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The MIT Bike Lab: A place for community, hands-on learning

The all-volunteer student-run bike shop, founded by graduate student Bianca Champenois, provides repair and maintenance services, emphasizes hands-on learning, and promotes sustainable transportation.
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Bianca Champenois poses against a concrete wall with her bicycle
Graduate student Bianca Champenois SM ’22 started the MIT Bike Lab to inform and serve the MIT community.
Photo: John Freidah/MechE
Two students bend over a bicycle, conducting maintenance.
Champenois (left) and another student work on a bike at the MIT Bike Lab.
Photo: John Freidah/MechE
Bianca Champenois rides a bike in front of a marble building on the MIT campus.
Champenois rides her bike on the MIT campus.
Photo: John Freidah/MechE

Bianca Champenois SM ’22 learned to ride a bike when she was 5 years old. She can still hear her sister yelling “equal elbows!” as she pushed her off into the street. Although she started young, her love of bikes really materialized when she was in college.

Champenois studied mechanical engineering (MechE) at the University of California at Berkeley, but with a first-year schedule comprising mostly prerequisites, she found herself wanting more hands-on opportunities. She stumbled upon BicyCal, the university’s bike cooperative.

“I loved the club because it was a space where learning was encouraged, mistakes were forgiven, and vibes were excellent,” explains Champenois. “I loved how every single bike that came into the shop was slightly different, which meant that no two problems were the same.”

Through the co-op’s hands-on learning experience, the few long rides she took across some of California’s bridges like the Golden Gate, and the lively evening “Bike Parties” drafting behind friends, Champenois’s love for biking continued to grow. When she arrived at MIT for her master’s studies, she joined the cycling team.

Champenois, who is also passionate about climate action, enjoyed the sense of community the cycling team offered, but was looking for something that also allowed her to solve problems and work on bikes again.

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Peddling Community
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After discovering there wasn’t a comparable cooperative bike program at the Institute, Champenois was determined to start one herself. It wasn’t long before she secured club funding from The Coop’s Public Service Grant with the support of her peer, Haley Higginbotham ’21, who was also passionate about the cause. By the end of the year, the team had gained two more volunteers, civil and environmental engineering graduate student Matthew Goss and materials science and engineering grad student Gavin Winter, and the MIT Bike Lab was born.

"The idea is to empower people to learn how to fix their own bike so that they are motivated to use biking as a reliable transportation method," says Champenois. The volunteer mechanic has a vested interest in promoting sustainability and improving urban infrastructure.

Champenois is a graduate student in the joint Mechanical Engineering and Computational Science/Engineering program, and her research involves applying data science and machine learning to fluid dynamics, with a specific focus on ocean and climate modeling. The NSF Graduate Research Fellow is now building upon prior research focused on ocean acidification as part of her PhD thesis, while she is also involved in other projects within Professor Themis Sapsis’s Stochastic Analysis and Nonlinear Dynamics (SAND) Lab.

“I appreciate that my research strikes a balance between more applied environmental projects and more theoretical statistics and computational science,” she explains while referencing a recent research contribution to a project focused on improving global climate simulations.

Champenois’s academic research focus may be specific, but she stresses that the Bike Lab isn’t targeted to any particular interest and welcomes all who are eager to learn.

“If you're interested in solid mechanics, you can think about bike frames. If you're interested in material science, you can think about brake pads. If you're interested in fluids, you can think about hydraulic brakes,” she says. “I think there's something for everyone, and there's always something to learn.”                            

In the last year-and-a-half, the Bike Lab is estimated to have serviced over 150 bikes, and they’re only getting started. Champenois is ambitious about the Bike Lab’s future.

“I hope to teach classes, maybe throughout the semester or as a standalone IAP [Independent Activities Period] course. I am also really interested in the idea of managing a vending machine for parts,” states Champenois.

In the winter, the Bike Lab stores its tools in N52-318, but the club lacks the space needed to expand. “Without our own space, it is difficult for us to store parts, which means that people are required to bring their own parts if their repair requires a replacement,” explains Champenois.

While physical space isn’t required to build a sense of community, Champenois envisions the Bike Lab exuding the same sort of camaraderie as the Banana Lounge, another of one MIT’s student-run spaces, one day.

“I like to think of the Bike Lab as more than just a bike shop. It's also a place for community,” she says.

Champenois hopes to complete her degree in the next year or two and would like to become a professor someday. She is excited by a career in academia, but she says she could also see herself working on a climate or weather research team or joining an ocean technology startup.

Many have heard the expression that being a student at MIT is like “drinking from a firehose,” but that is one of the things Champenois will miss most when she leaves.

“I have had the opportunity to discover so many new hobbies and been able to learn so much through sponsored activities,” she recalls. “Most importantly, I'll miss the great people I have met. Everyone at MIT is so curious and hardworking in a way that is truly energizing.”

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