Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Making bikes by hand is a game for women, not the mild-mannered

Hacksaws, wrenches, metal scissors and the occasional set of forgotten sunglasses are scattered across the workbenches of Básica Studio, Mexico City’s only woman-led bike manufacturing shop. A jig sits center stage in the back of the shop with half a frame attached to it. Not that I would know what it was if I hadn’t asked Eli Acosta, Básica’s owner and principal bike-maker.

Petite and fast-talking, Acosta moves through the shop with the labyrinthine intimacy one gets when they live and breathe a space, her intensity of purpose broken only when a contagious grin occasionally spreads across her face.

Making bikes by hand is not a game for the mild-mannered or weak-willed. The world no longer has patience for the time and skill required of great craftsmanship, and Acosta has encountered a few hurdles on her way to becoming Mexico’s famed female bike builder.

No small amount of the struggle, according to her, is due to her own rebellious nature.

“I never felt like I had a space,” she says recounting her struggles in school while growing up, in particular with authority. “I remember one time my mom said to me, ‘Eli, this is it. I don’t know how else to help you. You are going to have to find your way alone.’”

Basica bike studio
Acosta invited the other two women on her bike-building team and taught them everything she knew. PJ Rountree

She was 17 then — rebellious, lost. She finished high school but didn’t want to head back into the education system for college. She struggled to figure out her path.

Somewhere in the midst of her search, she bought a bike and began to reconnect to the city on two wheels.

“I remember having these feelings, like hanging out with my friends and thinking, ‘I wish I were riding my bike.’ And it wasn’t like I was going through parks or anything, I rode down Tlapan [Avenue], out to Coyoacán and the Cineteca [Nacional México], that kind of thing.”

Something about the freedom of riding got deep under her skin.

When fellow cyclist Liliana Castillo Reséndiz was hit by a car on her bike and killed, it ignited an activist streak in the young Acosta, and she began to participate in protests for cycling rights and got more deeply involved in the biking community in Mexico City.

But not until she started working with bike sellers in the city to trick out vintage bikes did her long-lasting love affair with the ins and outs of bike construction begin.

basica bike studio mexico city
One of the studio’s recent custom-built bikes, made with lightweight but strong chromoly steel. Básica Facebook

“I started to understand the mechanics of bikes and how they are made,” she explains. “Above all, [the bikes I was selling] started to have problems with the frames, and that made me ask myself, ‘Why? Bikes are really simple; what’s going on?’”

Acosta sought out one of the only remaining manufacturers of handmade bikes in the city at the time, Manuel Valerio, to see if she could glean something from his years of knowledge. After some insistent pestering, he acceded to having her around, but she found in Valerio a reticent and, at times, belligerent teacher.

He was tight-lipped about his work and not forthcoming with his knowledge — even more so with a woman. She spent almost four years observing him work in the shop he built in Itzapalapa. Only after endlessly patient hours was she able to work on her first bike in fits and starts, and then only when he wasn’t around.

“He wasn’t particularly rude or anything, but I was able to see, by watching him with his family and other people, that he didn’t want a woman [in his shop] and that he didn’t like sharing what he knew because he thought that someone would come along and take his work,” Acosta says. “He [also] lacked a lot of knowledge about certain things like geometry and didn’t want me to see that.”

When things finally came to a head with Valerio, her mother — who while ignorant of the bike business knew the determination of her daughter — offered to loan her the money to buy the equipment she needed to build bikes on her own.

In the Atea arts and architecture collective in the Merced neighborhood, Acosta set up a workshop and production space for other tradespeople and artists, and there she found a community of like-minded souls with whom to share her passion, one of them being Jesús López, now her partner at Básica.

Basica bike studio
Acosta decided to make her own bikes from scratch after realizing many of her bikes’ frames weren’t that strong. Básica Facebook

While she’s adamant that the support of López and her team of male mechanics are part of why her shop is so successful, it’s obvious that the group of women making bikes with her in the back is her pride and joy.

“From the time I started working on my own … I really had this idea of having an all-women team [in my shop],” she says.

Jimena Palomino and Elein Lacy joined the team just this year, when, as Acosta puts it, she called them into her life by visualizing an awesome team of women working together to build bikes. Lacy trained as a petroleum engineer but rejected her expected career path and was doing deliveries by bicycle at the time. Palomino was a bike messenger, an industrial designer and a bike polo player.

“At first I was just interested in the mechanics part,” says Lacy, “The idea of making bikes seemed impossible to me; it was like something unreachable. I couldn’t imagine there would be an opportunity to learn because there isn’t anyone anymore who makes bikes and nobody to teach bike-making.”

“I was looking at some of [Acosta’s] InstaStories [on the online social media platform Instagram], and in one of them, Elein and Eli were there together,” says Palomino. “[Acosta] wrote something like ‘I hope I can create a team of women builders,’ and I was like, ‘Me! Please!’ Then, when I wrote her, she wrote back and said, ‘Yeah, come on down [to the shop].’”

“Something that has given me a lot of strength is to observe them and know that when there is motivation to learn and motivation to teach, it’s a much faster process than what I experienced,” says Acosta. “For me, it’s really, really awesome to teach something that required so much work  for me to learn.”

Basica bike studio
Lacy and Palomino enjoy a work break in the Básica studio. PJ Rountree

While Acosta has strong feelings about the benefits of cycling and the need for cycling rights to be respected in the city, her true personal passion is one that reflects her perfectionist nature — she wants to build bikes that last forever.

“Bikes have always represented for me a way to use cars less, make my commute more efficient and be much happier, like 100% happier,” she says. “So I imagine that if we were all to start using bikes, we would be able to reduce pollution levels. But I am more focused on the idea that the bikes I make, despite the fact that they do involve dirty processes like making metal, will work for a lifetime.”

On this Thursday afternoon, Básica buzzes with energy.  Sounds of spray can be heard from the paint cabin as Lacy solders a bike frame in one corner and Acosta goes over a purchase with a new customer. A dog named Tiggy, the shop mascot, holds court among cyclists that stop by to gossip and ogle the handcrafted frames on the wall, which also has a hodgepodge of cycling memorabilia and bike art.

Palpable in the flurry of all this activity is the contented vibe of Básica’s team. In this tiny corner of the Juárez neighborhood, Acosta has reignited an appreciation for bike craftsmanship in Mexico City, one that is sure to pedal far beyond the crowded entryway of her shop and out into the world.

  • To get to know Básica’s bike manufacturing studio in Mexico City (and see a portrait of Tiggy, the shop mascot), visit their Instagram page.

Lydia Carey is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily.

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