Capturing the Magic of the UCSC Bike Co-op

Nestled between giant trees and the surrounding University of California Santa Cruz campus, the UCSC Bike Co-op is a haven for students and community members. There are few things more satisfying than rummaging through a parts bin and learning how to wrench on your own bike. As with any good bike shop, co-operative or not, the community is paramount as many of the UCSC co-op volunteers can attest. Continue reading below as Finn Cunningham and Matt Miller, in addition to a collection of their friends and fellow co-opers, capture the magic of UCSC’s Bike Co-op…

Capturing the meaning of the UC Santa Cruz Bike Co-op within a couple of short paragraphs, or even pages is difficult. Coming to this school widened my horizons tenfold, but also coincided with a struggle to find a sense of community on campus. I grew up in a family surrounded by bikes and raced for years. Unsurprisingly, I burnt out hard and never wanted to touch a bike again. However, once I moved to Santa Cruz for school, I rediscovered my love of riding and found the UCSC Bike Co-op. Finding the Bike Co-op became the supportive and close-knit community that we all look for as students.

Now that four years have passed and I am approaching graduation—and the inevitability of life after college—I find myself reflecting back on my experience at the Bike Co-op. Much more than just a bike shop, the Bike Co-op has given me unforgettable experiences, friends, and community, and I feel compelled to share the magic of this place and its people.

My first encounter with the Bike Co-op was a bootleg bike race (no affiliation to the Co-op, of course) starting at the top of UC Santa Cruz, to the end of the Santa Cruz wharf, with approximately 800 feet of fast descending through town. It was completely downhill, with no waivers, no rules, and no directions but “uhhhh yeah just end at the wharf”. This was my first, albeit violently casual, “race” in a long time. However, when I rolled up to the small building housing the Bike Co-op, the vibes were right, the music was rockin’, and the participants were stoked.

After a couple of minutes past the advertised start time, registration began and we chose our numbers, myself creatively writing “69” on my hand. The event was straight-up fun, equal parts adrenaline-seeking competition and camaraderie. Even though I didn’t know anyone, I already felt like I was a part of the community.

Shortly after this event, the Co-op was shut down due to Covid-19, and all operations were postponed until relatively recently. After the reopening, I began helping out full-time and joined the group of core members religiously dedicating themselves to keeping this volunteer-run co-operative alive.

Coming to this place gave me a sense of belonging, which isn’t always easy to find on such a large campus. I first stepped into the Co-op thinking it might be just another bike shop, but I soon found that we do so much more than selling parts and fixing bikes: we build community.

The Co-op hides within a small space at the core of campus, tucked in among the redwoods of UC Santa Cruz. Haphazardly built, cutty trails snake their way around the school, offering way too many opportunities to get dirty between lectures. I often find myself taking the long way to class, jonesing for a bit of fresh air and adrenaline before being planted in a seat. Our events naturally take advantage of these trails around campus, and if it’s been a slow day, it is common practice to head out for a group ride.

We do all the usual bike shop things: fixing flats, and work orders, but we heavily encourage people to learn with us. Normally we accomplish this through our open hours, but we occasionally create events tailored to specific projects or activities. These events foster community, always have a social aspect, and an occasional ride thrown in.

It’s so rewarding when I see someone come in with greater frequency, attending our events, eager to learn about their bike, gradually start volunteering, and eventually teaching other people how to work on the very issues they used to struggle with. Creating this self-sufficient cycle of bike knowledge is what keeps our community alive and growing.

Our events have many topics and themes, with the goal of creating a welcoming space to learn and enjoy the many facets of the Bike Co-op. The events we create span a wide range of activities and skill levels. Our How to Ride Bikes clinics teach new riders how to safely ride a bike, and, after each clinic, the world has a couple more confident bicycle riders because of it.

Our WTF (Women, Trans, Femme) nights aim to create more inclusive spaces that cater to those identifying with groups who often are not represented well in typical “mainstream” cycling cultures. We have found that these WTF nights have brought in even more people to the Co-op that have been marginalized by the bike community. We love digging into the social aspect of the bicycle, and how it builds connections.

The Bike Co-op is run completely by volunteers, compensated with the valuable interactions and connections experienced day by day. We have 10 core members, who run everything from managing volunteers, and putting on events, to doing taxes. Along with our core members, our volunteers are the backbone of the Co-op.

