“All of life is straddling the line between chaos and intent, right?” Meet Charlie Blair, professional senior mechanic. If you’ve watched any of our mechanic video series then you’ll already have an appreciation of how awesome, knowledgeable and insightful Charlie is. If you haven’t yet, then go check them out.
Charlie is a real breath of fresh air, particularly in a part of the cycling industry that is still overwhelmingly the domain of men. She really breaks the mould and she’s paving the way for more women like her to seek out a career in mechanics, as well as giving the less technically minded amongst us the tools and knowledge to understand the basics and have the confidence to give it a go ourselves.
“The level of independence of knowing how stuff works and not being reliant on people,” says Charlie, “It just transcends all parts of your life. I encourage all women to learn basic mechanics in the way that people say everyone should know how to change the spare wheel on their car. A bike is very accessible, you can see everything moving and everything working.
“It’s a huge barrier to using it if you don’t understand how it works. And it’s a huge barrier to pushing yourself to do more distance or pushing yourself to explore further if you don’t know how it works. And it’s definitely one of those things that fuels your confidence to try other things in your life.”
The beginnings of Charlie the Bike Mechanic
So how did a young History and Literature graduate hailing from Canterbury come to be a bike mechanic? Well it started with a side project to keep herself occupied whilst living in London.
Never one to do things by halves, that project was to build her own bike. Charlie tells me, “That’s where I learned compatibility the hard way. I got this frame off eBay for £6 thinking what a bargain. And then obviously, you realise why it’s £6. It was an old steel Raleigh frame, which I subsequently learned was dubbed catalogue tubing, with all these obscure sizes that just don’t correlate to normal bike parts. And it was basically an unworkable frame that required terrible parts that aren’t made anymore! It was trial by fire with that project. But I got a single speed bike up and running in the end!”
Little did she know at the time that this project would plant a seed for Charlie, that would end up becoming her profession later down the line. In the meantime, she had her own journey of discovery to go on.
From London, Charlie’s life took her to Beijing, where the bike became both a lifeline and an opportunity to develop her skills and knowledge.
“The amount of freedom that having a bike in London had given me was incredible,” Charlie says. “And it was the best way to learn the city. I didn’t actually appreciate how important that was to me until I was in another country where I couldn’t understand anything. I had known a level of independence in London that had been completely stripped away from me, being in Beijing. The bike just made all the difference; taking myself wherever I wanted at any time of the day.”
As well as finding her way in a bustling city, the bike helped Charlie to connect with people on a social level in a new city, having a common interest to spark conversation. She also began playing bike polo via a bike shop in Beijing – Natooke. Her passion for volunteering was also satiated via the Bamboo bike workshop, where she helped out regularly putting together bamboo single speeds.
“That time really opened my eyes and broadened my horizons,” remembers Charlie. “Even just in that little microcosm of being on the bike, doing things differently was like, it’s okay to do things differently.”
After a stint living in France and enjoying riding in the mountains, Charlie returned to London feeling somewhat different to when she left. She reflects, “Through all that soul searching, I’d realised that I didn’t want the office job that I had before I left and I wanted to be useful and to re-train in something quite practical. We’re all millennials, we want to be doing good work for good people, and I am very aware that the opportunities to do that are few and far between.”
Joining the armed forces seemed like the best way to enable Charlie to do just that, but the stars sadly didn’t quite align. Suddenly Charlie was at a crucial fork in the road and that’s when she went back to bikes, this time through volunteering at the Bike Project.
The Bike Project was on the edge of a period of exponential growth. Charlie arrived with the time and a skill set that they needed, so they jumped at her offer of volunteering and also involved her in a women’s cycle training programme they were just starting up.
“In that first session [of the women’s programme],” recounts Charlie. “I was teaching someone and I could just tell the penny wasn’t dropping. I realised that her first language was French. Because of my time in France, I could speak it a bit so I suggested we try it. As soon as we started doing it in French, it was just happening. And it was such a lovely moment. I’d felt so lost. And I just thought, Wow! I think I’ve actually found the thing I’m good at.”
After about a year of volunteering and developing her craft, the opportunity came up for Charlie to be a professional mechanic at the Bike Project. She puts lots of her progression in mechanics down to luck, but when you find something you love and you work hard and go all in, like Charlie has done, that positivity and passion is infectious on those around you and helps create opportunities.
It’s something that’s really driven Charlie to become the best at what she does, striving for excellence. She humbly tells me, “Because of that fortune, I just really wanted to smash it, I just really wanted to get as good as I could, as quickly as possible. I really wanted to show my gratitude to the Bike Project for the opportunity.”
Curiosity is the engine of achievement
“I was eager to learn as much as possible,” says Charlie. “And during that journey I discovered Sheldon Brown, which is like the bike mechanic Bible. He’s this American who just downloaded his brain before passing away onto a very basic HTML site, but it’s just an absolute Bible for anyone out there trying to get started. And obviously, YouTube’s your friend, like I’m really lucky to grow up in a time where this information is really accessible.”
Charlie has taken every opportunity to learn from those around her, as well as teaching herself. She cites her mentor at the Bike Project, James, as well as an experienced freelancer in the team, Nick, as key people who influenced her learning. But it’s Charlie’s curiosity, thirst for knowledge and desire to be the best that fuels her development and continued growth.
