TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Cruising the Buenos Aires bike scene
The reality of riding my bike through the city wasn't quite as paradisiacal as it appeared when standing on the curb — especially given motorists' ignorance of hand signals (they're still an uncommon practice among bicyclists there), oblivious pedestrians, and garbage bins parked in delineated bike lanes.
"THE STREETS ARE FOR EVERYBODY"
On a busy street in one of the city's northern neighborhoods, a year-old bike workshop and skill-share operates out of the back room of a community center. Two days a week, La Fabricicleta is staffed by volunteer bike mechanics who created the workshop after they met through city's two-year-old Masa Critica (Critical Mass, in one of its many global incarnations), which attracts up to 2,000 riders in the warm summer months and takes to the streets every first Sunday at 4 p.m., with special rides on full-moon nights.
On any given day of operation, the tiny room is packed with mostly young people drinking yerba mate, pumping music, teaching each other how to fix flats and true wheels, and leaving donations for parts and to keep the shop running. It's similar to SF's Bike Kitchen — save for its provenance.
Buenos Aires' neighborhood asambleas were formed in the wake of the country's 2001 economic collapse, in the midst of runs on the banks, 25 percent unemployment rates, and looting — but also remarkable community organizing. In scenes reminiscent of this spring's Madrid indignado demonstrations, the city's plazas filled with demonstrations and entire neighborhoods occupied abandoned buildings, establishing a space where they could try to work through the seismic craziness rocking their country.
Villa Urquiza's asamblea was one of these — it once housed La Ideal pizzeria, whose sign hangs over the doorway and whose massive ovens still greet visitors. Still buzzing a decade after the crash, the asamblea now hosts political meetings, an anarchist library, occasional fundraiser parties with live music and cheap beer — and La Fabricicleta.
"This is a lifestyle," says Gustavo Troncoso, one of the workshop's six core volunteer mechanics. He was introduced to La Fabricicleta through cyclist friends and was impressed by the way people "come to spend the day, and then end up doing mechanics."
The shop protests throwaway culture, encouraging people to put in the time to resuscitate old bikes. Some of the volunteers who run the shop roll through with decades-old rides restored to impeccably detailed perfection. Another Fabricicleta goal is to provide bikes (and the smarts to maintain them) to low-income riders in the community.
Pausing from helping two young women take their bikes through a routine tuneup, Troncoso explains that riding in the city provides him with some much-needed autonomy from the sardine-packed subway system and environment-polluting car life. "When you get in a car and go somewhere quickly — well you're not leaving much room for yourself."
"The streets are for everybody," he says. "We think everyone can share the same streets with respect. Bikes make you more autonomous, free — you can do it yourself."
But the social stigma of bikes in Argentina is hard to shake. "Older people still believe that bicycles are for poor people," says Troncoso, shaking his head. "It's just a question of education."
It's easy to see why La Fabricicleta is packed during its open hours. People come to help out and tune up — but many are there just to kick it. More than a functional service center, the small room is a clubhouse in a town that's not totally ready for the bike life.
LA VIDA IN BICI