It’s just before dinnertime when I meet Steve Nicklen.
The Maple Ridge resident is in his garage, a bike on the workstand.
He got home not too long ago and is spending some time working on the bike before having dinner with his family.
Already loaded in the back of his truck is a scrappy gang of bikes bound for a nearby farm later in the evening.
For the past five years, Nicklen has been volunteering his time and skills fixing up donated bikes for migrant farm workers in Ridge Meadows and the Fraser Valley.
Nicklen answered an ad requesting help to fix up bikes and after meeting the grateful recipients, he hasn’t looked back. He recently passed the 100-bike threshold and expects to hit the 200 mark soon.
Thousands of seasonal employees work on B.C.’s farms, arriving from countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica. They aren’t always prepared for conditions in Canada, especially when they are living a long way from their work.
Nicklen compares the situation to teens who get their first minimum wage job.
“The employer is not responsible for providing their transportation to get to work. So that person would, you know, get mom and dad to drive them, ride their bike, or take the bus,” says Nicklen. “ So for migrant farm workers that arrive here, are in a similar situation except they don’t have mom and dad and they’re not in areas where they can take a bus.”
Employers don’t provide bikes, he says, leaving newly-arrived workers to find transportation on their own. Since COVID, the price of bikes has “skyrocketed,” even for used bikes.
Bikes offer a little slice of freedom. They mean workers have the opportunity to get around on their own and can get themselves to work.
It’s not always the safest on the roads, so Nicklen does his best to make them visible — installing lights and reflectors. He also tries to include a helmet with each refurbished ride.
“It’s pretty dangerous out there,” he says of the country roads they ride. “[You’re] pretty vulnerable if you’re on a bike without a helmet and no lights.”
Last year was his first experience meeting cranberry workers, who work long hours in the fall. They arrive at dawn and leave the bogs in the dark.
Nicklen is just one volunteer in a grassroots network of advocates who help migrant farm workers in the community. Those advocates were the ones to clue him into the need for bikes and whose ad he replied to all those years ago. They go above and beyond in helping migrants, organizing clothing donations, community meals and more.
A self-taught bike mechanic, Nicklen was working in IT at a law firm downtown when he first started fiddling with bikes to fight his burnout.
“I found working on bikes was very good for my brain,” he says.
A lifelong cyclist, he began investing in the necessary tools to fix up bikes.
These days, his garage is stocked with an ever-changing supply of spare parts, to-do bikes and finished bikes.
When he was offered a position in Mission’s Independent Cycles shop learning from their master mechanic, he couldn’t refuse.
“I really enjoy my days in the shop,” he says. He works there on odd Saturdays, around his current full-time position with the library in Coquitlam.
Nicklen was quite comfortable working on older bikes, or beater models, but in the shop, he learned how to fix more complicated parts, as well as tips and tricks for a speedier workflow.
But he’s still known for his skills on older bikes.
“It’s kind of a joke in the shop, when a bike rolls in . . . that’s 30 years old, we’ll give that to Steve,” he says with a laugh, “It’s my vintage.”
In many ways, the work is the same between the shop and his garage. But the bikes that get donated are often old, or haven’t been given attention in years.
“Some bikes will come in and I spend 20 minutes on them, most bikes that come in, it’s an hour, sometimes eight hours … sometimes it’s a whole complete overhaul,” he says. “I don’t like to give the workers junk.”
When a bike gets donated, he’ll throw it up on the workstand, add some air to the tires and check it out.
“While I’m working on it, I’ll see if they hold air,” he says.
He’ll swap out brake cables and any other parts that need it.
With the Migrant Farm Worker Bike Program, his focus is on those in Ridge Meadows, Surrey, Langley and the Fraser Valley. But someday, he would love to expand the program up into the Okanagan Valley.
While there’s been talk of creating a nonprofit, Nicken isn’t personally interested in the administrative duties that go along with that.
“I don’t want to do paperwork,” he says. “I want to fix bikes.”
If you have bikes, parts, or labour you’d like to donate, you can get in touch with Nicklen by email: email@example.com.