As much as I love cycling, I have to admit that my bicycle mechanic skills leave a lot to be desired.
My commuter bike – not that my commute is particularly taxing – was in need of a few tweaks and a bit of general TLC. I had also recently purchased a set of fancy new Schutzbleche (mudguards) to install, sick of constantly having a wet backside at the merest hint of rain.
I foolishly believed I could do the above jobs alone. My first attempt to install the mudguards in my apartment was wholly unsuccessful, leaving me not only with dirty hands and a dirty kitchen floor but also a distinct feeling of pessimism, doubting that I’d ever be able to accomplish any kind of true bicycle modification at home.
It was a happy accident then, when I subsequently discovered a website with a list of Berlin selbsthilfe Fahrradwerkstätte (self-help bike workshops). There are quite a few places on the list (published July 2013) dotted around the city, usually operating on a donation-based payment system. I decided to take myself, my bicycle and its new mudguards to two of these workshops to see whether I’d have more luck with their tools and expertise than I’d had at home.
Regenbogenfabrik, Lausitzer Straße 22, Kreuzberg.
Enlisting a friend, the first place we visited was the bike workshop at Regenbogenfabrik (translated as Rainbow Factory) on Lausitzer Straße in Kreuzberg, a squat started in the early 80s that also includes a hostel, cafe, woodshop, bakery and cinema.
The bike workshop is housed in a colourfully painted shed towards the left of the central courtyard. As we went in, we were welcomed and shown to a free space with a stand to clamp the bike to. Another room adjoins the main workshop, filled with hundreds of wheels, forks and other assorted spare parts. Tools line the walls, and every inch of space is filled with some kind of bicycle paraphernalia.
With some trepidation, I clamped the bicycle, removed the wheels and started to trying to work out how on earth to install the mudguards. A kind, middle aged man called Mattis was on hand to help, one of three volunteer mechanics circulating to assist if we needed anything.
After about an hour of sweating and swearing, we came to the conclusion that the front mudguard and my bicycle were in fact completely incompatible. Being a racing bike, the limited clearance between front tire and fork wouldn’t allow installation of the mudguard without hindering the free spinning of the wheel. Nonetheless, Mattis was extremely helpful throughout, doing a lot of the work while I took pictures and let my friend get her hands dirty instead.
On to the rear mudguard. It went on without a hitch, although the small part which clamps it to the brake mount was rubbing on the wheel. It might temporarily work without this part, said Mattis. Indeed it did, and was enough to get us out of Kreuzberg and to Mitte where we could see if the folks at Hubschrauber could help with a more permanent solution. The fee for our 2 hours at Regenbogenfabrik? A paltry €6. That seemed a little low, so we tipped them and also donated the incompatible front mudguard.
Hubschrauber, Geschwister-Scholl-Straße 7, Mitte.
Hubschrauber is a bike workshop at Humboldt University, housed in an outbuilding within the campus at Geschwister-Scholl-Straße. The workshop is bright and clean, the walls again lined with every tool you can imagine and there are two bike stands available in the middle of the room to clamp your bike to. Similar to Regenbogen, Rat und Tat (help and advice) from mechanics is also available, and donations are welcomed. Humboldt University provides the space; the staff work as volunteers.
We arrived at Hubschrauber on Friday evening and mechanic Chris wasted no time helping us fix on the rear mudguard that we hadn’t quite been able to attach at Regenbogen. It turned out that we needed instead a metal clamp to bend into place, fixing the mudguard to the rear brake mount without any rubbing. Despite my complete lack of ability, it was surprisingly easy, given Chris’s expertise. He also showed us how to perfectly adjust the placement of the mudguard to ensure optimal, non-rubbing fit.
Additionally, Chris showed us how to dial in the brakes on the bicycle, one of which hadn’t been working well for a couple of weeks.
At the time we visited, Hubschrauber was busy with bike fans young and old, working together with the in-house mechanics to solve their various bike-related problems. An older gentleman learning how to build a wheel told us that Hubschrauber had been around since the early 90s . The staff were cordial and knowledgeable, the atmosphere friendly and social. There was a definite contrast between the grittier, slightly more alternative vibe at Regenbogenfabrik, which was similar in atmosphere and appearance to many of Berlin’s well-known squatted housing projects. Chris asked us for €5 to put in the donations box.
I’m really happy that I decided to explore this side of Berlin’s bike scene. Not only did I meet some great people, but I actually came away having learnt something and got my bike fixed for a very modest outlay. If you have something that needs fixing on your bicycle, visiting either one of these workshops could be a truly invaluable experience.