No BS Bike Repair
- Shawna Williams
Free Range Cycles https://www.freerangecycles.com/
Women-run bike shop in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood specializing in commuter and touring bikes.
Let Free Range’s Shawna Williams serve as an example of what can happen when you fake your way through your first bike mechanic interview. Seven years ago, she was interviewing with Free Range’s founder, Kathleen Emry, now she’s the owner…janitor, bookkeeper, and more. Along with her teammates, Nikki and Moira, she’s the third party of Free Range’s bad a** all-women bike mechanic trinity. Founded in 1997 by Kathleen Emery (one of Seattle’s first female bike shop owners), Shawna made the big leap from bike mechanic to small business owner in 2018.
She reflects on her early days as a bike mechanic: “Kathleen was kind enough to take me under her wing and give me instruction, even though I kind of bluffed my way through the interview. I made myself seem a lot more confident than I actually was at the time. That mirage didn’t last for long. It became apparent pretty quick that I needed a lot of training. But she was up to the task, and she trained me for close to two years.” Several years later, after a stint at Bike Works, when Kathleen decided to retire, Shawna took the plunge and became the owner.
Location, location, location
Free Range is located in Fremont, one block off the Burke Gilman Trail but they serve the general Seattle area – and business is good. The shop has a long reputation, one catering to different niche areas of cycling: touring folks, people who enjoy riding on gravel, as well as commuters – which is why location is key. “You know, people get a flat, then they look at their phone and it’s , ‘Oh, there’s a shop a block away that can fix my tire.’
Besides their emphasis on serving commuters, they have something of a reputation for being a touring-focused shop. Shawna notes, “They’ll ship their bikes from wherever to us, we build it up, and then they’ll start their tours. So that’s always been something kind of fun and interesting, as we meet a lot of different people from all over the world.”
Why bike repair?
Shawna has always liked taking things apart and fixing them. “My dad is very handy, and I’d follow him around with a tool belt and try and learn how to fix the house. Whenever we had a project, I’d be the person handing him the lightbulbs or the spackle. My family in previous generations, they’re all farmers. So, I wonder if some of that kind of rubbed off.”
Shawna began her bike repair journey by fixing her friends’ bikes in college. “It kind of became my little sanctuary when everything was up in the air. You know, classes were hard, relationship stuff… I’d just start ripping apart a bike and cleaning things, and overhauling bearings, and it put me in this really Zen state. I graduated with a degree in political science but I realized I really wanted to do something with my hands. I went to a 10-day intensive course at United Bicycle Institute in Portland, and kind of dove in full there. Then I came back and faked my way to a job.”
But it’s clearly way more than a job. “It engages so many different aspects of me and engages a part of me that loves community, that wants to help folks mobilize themselves through time and space. I know biking, for me, gives me a huge sense of freedom and independence. I also love the problem solving challenge. I like getting my hands dirty. I like knowing that at the end of the day, I can tangibly see ‘Okay, I did that.’ “
Some of the biggest repair challenges that Shawna and her crew face are due to the bike industry’s “baked in planned obsolescence.” She notes that there are generations of new parts, and they aren’t compatible with each other. “So that’s something that we’re constantly trying to problem solve. And no company or country seems to talk to each other when it comes to different standards. There’s constantly new standards coming out, new tools that have to be purchased.”
She believes that bikes should be something that are accessible, not just to ride, but also for people to be able to fix. “It’s two wheels, it’s a chain…it should be really straightforward. But we have to do research every single day. Collectively in the shop, we have about 20-28 years of experience working on bikes and every single day we meet challenges that are like, ‘Oh, we’ve never seen that before.’ I know that there’s an edge where companies have to innovate in order to stay relevant. But if that could happen without making all the previous generations of a component obsolete, that would be amazing. There’s some companies that are doing that better than others. It would be awesome to know that you don’t have the fanciest part X on your bike, but you can pair it with a new part Y, and it’ll work just great because they’re the same standard. I don’t know what that would take but that’s my dream. I think about that all the time.”
Repairs that stand out
Shawna says that “Some of my favorite things that we do [are] when an older bike has a lot of sentimental value. It was passed on from a parent or it was the bike that the person had in college that they did a huge tour on across the US. Those are my favorite ones to make new again. It’s expensive, because oftentimes, the parts are obsolete so we have to swap out all new parts or sourcing can be tricky. But just seeing that person reunited with their bike, and it feels amazing, it lets them have that feeling that they did – or it lets them feel connected to that person.”
Women-owned = different dynamic
One thing that sets Free Range apart is being completely women-owned and operated. “A lot of non-cis males have come into the shop and express like, ‘Wow, this is so different. This feels really nice.’ I would like to see more repair places focus on diversifying their workforce, their employees, because I do think it adds an element of ‘Hey, I fit in here.’ If somebody feels like, ‘Oh, I’m not cool enough or savvy enough, or I don’t know enough about this brand of brake to be doing this sport,’ they’ll self select out. It makes me really sad so we try and find ways to prevent that from happening.
“If we can just approach the interaction with curiosity, and non-assumptive language and excitement, like, ‘We’re glad you’re here, welcome.’ I think it does a lot to change the narrative and to make people feel like, ‘maybe I can be a part of this.’”
She loves being a role model. “Something I like to think about is we have this little cohort of tiny preschoolers, and they hold on to these leashes and they walk around the neighborhood and around the shop every day. And it dawned on me the other day: we’re their only experience of a bike shop, they assume that bike shops are run by women. That is the coolest thing. That was never the case for me growing up.”
Shawna and the Free Range crew strive to create a place people associate with gathering, good things. and accessibility… and it seems to be working out!