One of the silver linings of the pandemic is the arrival of some new faces to the Bicycle Exchange. Paul Southworth is one such example, having refurbished more than a dozen bikes from home, and QA'd many more. Paul comes to BikeX via Green Town Los Altos and its annual ReCYCLE Bicycle Drive.
Andrew got to catch up with Paul a little bit more and learn about his path to bicycles, bicycle repair, and making some of our favorite areas to ride a lot cleaner. Thanks for all of your hard work, both on bikes and on the trails, Paul!
Who is Paul Southworth?
I've lived in Mountain View for about 10 years, Los Angeles for about 10 years, Ann Arbor for about 10 years, and Ashland, Oregon for about 10 years, with shorter stays in several other locations ranging from Siskiyou county to Australia and the UK.
As a teenager, I trained at United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon before working in family bike shops for a few years. It wasn't possible to earn a living as a bike mechanic, so I transitioned to working on computers and did that for over 25 years. Currently, I don't have a job and I've been exploring more volunteer work.
We met through Green Town Los Altos. How did you get involved with them?
I'm not sure how I first heard of them, but I have been attending the ReCYCLE Bicycle Drive event at LAHS for a few years and I live nearby in Mountain View.
How did you get involved with SVBE?
I went to a couple of repair events years ago when SVBE was on Leghorn Street, but while I was working it was hard to give up Saturdays for volunteer work because I did all my riding on the weekend. More recently I have been working with GreenTown Los Altos on their annual ReCYCLE Bicycle Drive that repairs donated bikes for kids in the Mountain View and Los Altos school districts. The 2019 bicycle drive was so successful that we ended up with more bikes than we could handle, which led to a collaboration with the Bicycle Exchange. School closures and pandemic restrictions resulted in canceling our annual event for 2020, so currently, most of my mechanical work is happening at SVBE.
What keeps you coming back?
I view my volunteer work on bike repair primarily through the lens of reducing the effects of poverty on people. Bicycles are a wonderful gift to people who can't afford to buy them: they provide independence, access to jobs, and improved health. Cycling is available to many people who can't drive an automobile, and cycling is cheaper than transit. With skilled labor, some inexpensive parts, and a lot of lubrication, a free, mostly-dead bike can become as useful as the day it was manufactured.
I’ve heard you ride your bike to pick up trash. How did you get started doing that? Where and how often do you pick up trash?
I enjoy picking up litter in nature preserves and on hiking trails. Cleaning car-free spaces is very satisfying because the fix lasts much longer. I generally litter-pick on foot but I like to ride my e-bike to a trail location, collect all the bottles, cans, dog poop bags, tissues, tiny corners of Clif Bar wrappers, and then pack it out. One of my favorite places for litter is Arastradero Lake in Palo Alto, which always offers up fishing line and tackle, lead weights, food packaging, golf balls, etc. When I take a bass plug out of a tree I know that it won't end up in a bird, which is very satisfying.
You’ve worked on a number of different bikes. Which bike stands out as the most memorable, or your favorite?
I had a bike shop customer many years ago who had a mid-range Schwinn road bike on the back of his car, and drove it into a parking meter. He showed up to buy a new bike, but it had to be made in the USA, like his Schwinn. I gently explained that his bent Schwinn was an excellent example of Japanese craftsmanship. He bought the only American-made bike in our shop in his size: a Serotta Colorado III. He gave me the Schwinn which I straightened and my wife rode it for several years, dents and all. Free bikes are the best.
What’s your favorite bike tool?
The nicest hand tool I own is probably the Stein crown race removal tool. His tools show thoughtfulness in every part of the design, and if you've ever used the traditional crown race tools, which often involve swinging a hammer between the fork blades, this is just so much smarter, safer, and more effective. I also enjoy having tools that I have been using for decades and that have become sort of a language for problem-solving.
What is your background in cycling? And on wrenching on bikes?
I started riding a bike when I was 5 and I think I was 9 or 10 when I got my first 10-speed: a Univega with 24" steel wheels. It was very uncool and I wanted a BMX bike like the cool kids. My first quality road bike was a Miyata 710 which I got as a teenager in Ashland. It was legal to ride on the I-5 freeway on the descent into town, so of course, I did. Now I am more risk-averse. My brother attended United Bicycle Institute a few years before me and was working as a mechanic. I tried to go to college but didn’t enjoy it, so I followed him to UBI and got my first bike shop job when I turned 18.
What can you share about your personal or family bike collection?
I'm looking around my garage right now and I see 13 bikes, four of which I'm repairing for SVBE or GreenTown, and three of the others are not ready to ride. My current #1 road bike is a Soma Smoothie, which I bought cheap as a used frameset. It's a much better bike than the steel road bikes of the 1980s that I started on.
What’s your favorite bike you no longer own?
A custom "Hotspur" mountain bike that was made by a friend in a garage around 1990. The down tube was a tandem boom tube and it was painted by a guy who made his living painting motorcycles. I sold it to a friend and it probably didn't get ridden.
What have you learned since volunteering with SVBE?
The most important thing right now is learning the locations of every part and tool in the SVBE shop. That and learning the quality standards of the shop and merging those with my own thoughts on safety and quality.
Most interesting problem to deal with?
It's very difficult to predict the amount of work that donated bikes will need. In a bike shop setting, the kind of work we do at SVBE would be prohibitively expensive, but with volunteer labor, we get into very involved repairs on bikes that would otherwise probably go in the dumpster. And yet sometimes we do have to scrap a bike that's just too far gone. The challenge is to spot bikes that have fatal flaws before you invest a lot of time and parts.
What’s your favorite tip for new bike mechanics?
If you ride, learn how to clean your bike and do it regularly.
Another tip for all mechanics is when you replace cable housing or end caps, tension the wire and beat on the cable housing with the handle of a screwdriver, especially near the housing stops. You may get back several millimeters of cable that would probably have loosened up over days or weeks of riding. People sometimes call this "cable stretch" but the cable really doesn't stretch: the housing becomes effectively shorter.
Thank you Paul for all your help in keeping our bike donations happening during this pandemic!
Learn more about the superstars who keep SVBE rolling through our previous featured volunteer spotlights!