Sophie Thackray, right, helps a student at a recent Bike House maintenance class in Petworth.  Image by the author.

Welcome back to Behind the Handlebars, a series where I’ll be riding and chatting with cyclists from around the region to learn more about why cycling is important, the pros and cons of our current bike infrastructure, safety, and tips for new riders.

Sophie Thackray came to Washington in 2014 to serve with AmeriCorps’s City Year, and stayed to work at the DC Tenants’ Rights Center as a legal assistant. About a year ago, she got involved with The Bike House, a community-based bicycle repair co-op that offers clinics and classes in Petworth, Bloomingdale, and Anacostia. She signed up for a bike maintenance class last year and was hooked. Before she knew it, Sophie was volunteering at the co-op’s weekly maintenance clinics and even helping to teach the beginner bike mechanic class this summer.

I met Sophie when I took a Bike House maintenance class this summer. The group sets up shop on weekends throughout the summer. Volunteer mechanics have the tools and knowledge help fellow riders with all sorts of bike maintenance issues— for free. Clinics are held on Saturdays in Petworth, Sundays in Bloomingdale, and occasionally in Anacostia where there aren’t any bike shops. In addition, the shop offers beginner and advanced mechanic classes. 

Sophie helped teach us about bike cleaning, brakes, wheel truing, shifting and most importantly, how to change a flat tire. We sat down last week to discuss all things bikes— especially how cycling and maintenance knowledge is empowering for women. “Bikes are like bodies,” Sophie told me, “they are beautiful and incredible machines, and if you are going to own one you should understand and appreciate its complexities.”

Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Behind the Handlebars: Why is cycling important to you?

Sophie Thackray: Cycling is important to me because it is my independence, and my happiness! I can get pretty much anywhere I need to go on my bike, and I can get there faster, cheaper, and healthier.

Cycling also helps me clear my head and think things through, so it's a great way to start my day fresh, and calm down and process a tough day afterwards.

BtH:  How long have you been riding a bike?

ST: I've been on bikes my whole life, but didn't learn how to ride myself until I was seven. I biked everywhere in college (in Eugene, Oregon), but didn't bike commute the first year I was in DC because I was living in Columbia Heights near Howard University and working at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Congress Heights. I was scared to ride around a big city! But I've been bike commuting every day though for the past two years!

I commute from from 1st and S Street NW to Judiciary Square. It’s a mix of bike lanes and roads on the way there. On the way home, I take 5th Street, which is one way but has a bike lane.

My whole family is really into bikes, so cycling is something we do to spend quality time together. My parents and my sisters and me have matching bracelets made out of bike spokes that we wear every day.

BtH: How did you get involved in Bike House?

ST: I got involved in the Bike House when I moved to Bloomingdale a little over a year ago. There was a note in the newsletter from one of the Bike House coordinators looking for a place to store tools for the clinic during the week. I offered my house, but it turned out they had already found a place. They asked if I was interested in volunteering, and the rest is history.

At the time, my dad had just shipped my bike to me and it needed a lot of work, so I was really excited about the opportunity to gain more bike maintenance skills, and to meet other bike-lovers in my new neighborhood.

BtH: Tell me a little more about how the Bike House works…

ST: The Bike House is a volunteer-run, community-based bike repair co-op that focuses on teaching and empowering people to maintain and repair their own bikes. We have two weekly clinics: Saturdays from 12-3 pm, Annie's Ace Hardware in Petworth (March-November) and Sundays from 11AM-1 pm at the Bloomingdale Farmer's Market (May-November). We also hold classes on basic bike maintenance as well as more specific, advanced repairs.

BtH: Why is it especially important for women to know how to work on their own bikes? 

ST: SO many reasons!

Again, independence is a big one - if something happens to your bike, you don't have to lose any riding time waiting for help or taking it into a shop, you can tune it up yourself and keep on pedaling!

Empowerment is another important factor. I think a lot of women, like myself, feel uncomfortable having to take our bikes into a shop, because we can be met with condescension, and it just doesn't feel good to need someone else to do something you know you are capable of doing yourself. This is also one of the reasons why the mission of the Bike House is so important. We don't want to just fix your bike for you, we want you (whatever your gender identity) to gain the tools and the knowledge to fix your own bike, and to encourage everyone to feel comfortable doing so.

BtH: What type of riding do you do most often? What type of riding do you enjoy the most?

ST: The type of riding I do the most is bopping around the city - to and from work, friends' houses, boxing classes, the dentist, etc. The type of riding I enjoy the most is nighttime riding in the summer (when it's cool out and there aren't many cars on the road) and mountain biking, because I can go really fast and let loose.

Sophie riding down Upshur Street in Petworth.  Image by the author.

BtH: Back to your day-to-day - how do you deal with helmet hair and wardrobe as a bike commuter?

ST: My commute to work is very short (about a mile) and my office dress is pretty casual, so it's not a huge issue for me.

For wardrobe, I usually wear comfy workout clothes for my ride (although not my full biking get-up) and keep a stock of work clothes to change into at my office. I usually end up picking work outfits based on whether I can wear a sports bra underneath… I don't have a huge problem with helmet hair, I usually have to put it up in a ponytail when I arrive anyway, because I'm hot from my ride.

For longer rides, I wear padded bike shorts, a CamalBak and a jersey. My CamalBak is key for hydration. My longer rides are usually 25-30 miles. I just biked to Lake Needwood on the Rock Creek Trail a couple weeks ago which was nice and shady. When we got to the lake there were lots of great places to hang hammocks. I also really like biking to Gravely Point on the Mount Vernon Trail to watch the airplanes.

Plane over Gravely Point.  Image by the author.

BtH: What can our region do to improve the experience for cyclists?

ST: Redo the L Street NW bike lane!! I have a personal vendetta against that bike lane, so I now actually go far out of my way just to avoid it. It is probably one of the most highly-travelled paths in the city, and the least safe (where it meets 15th Street, it essentially doubles as a turn lane for cars, so cars are constantly weaving in and out of it, and cutting in front of cyclists). We do have a lot of great protected bike lanes though (at least downtown), and a really positive community of cyclists!

BtH: What should somebody who’s new to cycling in DC know about bikes?

ST: If you’re buying a bike, you probably want to look for something like a hybrid. You want to be able to go fast, but the roads are often bumpy and full of potholes. If you’re bike communting, you probably want something you can put a rack on. Fenders are great to add if you plan on riding in the rain. I’d also recommend slightly wider tires are better for our roads. I have slightly skinnier tires which makes for a rougher ride. If you’re buying on craigslist, be wary of somebody who may be selling 20 bikes because they may be stolen.

As far as security, never park your bike outside overnight. Lock the front wheel in with the frame, or consider getting wheel locks.

To learn more about the Bike House, visit http://www.thebikehouse.coop.

Rachel Maisler is an avid city cyclist and advocate who enjoys exploring DC and beyond. She represents Ward 4 on the Bicycle Advisory Council and serves on the Age-Friendly DC Task Force. When she's not fighting for safe roads, Rachel is a health policy wonk. Rachel has lived inside the Beltway since 2005 and currently resides in Petworth. She also writes for Petworth News.