Despite not being paid, these amazing individuals come every week to help the Co-op in every way they can, and we could not operate without them. They create the wonderful community that we strive to be. Stepping into the Co-op feels like a gateway into another world on campus. An escape from the usual college grind, the Co-op has an atmosphere that welcomes anyone, from casual enthusiasts, to barefoot hipsters, and everyone in between.

The Co-op has been a focal point for many in the campus community, as it has been for me. As much as we love being a bike shop, the focus is and always has been on growing the community. We strive to create a welcoming environment and put on events that appeal to a wide range of people. Possibly the most exciting part of being affiliated with the Co-op is the events that our members run.

One of my favorite memories is putting together an alleycat-style race that started on campus, snaked through downtown, and ended at the cycling team’s house where we did our official podiums (and maybe a couple milk shoeys). Despite it being slapped together last minute, as many of these events are, it was widely successful, resulting in only an accumulated six urgent care hours. Not that this event was affiliated in any way with the Co-op itself, of course.

I can go on at length and do my best to describe the experiences of some of my friends at the co-op, but I think they can offer their own stories and sentiments better than any paraphrasing I can offer. I asked some of my friends and fellow Co-opers about how the Co-op has affected their lives and experiences at UC Santa Cruz.

“Favorite Co-op memories are always from the alleycats (no affiliation to the Co-op ;) ), seeing so many people show up, some being very experienced riders and racers, and some being very new to bikes and never done any sort of bike race or event ever before. In the beginning, everyone’s a bit nervous, not really knowing what to expect, and then it all starts so dramatically with manifests all over the place and people scrambling to get on their bikes. By the end, everyone’s all smiles and filled with stories of wrong turns, sketchy moments, and brief moments of feeling like the fastest bike rider that’s ever lived.”

“I really can’t imagine where I would be if I didn’t find the Bike Co-op. I was never into cycling before entering college, so it was really the people that I met here that drew me in. And this community that we’ve built truly is the most important part of the co-op. I’ve made lifelong relationships while also being able to help a bunch of people everyday work on their bikes. The atmosphere at the Co-op makes bikes accessible to everyone, and it’s super empowering to know how such an amazing machine works.”

“During my freshman year at UCSC, I found myself interested in the Bike Co-op. At the first meeting of the year, I looked around and saw women and femme folks present. It was inspiring to see that women took up the space and that they were fixing up bikes. After being the only girl on a high school mountain bike team, this was extremely encouraging to see. Everyone at the Bike Co-op helps each other out in learning about bikes, it’s such a great community and I am lucky to be a part of it! Through the Bike Co-op, I have become more confident in working on bikes and helping people get their bikes running smoothly!”

“One of my favorite Bike Co-op memories is riding down the UCSC bike path with all my homies at the end of the day. The sun is just about setting, the blue ocean stretches out in front of me, and I have the largest grin on my face. Sometimes before we part ways, we stop for a burrito or a ride along the coast. The Bike Co-op is where I have made my best, deepest friendships, and had the most laughs, adrenaline rushes, and goofiest moments of my college experience. That day I stepped into the Bike Co-op during my freshman year was one of the best decisions I have made in the past four years, and I cannot thank enough all the amazing people who I have met along the way. Thank you Bike Co-op!”

“I’ve made all my best friends at the Bike Co-op, and the way the Co-op centers openness and accessibility has made it a truly wonderful environment, which I’ve been proud to be a part of. Not to mention the fact that I’ve procrastinated here more than anywhere else on campus.”

The Bike Co-op has been a place for a wide range of people, many of which I feel lucky enough to call my friends. We all have our reasons as to why we dedicate way too much time to this place, but overall, we really just enjoy hanging out with each other, and it turns out that bikes are a great way to do it. The increasing frequency of industry giants buying up local shops and smaller, community-oriented bike shops going out of business has made me feel lucky to have worked at a couple of independent shops, especially here at the Co-op.

I hope that we can keep the community bike shop culture alive for many years to come, and I know there will always be spaces for those who don’t necessarily buy into all of the new industry “stuff”. Anyways…here’s to the next generation of Bike Co-op’in, I feel so privileged to have come across this slice of community in my life.