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Uber for bike mechanics: new program helps pair consumers with independent wrenches

Published September 26, 2016
A screenshot from the forthcoming iOS app.

WESTERLY, R.I. (BRAIN) — In classic tech startup fashion, Velotooler lends itself nicely to an elevator pitch (or more accurately, an Interbike booth pitch): It's Uber for bike mechanics.

Velotooler, now in beta testing and expected to launch in the coming weeks, connects consumers and independent bike mechanics. Like Uber, Velotooler sets the prices and handles transactions through the app so the mechanic doesn't need to worry about getting paid. After a consumer requests a mechanic for a specific task, the job goes out to nearby participating mechanics, who can choose whether to accept the job.

The program would be a boon for experienced mechanics to use for moonlighting or off-season work, Velotooler's backers say. For busy consumers — many of whom are growing increasingly reliant on peer-to-peer commerce sites like Uber and AirBnB — it's a low-hassle way to get their bike up and running.

The app is being developed by Yahor Buben, a former amateur road racer and software developer. Buben, a former IT manager at Yale University, has previously developed a peer-to-peer shipping service in Eastern Europe.

Buben has consulted with Rhode Island retailer Amos Brumble on the app; the two are former teammates on the CCB International team.

The app will require potential mechanics to submit their credentials and abilities. Brumble said some less-experienced mechanics might only accept easy jobs like flat fixing, while more difficult tasks requiring specific tools might only go to experienced mechanics or to brick-and-mortar shops.

The program will also create a maintenance history for each consumer's bike that future mechanics will be able to access. There is a chat feature for mechanics to make arrangements with customers, and after the job customers can leave ratings for the mechanic.

Like other peer-to-peer programs, Velotooler faces inevitable criticism from two sides. Advocates for professional bike mechanics might worry about encouraging a gig economy, where mechanics are getting no benefits or long-term security, and might be vulnerable to liability claims. From the other side, established stores can complain that they will be forced to compete with independent mechanics who lack the overhead of a store, insurance, taxes and other expenses (Velotooler is looking into offering insurance, as Uber does, but will likely not offer it when the program launches this fall).

Brumble said that especially in seasonal markets like New England, very few bike mechanics are currently making a career out of the trade.

"It really could help close the wage gap for mechanics," said Brumble, owner of Brumble Bikes in Westerly. "Locally here, there is plenty of work in the summertime, but the other eight months a year most mechanics are laid off or have their hours cut significantly."

And Brumble said the independent mechanics on Velotooler are likely to pick up a lot of small jobs that brick-and-mortar shops are leaving on the table.

Brumble guesses that most Velotooler jobs will be simple flat fixes, noting that many consumers have bikes siting dormant with flats because of the hassle of transporting them to a store.

"There is a lot of business that isn't being captured by shops for a lot of reasons," he said.

Brumble said the program could benefit shops, as well. Mechanics working independently will develop skills and a record of their work and consumer reviews that will allow shops to hire confidently,

"We feel that this will work far better than just taking a chance the mechanic will work out or fix their shortcomings later," Brumble said. "We are also suggesting that shops hire Velotooler mechanics to come in and do overflow work and also possibly review the mechanic for a future hire using our platform."

With many bikes gathering dust with flat tires or other simple problems, a program that gets them back on the road or trail is good for cycling in general and eventually for all shops, Brumble noted.

Velotooler has launched its website, velotooler.com, on a beta-testing basis. Buben said he expects to launch a mobile app in the Apple app store in the next few weeks. An Android app will come later.

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