She recognises that her alternative route into the profession has given her unique opportunities to learn. “Very rarely would I have fully restored a bike, completely stripped it down and changed everything and learned what is compatible with what,” says Charlie. “Of course, it’s nice getting new stuff, because you know that it works. But with the old stuff, you really have to figure out how it works conceptually, and be able to restore it to be able to keep it going if you don’t have a replacement. It encourages your understanding to go much deeper.
“The environment that I’ve been in has been a lovely one, because it’s less commercial,” continues Charlie. “We’ve got the freedom to be creative with the bikes we’re restoring, and find ways to make it work with the used parts that we have available to us. It’s always an opportunity to teach each other things too. I realised it’s very unique. And it’s been a really good experience for me, because in a commercial setting, you’re very limited by A) what the customer wants and B) how much they can afford to spend. I think I recognise that if I’d been learning my trade in that environment, it would have been hard to expose myself to the same level of variety that I’ve had at the charity.”
A man’s world
In addition to working at the Bike Project, Charlie began working at London Bike Kitchen (LBK [https://www.lbk.org.uk/about]), a groundbreaking bike workshop set up by the inimitable Jenni Gwiazdowski. It’s unique in many ways, not least because it’s an entirely female team currently.
The number of female mechanics out there is definitely growing, but let’s be frank, they’re still small numbers. Charlie talks openly and honestly about what it’s like being a woman in a traditionally male field.
“There’s that element of imposter syndrome, being a woman. Knowing and having felt it my whole life, especially playing football and being the only girl, always having to try that extra bit harder to prove to someone that I could play the game. I kind of knew there’d be an element of that in the wider bike industry. And so building my knowledge and experience was kind of a way to defend myself. I wanted to be really, really good.”
Perhaps the alternative route into the profession has also led to more positive experiences for Charlie as a woman. She tells me that on the whole the environment she’s in is supportive. “I’ve met tonnes of supportive guy mechanics in the industry, particularly at the Bike Project, and they’ve given me a lot of advice. I think the only barriers I ever really get are never actually in the workplace or with my colleagues, it’s with customers. It’s been with guys who don’t believe me when I say ‘no, it can’t be done’, or that something’s not going to work, so they ask if they can talk to someone else. I know my colleague is going to tell them the same thing. That can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes it’s just a cultural thing, which is easier to accept.”
Rather than dwell on it and get frustrated, these interactions serve to fuel Charlie to be on top of her game, to work even harder to know that she can back herself.
“In all honesty,” says Charlie frankly, “It is hard for female mechanics to break through.” She wants to be a role model for other females who might want to get into bike mechanics. We both recognise that a more general society shift is required to move the needle and normalise women in what have been more traditionally male-dominated roles (not just mechanics). Challenging assumptions and the status quo at all stages of life.
“I’m not saying it’s wrong or incorrect,” continues Charlie. “It’s just how it is and how it has been for a long time. Hopefully the more society changes, the more the bike world changes too. And the more of us that come through and prove that we can do it. Until there’s a bit more focus and money and training and investment in trying to diversify the workforce, it’s going to be people like me shooting through the cracks. And all people like me can do is keep trying to make room for more and more of us to come through.”
Following in her footsteps
Keen to follow Charlie into the profession? Charlie has some advice for all aspiring female mechanics out there.
“YouTube’s your friend,” she exclaims. “There’s so much information out there. Tinker with stuff, just do it because you enjoy it. And then keep your ears to the ground for volunteering opportunities and go for it. There are more and more initiatives and more and more bike shops that are actually wanting a more diverse workforce. Seek them out.”
Charlie’s Top Tips [can we put this in a separate block so it stands out separate from the rest?]
“If you hear a noise from your bike, don’t ignore it! If your bike’s making a noise, it’s a cry for help. Listen to it. If you’re riding along and you can hear something, just get off and have a look. See if you can even figure out which part of the bike the noise is coming from. It might just be something small and innocuous, like your brakes not being centred. But that means not only are you working much harder than you should be because your pad’s always rubbing, it’s wearing your wheel rim unevenly and then it’s just going to cost you down the line. And it’s going to cause more and more problems. So please don’t ignore the cry for help!”
“Every now and then do the bounce test – bounce your bike. It shouldn’t really rattle except for your chain. Try and isolate where any strange noises are coming from because normally that bounce test would indicate that something’s loose, which is not a good thing. It may be just your quick release skewers aren’t done up tight enough. Or it’s a sign of play in any part of the bike that’s got bearings. You might not feel it whilst riding, it might feel a little bit innocuous, but it will only get much worse and quite exponentially once it loosens.”
What’s the future got in store?
As we write Charlie’s actually off to pastures new. She’s heading to New Zealand for a new challenge and adventure in a bike shop with a MTB focus. It’s all part of the bigger picture and Charlie’s continued development. She wants to learn from new experiences, continue developing her skills and bring that knowledge back to some of the projects she’s worked on in the UK and beyond.
She tells me, “I’d love to see basic bike mechanics be an essential skill, just like you get taught to swim at school. It shouldn’t feel foreign, especially if we’re serious about active transport. The dream is to be part of a movement that makes the bike as commonplace as it is in the Netherlands. And that requires a lot of education. And a lot of campaigning, movement and action to make it more accessible in every way. Whether that’s storage, affordability, bike security, all of these things go in tandem. And I think our current mentality on active travel is very siloed into just getting people on a bike, but there’s a lot that comes around that and for women in particular. There are some huge barriers to why people don’t ride. So that’s where I’d like to take my technical expertise into in the future.”
With the tenacity, determination and drive Charlie exudes, we’re sure her future is bright and we look forward to seeing where her work and life take her next.