Inspired by the Ride of Norma Jean Belloff in 1948: Chariot Bike Mobile Repair Shop

Adaptability. Sometimes life provides us with circumstances that are not exactly beautiful. Somewhere among the ugly bits, though, these cracks emerge from the rubble of things seemingly falling apart. I think of that space the cracks create as portals to a different way. These chasms are opportunities if you will. And that’s just it – you must have will.

The past year has been sort of like that. In my experience as a bipedal being, when life gets weird and the ground you know crumbles underneath your feet, there are often choices in how you move through those chossy life conditions. Does one tread water, trying to stay as stationary as possible, clinging to desire for the same familiar ground? Does she seize up in fear and sink to the depths? Or does she swim forward in search of someplace fresh to rest those feet upon? Adaptability is quite certainly one of the most brilliant human traits. Adaptation is how we survive. It’s how we persist as these too-smart, hairless, emotional bags of stardust tainted flesh and it’s how we have evolved to create the things and ideologies that are killing us, too – balance is a thing that we could work on as a species, but that’s a different story. I’m yapping about using adversity as an impetus for propulsion into our next form. That’s what Julia Sparks did when the pandemic created some cracks in the bike industry.

A long-time professional bike mechanic from Oregon, Julia bunny hopped into the portal of opportunity and launched Chariot Bike Mobile Repair Shop, a fully operational repair service on wheels. After transitioning out of her mechanic position at a local bike shop during the outbreak of Covid-19, she swam full-on Olympian style toward something new.

“I’m really bad at just sitting and doing nothing. So, I started fixing bikes out of my garage (at a safe distance) for people in my neighborhood and friends. I have always wanted my own bike shop repair business, and it just seemed like the right time to try. The next thing you know I’m buying a van and cutting holes in it.”, she says, adding a shout-out to her talented friend Juliana Linder for gifting graphic designs for Chariot Bike’s logo and van wrap. She credits her partner-in-crime Ron Sparks for putting in work to build out a website and wire the van for electricity. Never having built out a van before, Julia says it was a challenging puzzle to figure out the layout of the bench, storage, and space for a bike stand plus a human to move wrenches.

The mobile repair shop is a super sweet model for navigating the current landscape of doing business. Customers can schedule a pick-up service for their bike online, leave it outside their home and just like magic, the bike is tuned-up and returned to their doorstep without any human contact. Folks love the ability to work directly with Julia on their custom bike build or maintenance and repairs. “I’m their personal mechanic. They can call, email or text to ask questions and set up a service” she shares, adding that she feels more involved in the community and is able to serve a wider customer base with her mobile set-up. Currently an Otso Cycles dealer with a second bike brand offering in the works, Julia is building out a small industrial space as her second workshop that people will be able to visit by appointment at first. She plans to display a couple of dreamy bike builds, have storage for repairs, and offer a welcoming spot for riders in the community to connect via bike repair workshops and bikepacking planning nights. She says she will be hiring a second mechanic and continuing with mobile repair pick-up and delivery service. She’s super excited to bring her vision to life.

Chariot’s namesake packs a really rad history. Julia’s grandmother Norma Jean Belloff set the first official women’s record for biking across the United States in 1948 on her bike “Chariot”, pedaling from New York to San Diego in 53 days. The year before she went from San Diego to New York, taking her time and making friends along the way. Norma Jean passed on much too young but Julia’s mom, Iris Paris, wrote a book published under the title Once Upon a Chariot detailing the journeys and life of Norma Jean using left-behind journals and a voice recording of a radio interview. Though Julia never had the opportunity to meet her grandmother, she wishes she could ask all kinds of questions about her adventures and says “She inspires me to not care what others think and push boundaries. Her story sparked the flame for bikepacking and my need for adventure.”

If you have spent any time in bike shops you might have noticed that there aren’t exactly a ton of female mechanics, but Julia doesn’t feel like that’s held her back. It’s a barrier that she chose to climb over. In fact, she says being a female has made her a better mechanic. “In the beginning, I would be asked where the mechanics were, as I stood there in an apron with a wrench in my hand working on a bike”, she reminisces. Over time, she learned not to get caught up on the requests for a guy and skip right to talking about what kind of repair they needed. The customer would often come back later to apologize for the assumption and thank her for the dialed tune-up she performed. In the early days, she often felt like she had to prove herself to gain customer’s trust and she rose to that opportunity, becoming more skilled and holding her work to a higher standard of perfectionism.

Julia got a job working the sales floor at a bike shop in Corvallis, Oregon while she attended OSU for college and would ask the mechanics a million questions about repairs. “I’ve always been mechanically inclined and good at puzzles. Working on bikes seemed intriguing and like a fun challenge. I had the best coworkers that willingly taught me the art and magic of bike repair. We listened to 80’s Hairbands while hammering on rusty old commuters and frozen bearings in mountain bikes. Had grease under my nails ever since.” Julia fell in love with the bike shop life. Drinking coffee, fixing bikes, drinking more coffee, taking a nap in the hammock, fixing more bikes, then enjoying a beer and talking about bikes with the crew at the end of the day. The pure satisfaction of fixing a broken thing or going from a box of parts to a complete bike ready to hit the trails is what Julia loves most about this work. She fancies passing on knowledge and says that “blowing someone’s mind that they can fix/maintain their own bikes” is something she really digs, too.

“Hopefully someday seeing a woman working on a bike doesn’t raise any questions and she doesn’t feel the need to prove herself to every customer,” Julia says, sharing that if someone out there were interested in a career as a mechanic, they could start by getting a bike shop job and showing that they are eager to learn from the mechanics they work with. “Ask the mechanics questions and don’t take no for an answer. Everyone starts somewhere.” While some folks attend a school like United Bicycle Institute, others go the apprentice route, as Julia did. She encourages talking to people already doing this kind of work, saying “Ask other female mechanics their stories – you can always reach out to me, too.” 

Julia is way stoked to be serving her local community with Chariot Bike Mobile Repair and looks forward to connecting with and empowering folks at her new space, too. Sometimes life will offer us less-than-favorable circumstances. There will be cracks. May the chasms be your opportunities.