Life with an Abundance of Roadside Bike Mechanics

I just pumped a tire for the first time in 10 months.Not because I haven’t had a flat. I have. Not because I ride on my rims when my tires are flat. I don’t (usually).It’s because between my house and my workplace there are at least six roadside bike repair guys.

Bike Mechanics on Ted's Commute
Antananarivo: 2.6 tire-pumpers per mile
Screen Shot: Google Maps

I live in Antananarivo, Madagascar. It’s a city where bikes are prevalent in spite of no apparent effort from city planners to accommodate people on bicycles.Who needs a pump or a patch kit when you have this much convenience?And guess what: My pump was defective. It took me nearly a year before I discovered that.The Google Map above shows driving direction because, as far as Google knows, “Cycling not available” (A).I’m here to tell you that cycling is available in Antananarivo. Google also says “10 minutes by car” (G). Ten minutes my ass. By bike, absolutely. But by car or bus (taxi be as they’re called here) you’d be lucky to cover this short distance in less than 30 minutes.The best thing about these roadside mechanics is that they can fix a flat in about five minutes. They can just pump up your tire even faster. Meanwhile I walk around taking photographs. The cost: 2000 Madagascar Ariary (MGA) to patch a tube, or 1000 MGA just to pump — about 60 cents and 30 cents US, respectively.

Laziness Enabler (B)

This guy is nearest to my house. If I have flat that I don’t have to deal with until the morning, he is close enough that I can just push the bike to his shop on my way to work.

Antananarivo Roadside Bike Mechanic B
Location, Location, Location (B)
Photo: Ted Johnson

Of all the roadside mechanics I pass by on my commute, his shop is the most buildingy, in the sense that there is an actual building behind the work area where he lays out all of his gear every day. At night I think he packs it all up and puts it inside.

Antananarivo Roadside Bike Mechanic B
Buy cell phone credit under the next umbrella (B)
Photo: Ted Johnson

Sentimental Favorite (C)

This is the first guy I found to pump my tires on the way to work. He’s not the nearest to my house, but he’s on the right side of the road which makes it easy for me to stop by. I have him top off my tires about once a week.

Antananarivo Roadside Mechanic
The whole shop gets packed up and carried on the rear of the green bike. (C)
Photo: Ted Johnson

He’s usually around in the mornings, but not always. He’s an older guy, so I worry about him when I don’t see him at his regular spot.Once he had been absent for awhile. When saw him again, I tried to ask him in French if he had been sick or something. It turns out that his French is limited to discussions of bike repairs. He had no idea what I was talking about.

The Cluster (D, E, F)

These guys are all within sight of each other. With all that close competition, it would appear that the winner is D.

Antananarivo Roadside Mechanic
Mr. Popular (D)
Photo: Ted Johnson

It’s not uncommon to see two or three people waiting for his services even while the next mechanic down the street (E) is totally available.

Antananarivo Roadside Mechanic
Aisle E, no waiting.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Across the street there’s another mechanic (F) whose competitive edge is that he works right next to some public foosball tables, a liquor store, and a small restaurant.

Antananarivo Roadside Mechanic
Also: You can stand under that arch if it’s raining.
Click to Enlarge
Photo: Ted Johnson

Ace in the Hole (H)

I have not actually used these guys yet, but despite how it may appear from this photo, they seem pretty well equipped and are usually busy.

Antananarivo Roadside Mechanic
Also: It’s the 359,268th tallest building in Antananarivo
Photo: Ted Johnson

Of the bike shops I know about, this location is the closest to my workplace. I keep this one in mind for a time when I might need help at that end of my commute. To get there, I have to turn west and go about 100 yards out of my way. The fact that that seems slightly inconvenient to me must show how spoiled am by all the other mechanics right on my route.

Rumored Bike Shops (I)

Right by my workplace I’ve been told there is another bike mechanic, but I have not found him. The one day I went looking for him, I ended up at an auto mechanic who patched my tube — the way an auto mechanic would patch a tube.

Bike Tube Patched by an Auto Mechanic
Of course it failed. Silly auto mechanic.
Photo: Ted Johnson

In the Suburbs Too

Just beyond the outskirts of town there is a maze of trails and hills to explore. Many of these are elevated dirt roads that cross through rice fields and next to irrigation canals.Even out there in orbit of the city, you can still find roadside mechanics ready to help if needed.

Antananarivo Roadside Mechanic
Ready to fix at least four types of breakdowns.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Is there a “Developed” Country Version?

I like to imagine future where in American cities, bike repair guys are as ubiquitous as gas stations and convenience stores are now.Maybe there could be a variation on the mobile bike shop model, but more like a food truck that parks strategically where bike commuters might need a little assistance during peak hours. Maybe they could serve coffee as well. For this kind of service to exist is it necessary to have both a very poor country and a low cost of living? Or could business opportunities such as this arise in “bike-developing countries” — Western countries where bikes are ascendant? Some would-be bike commuters are intimidated by the repairs and maintenance they believe that they must learn to do — and be prepared to do them in their work clothes on the side of road. This kind of convenience would help eliminate that particular barrier to bike commuting.

Ted Johnson is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at Half-Hearted Fanatic, and tweeting at @TedJohnsonIII.Note that the opinions expressed here by Ted Johnson are solely his own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

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2 thoughts on “Life with an Abundance of Roadside Bike Mechanics”

  1. Alden says:

    I can’t see this working with out economy and wage price.

    Assuming you only staffed the place during morning and evening commute hours, you’d need 4 hours per day minimum during the week, and 8 hours per day on weekends. At $7.25/ hour + unemployment/SS/health insurance/ etc; that would probably work out to roughly $15/ hour for staffing.

    Assuming you can pay a small permit price to the city, lets say $200/month.

    Assuming you could get business insurance for $200/ month (again, probably conservative estimate here)

    Your costs to run a stand would be $102 per day (conservatively; not even considering equipment costs/ patch costs/ tubes / etc.). If you charged $5 a flat for repair, you’d have to fix 20 flats a day… and around here that would be a pretty aggressive business.

    I think that businesses like this really only exist in places with low wages/cost of living. Once it starts to go up, the cost to a business owner would quickly overtake the price people would be willing to pay for a service like this.

  2. Kevin Love says:

    Yes, developed country versions exist. For example, take a look at the density of bike shops in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands. No matter where one develops a fault, there is somewhere close by to fix it. See:

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