Fender Bender Detroit, a safe space for female, queer and transgender bicyclists, is working to take 'macho' out of the local scene 

Bending Detroit's bike culture

Glistening bikes stand supported throughout the room, wooden shelves holding tools occupy the better part of one wall. Portraits and diagrams of bicycles dot the space. There's a white board with a set of brightly marked goals by the room's one window.

The carpet is lived-in. There's a calendar of gleeful Detroiters at a dance party by the door, hanging just below a bicycle tire containing positive messages woven in its spokes. It's a happy room, a bright room where you can come to get your hands dirty and emerge with a tangible act of triumph.

Fender Bender was an idea four years ago: a promise of a safe space for female, queer, and transgender bicyclists in the city. Now the wheels are turning.

"I never actually foresaw myself running with this, but people kept popping up saying, 'This is so great, and we do need this — not just because of bikes, but so we can get together and talk,"' says Sarah Sidelko, a founder and organizer of Fender Bender.

Sidelko was working with Back Alley Bikes through the Hub of Detroit at the time she was approached to start female-only mechanic classes. Out of the original five or six who started Fender Bender, Sidelko was the only one with Detroit roots. She is now the last original founder still working with the organization.

"I was curious as to why they wanted to do this here and how they were going to be a part of the city and plug it into the Detroit narrative," Sidelko says.

Sidelko quit her full-time job to devote herself to Fender Bender, and began creating lesson plans for seven-week bike workshops. Attendance was surprisingly high, she says, and many who came to the workshops stayed on with Fender Bender as volunteers. These workshops were intensive, packing in all the knowledge relating to bicycles and their repair.

Ayana, an organizer who declined to give her last name, says that you walk away from the workshop with a gigantic binder full of potential tips for the would-be cyclist. Gemini Bhalsod was also one of the workshop attendees, and is now a faithful devotee and organizer for Fender Bender.

"I think a lot of it came from the fact that I didn't have a lot of bike confidence, different bike scenes I've been a part of have been super macho, so it was isolating," Bhalsod says. "I thought I could never learn how to do that or build things because of the way I was socialized, but sort of organically coming from a place of being with friends who had similar identities and politics helped me with that."

None of the employees are paid, and Fender Bender is careful to avoid accepting grants from an organization that doesn't agree with their politics. They've kept themselves running with events like drag bingo, full-moon bike rides, and dance parties. The events are mainly geared toward women, queer, and transgender people, but Sidelko says men have also participated.

Their methods of fundraising have been some of their most enjoyable pursuits, Bhalsod says, and they've been a huge part of making the bike shop's resources accessible.

Heather Nugen, interim director for Back Alley Bikes, says that "bike culture" in general is geared toward the 20-something man. It's a problem that plagues cities other than Detroit, she says.

"Men will assume they're being helpful, or that it's chivalry," Nugen says. "Bike culture is still very, very masculine, and oftentimes women aren't heard and their needs aren't met."

To sustain themselves, Fender Bender also rents bikes out of their shop, a practice that has become popular with those in the area who lack reliable transportation. All the bikes are projects worked on by their organizers and volunteers.

"We're the ones who've worked on the bikes, we're the ones who have been on all the rides, and so the lending library, in particular, is fun because people will ride bikes and it will be like 'that was the first bike I ever changed a brake line on,'" Bhalsad says. "That's not anything I could've ever said before, that small-scale investment from us helps personalize what we're doing and helps keep the folks using our bikes our services invested in us."

Looking ahead, Fender Bender plans to incorporate more activities for families. Changing the stigmas surrounding what a woman can or can't do is integral to their roots, Sidelko says. She vows that none of Fender Benders volunteers will take a tool out of a cyclist's hand, but will instead teach them how to do it on their own.

"There are a lot of people who have had bike trouble, period, who felt stuck and didn't know what to do, and felt scared and isolated," Sidelko says. "But also they were like, 'I had to ask my boyfriend to do this, or my brother or my uncle — or I feel like I can fix it, but someone takes a tool out of my hand.' That's the way were socialized."

Currently, there are five organizers running Fender Bender, as well as a handful of volunteers. The organization is in a transitional phase and will be revamping throughout the month of August. They're still looking for help.

To get involved, visit fenderbenderdetroit.org or email fenderbenderdetroit@gmail.com.

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