. “He was lying there unconscious, his bicycle was crushed and broken and the team was crying at the sight.”
Drayton said that Johnson, 21, was taken by helicopter to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek.
“I wanted to go back to work after eight days,” Johnson said. “But my mother didn’t allow me to and I was out for one month.”
Without Johnson, affectionately known as “babyface,” the Spokeshop team found itself without a mechanic — forcing the shop to close for a month.
“Now, all of us know a little bit of everything,” Johnson said. “The accident taught us the important lesson that we couldn’t rely too much on any one person. It didn’t make sense that the shop had to close because one of us was out.”
Johnson, also the team leader, has taken the youngest co-owner, 12-year-old Gerardo Lopez, under his wing. He said that Lopez, who is in the Making Waves Academy Middle School, helped out at the Spokeshop every day during the summer. But now that school is back in session, Lopez comes in only on weekends.
“The day he first came to the shop, I was fixing a bike and he was asking all sorts of questions,” Johnson said. “He’s always curious and learns things quickly.”
He said Lopez does his homework at the bike shop on Sundays as he promised his parents that his homework would be done even with his involvement at the Spokeshop. Lopez is still learning some of the skills about bikes and business, but he makes his own unique contribution: “He keeps me happy so I keep everyone happy,” Johnson said.
The other two members of the six-person team are Roxana Alejandre and Rosa Ayala, both 21. Alejandre said that she looked forward to the realization of the team’s dream to have a bike café and shop operating together.
“As we grow, I see us doing more specialized services and teaching the community skills such as wheel building,” she said. “It’s a rare trade and learning it will be useful.”
Wheel building involves cutting and threading spokes through the hub of a tire in a certain pattern. Depending on the skill of the builder, it can take between half an hour to three days to complete one wheel, and can cost a cyclist between $200 and $2,000 depending on the type of wheel.
While wheels are occasionally built at the Spokeshop by its mechanics Alejandre and Johnson, the store features mainly showroom wheels that have already been built.
Johnson said that teens sometimes walk in and ask to volunteer, and are always welcomed.
“We want the Spokeshop to be a place where anyone can come and have a conversation about anything,” he said.
Drayton said he’s always wanted to create a space where youths have a safe place to go.
On Tuesday morning, a steady stream of customers arrived at the shop, either to inquire about bicycles or to seek help with fixing their bicycles. While Drayton messed around with the tires of his own bike, Mesa, Johnson and Alejandre chatted with customers. They made bicycle recommendations, studied problematic gears and set to work on an old bicycle someone brought in that had been taken apart and left by the road.
Drayton said he intends to send the three main co-owners to the United Bicycle Institute, a technical school that teaches bike repair and frame building, to attend a week-long program.
At the institute, the three will take classes such as bicycle mechanics and shop management to attain professional mechanical certification. Course fees range between $850 and $1,950, depending on the classes. Drayton said he hopes the classes will help the bike shop to bring in more customers and eventually allow the other co-owners to attend the same courses.
“I’ve trained them and I hope they will train the younger ones like Gerardo,” Drayton said.
Mesa said that the team has been looking at the urban landscape of bicycle-friendly countries such as Spain and Denmark for ideas for Richmond
“These countries redesigned everything for bicycles and cyclists,” he said. “We can always dream and work to make it come true.”