Ben's Bici Cooperativa, Shirapucro; Peru

I recently had the good fortune to meet Ben, a Peace Corps volunteer living in the Cordillera Blanca. I’d heard about the grassroots ‘bike co-op’ he’d set up in his caserio – a pinprick of a village by the name of Shirapucro – from another PC volunteer on the road to Cajamarca, a few weeks back.

Ben lives up in the shadow of mighty Huascaran, some thirty kilometres from Huaraz – half of which are dirt, and steep ones at that. As a member of the Peace Corps, he’s posted to Peru for two years, earning local wages during that time. In Ben’s case, his work involves promoting environmental issues. He lives in a small, adobe house with his wife, Katie, also a Peace Corps volunteer, working in healthcare.

A dedicated believer in bicycle co-ops – a space that provides communities with access to the relevant tools, and knowhow, to keep their bicycles in cheap working order (the antithesis to the exclusive, high end bike shop) – he soon went about setting up his own. The impetus came after noticing the state of disrepair typical to most bikes in the area, and the way kids hurtled down the lumpy dirt roads outside his house, often returning with scrapes and bruises on their way back up.

His idea was a simple one: to encourage the children in his village to look after their bicycles, by learning to spot subtle issues before they became glaring problems, arming them with the knowledge to make the necessary repairs, and eventually the confidence to help others too.

Yet despite its simplicity, it’s a startling project. Humble in its execution but magnificent in its vision, in the last few months he’s set up a tiered bicycle maintenance program (from novice to maestro) that now draws a steady flow of local kids, three times a week in the afternoons, to his makeshift workshop. Under a corrugated roof (protection from the high altitude sun in the dry season and powershower rains in the wet season), he teaches anyone who’s interested to learn: everything from positioning a saddle or repairing, to the finer arts of adjusting derailleurs, truing wheels and maintaining hub bearings. Bicycle safety also plays a part in his courses, with a a small test track nearby to teach bike handling skills. In doing all this, the knock on effect is that he’s encouraging people to bicycle, giving it due importance and respect within the community.

Ben hopes news of this barebones co-op will spread to neighbouring villages – already it seems to be doing just that – so that by the time his two years in Peru are up, he leaves behind a community of children and young adults who know both how to ride their bicycles safely, and maintain them for years to come. Hopefully someone will take over the mantle when he leaves.

His budget is small and resources are limited, so if anyone has anything they’d be happy to put in the post – chainbreaks and other specialist bicycle tools are sought after items (the local versions leave much to be desired) – see below for details. And please forward this link to anyone you think might be interested in helping out.

The work station offers space for three bicycles, with a basic toolset each.

Life without Park Tool. In the absence of work stands, bicycles hang from the rafters.

Ben’s created a series of lessons, building up in complexity, to suit all ages and interests.

There are classes for girls too.

Then he lets the kids loose, often using his own bike as a teaching tool.

Adjusting bearings.

Truing wheels.

Oh, the concentration…

Setting up brake pads.

Tweaking limits screws…

… and cable tension.

Getting it just right.

Learning to split a chain.

Even the local cool cats come along to check out the scene.

Teenage style, a la Peru.

An atmosphere of total concentration pervades. It’s incredible, and inspiring, to see such young kids so immersed in a task.

Ben gives his verdict, and offers some advice, on a bicycle drivetrain.

Happy kids (post class, a game of Ultimate Frisbee ensues).

At the end of each session, the board is marked up with the achievements of the day – who has learnt what, and what ‘modules’ are left to cover for each tier. There are even informal exams, where children can progress towards the ultimate goal of becoming a maestro – one who teaches others.

Just some of the crew at Ben’s Bici Cooperativa (that’s my name btw, Ben’s far too modest to call it anything like that).

Inside Ben and Katie’s home – the bike workshop made a perfect home for the night.

Wall art – learning language skills and bicycle terminology at the same time.

Aside from the the co-op, Ben’s fame has spread locally thanks to the bamboo bicycle he built in the village, using bamboo sourced from the coast and a homemade frame jig.

Necessity is the mother of invention: cable guides chopped up from a salvaged old frame.

A hose clamp mounts the front derailleur.

Just to set the scene: some nearby views.

And local goings-on.

Thank you Benjamin and Katie for inviting me into simple, beautiful home. And thank you for feeding such delicious oatmeal in the morning – packed with nuts, raisins, cinnamon and flax seeds – washed down with a manzanilla tea. Simple luxury at its finest!

The Need to Know Bit:

Got some spare parts/tools you’re happy to pop in the post? If you can forward this link to anyone who might be interested, that would be great too.

Update:

Ben can be reached at:

bdmasters at gmail dot com

The postal address is:

Ben Masters, PCV
Casilla Postal 277
Serpost
Huaraz, Ancash
Peru
Ben visits Huaraz every couple of weeks or so to check email; it’s probably best to contact him first before posting anything. I passed the message on and he was stoked there had been interest.

12 thoughts on “Ben's Bici Cooperativa, Shirapucro; Peru

  1. eliotcresswell

    Love it. Love it. Consider me getting in touch. Would love to publicize, support, donate to the bike workshop…to say nothing of visiting someday. Share the 411 when you can. Happy trails.

    Reply
      1. eliotcresswell

        Cool. Wonder if he’s looked into Peace Corps Partnership grants. Sometimes it’s easier to get behind with that support.

        Your blog is spectacular and regularly inspires the best kind of jealousy in me. Carry on.

        Reply
  2. While Out Riding Post author

    I’ll ask. I know Ben is a veteran Peace Corps volunteer, having worked in Africa was three years. He also was involved in a project to make bamboo bikes in Ghana.

    Glad you are enjoying the site.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Laguna Ishinca, Cordillera Blanca; Peru « while out riding

  4. dennis

    I am so thankful for your astounding blog and fantastic photos
    As I recover from rotator cuff surgery.(took a spill from my bike-funny one doesn’t bounce as well at 63 as at 23).
    Your blog and those of other intrepid adventurers are keeping me sane.

    Reply

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