Opinion: Building a bike

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It’s finally March, and there’s just another month to go in Canada for winter. Most of Canada will be able to ride again safely sometime in April, so we’re starting to think about the warmer weather that will soon be with us. Here in southern Ontario today, the temperature’s a mild 6 degrees above, and although there’s still salt on the roads and snow on the ground, we know that riding season is almost here.

All of us have had different ways of making it through. We’ve gone to motorcycle shows, we’ve watched movies, we’ve worked on our bikes; some of us have even soldiered on in the cold weather. Some lucky bastards have flown to hot places to ride motorcycles, or just avoided the winter altogether. Myself, I built a motorcycle.

All the parts for the Ugears motorcycle, less a few elastic bands.

Not a big one, but a model. My wife bought it for me for my birthday last year and it’s sat in the box for the last six months. It’s made of wood and it actually works, and it was just so satisfying to construct that I’m recommending it here to anyone who wants to know more.

This bike is designed and made in the Ukraine from high-quality plywood, and the entire thing is contained in just two boards that are stamped with the template for a hundred or so parts. The pieces are cut with a CNC laser with tolerances of 0.01 mm. It took me almost a week to build, spending an hour or so a day snapping out the pieces and pressing them together – there’s no glue needed. Elastic bands make the wheels turn, and you can see a video of the final product in motion here.

The company makes dozens of different models of everyday things, and my bike, the VM-02, costs $38.90. As the press release says, “UGEARS mechanical models give you a chance to feel every cog of the gear, and through that, the power that is not coming from an electric socket. In the process of assembly, there is an important moment of ‘birth’ – when the model shows the first spark of life. There is real magic in the rotation of the gears. This is extremely exciting. It is almost like taking a bite of your favourite pie from childhood – you will recognize that sensation when the model, fully assembled by your own hands, starts moving.”

If you like this sort of thing, there’s also Lego, which is no longer just for kids. The BMW GS is no longer in production, but there’s a Harley-Davidson that’s next on my list.

My Ugears bike is now on the shelf with the rest of my collection, almost all of which was constructed by other people. I have motorcycle souvenirs from many countries, and I try to purchase them directly from the people who made them. There’s a banana leaf bike from Kenya, and a couple of wire bikes from Rwanda; a wooden Kawasaki with working spring suspension from Burundi that was burrowed into by worms; a wicker bike from Malaysia; beer can bikes from Cuba.

Pride of place goes to the large metal motorcycle I bought from a young Somali refugee boy who was living in a camp on the Somalia/Kenya border. It’s constructed from powdered milk tins – the only materials he had to hand – with tires and a seat from a bicycle inner tube. It’s so intricate that there are tiny pieces of mirror in the mirrors, and moving levers. The boy told me that he built it just by looking at the motorcycles the refugee workers would ride into the camp. I think it cost me $20, which I remember was twice the price that he asked.

I have some of those metal bikes too, the ones made from nuts and bolts and pieces of chain, but the delicate motorcycles, constructed with care and imagination, are my favourites. I don’t possess that level of creativity and skill, but kits like Lego and Ugears help me get a similar satisfaction from the assembly of a miniature motorcycle. And in turn, that helps get me through the winter. What works for you?

Almost 25 years old, and still as solid as the day it was made in the Ifo refugee camp.

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