Any old iron

A project to help young people restore old bikes is gearing up for another busy year as it gets people in Hull on the move

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The bike store at the back of Hull’s Kingston Youth Centre is an unlikely Aladdin’s cave.

When the door of the converted shipping container swings open, the assortment of hardware inside looks distinctly unpromising. But the jumble of mountain bikes missing handlebars or pedals and boneshakers with rusted-up chains, flat tyres and wonky wheels is its own kind of treasure.

“This one do you?” says one of the youth workers, wheeling out a pink and white kiddie number with stabilisers. Tom, who’s 19 and at least 6ft 2ins, isn’t impressed. He’s today’s new starter at Push Iron, a Hull City Council-run project to get more young people cycling. Over five weekly sessions, he’ll learn how to do up an unwanted second-hand bike, which he can then keep. What he came for is something he can use to get around the place independently – not a clown bike.

Tom gets the joke and a more suitable model is found and set up on a repair stand. He gets to work, stripping and replacing old brake cables. As he threads the new wires into position, the old two-wheeler is already starting to look better.

“You get good banter and meet people from different countries. It’s like a gift.”

This is the Push Iron method. Get a bike from the store, then replace brake blocks, gear and brake cables, chains, tyres and inner tubes to make it roadworthy. The more expensive parts – wheels, saddles, derailleurs, etc – are all cannibalised from other machines. Formal instruction is kept to a minimum. Participants learn new techniques on the job and are given the parts and tools they’ll need; then they’re left to get on with it. But help, humour and cups of tea are always on hand – from project leader Robin Hope and colleague Keith Jarvis – while qualified cycle repair mechanic Melvyn Parker assists with the trickier tasks like shifting old parts that have seized up. He also gives the bikes a final onceover before they go out onto the road.

The bikes are all donated by the Avenues Bicycle Project, which collects unwanted machines for similar projects in Ghana and Sierra Leone. Although Push Iron is open to anyone aged 16-21, many of those taking part are also in need of care and attention. The project gets referrals from Humbercare, which educates and rehabilitates ex-offenders. Participants also include young people from Psypher, an early intervention mental health programme, those with special learning needs, such as autism, and asylum seekers speaking little or no English.

The project’s informality and hands-on approach lend themselves to such wide-ranging needs, says Hope.

“We’re trying to give all the young people somewhere they feel comfortable. It’s a safe haven where they can have a bit of fun. Some of them have been through the care system. So we’re also trying to build their self-esteem and confidence.

“Coming to Push Iron is a good way of getting them to develop their problem solving and to work and socialise with other people. I’m not a mental health professional but I know that when people are doing something practical with their hands, talking about their issues can be a lot easier.”

Chris, a 23-year-old off-road biking enthusiast, is now a peer mentor at the Friday afternoon sessions, passing on his skills and experience to others. But a couple of years ago, life was very different.

“I used to come to Kingston a lot when I was a kid but then I lost contact. [A couple of years ago] I was drinking too much, getting into drugs. At first, I came back for the football, then someone said I should try Push Iron. It’s been a great experience. It’s dragged me away from trouble.”

These days, Chris gets his buzz from building and maintaining bikes and going on off-road adventures with his mates in the woods near the Humber Bridge or along the cliffs of the East Yorkshire coast – a true test of reflexes and brake pads. But, as a new father, he still appreciates the space and encouragement Push Iron gives him, away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.

“You get good banter and you meet people from different countries. It’s like a gift: helping someone and getting some time to myself. It gives you motivation and support. It’s easier than trying to do it all on your own.”

Ali, a Syrian refugee, arrives needing help with the bike he built at Push Iron during the summer. Young asylum seekers, newly arrived from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, face a steep learning curve when they arrive in Britain. Push Iron, says Hope, helps them find their feet.

“When you’re learning a language and culture, what better way than doing something practical? It’s great to see how they interact with each other and it was really good for them to get mobile and find their way around the city. They came, they got their transport and they were off.”

And the project’s expertise isn’t just for newcomers. At the beginning of the summer holidays, Push Iron took Parker’s mobile repair van on the road, inviting residents to come down and get their bikes checked out for free.

“We were out there fixing punctures and making sure the bikes were roadworthy,” says Hope. “We had a great response. It meant whole families could spend the summer going out on their bikes together.”

Hull should be the ideal city for bikes. It’s compact and the only hills are flyovers and railway bridges. Even Philip Larkin had to admit the place was “nice and flat for cycling”. But the city has lost ground in recent years. Unfixed potholes and neglected cycle lanes might be an inevitable consequence of swingeing austerity cuts faced by the council. But, along with increased traffic congestion and mutual intolerance between different road users, they’re putting off cyclists in a city where the number of people riding to work fell by 20 per cent between 2001 and 2011.

In this context, the work Push Iron is doing to increase cycle participation and provide families and vulnerable young people with a healthy and affordable mode of transport is even more vital. Since setting up in 2009, it has helped more than 1,000 citizens to get mobile. Yet even this modestly resourced project isn’t safe from squeezed budgets, having already survived one cost-cutting move from larger premises.

Hope is phlegmatic. “We take it from one year to the next. We just do our job and hopefully people will see the work is important, not just for young people but for the city. If it weren’t here I don’t know where else they could access something like this.”

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