For many bicyclists, a bike that needs fixing is an aggravation, but for Gretchen Brauer, it’s a challenge she’s eager to take on.
Brauer, general manager of Wheel & Sprocket bike shop at 1027 Davis St., is an ace
bicycle mechanic, one of very few women in the field. And for her, fixing a bike means finding a solution to a problem (See sidebar: Bike industry on a roller-coaster ride).
“I’ve always been a super hands-on person ever since I was small. My dad constantly was doing projects around the house, from electrical work to painting to building things and I was always his eager little helper. I learned a ton of information from him and knew that I really enjoyed working with my hands,” Brauer said.
“So when I was old enough to work, I focused on the things I loved, which happened to be my local bike shop in Traverse City, Michigan. I had hung out there for many hours before I was actually employed there, and I spent much of my allowance there. And so when they finally hired me, it became really cool to ‘live the dream’ and work in a bike shop.”
Brauer, 39, has been with Wheel & Sprocket in Evanston for 10 years, first as the service manager and for the past two years as the shop’s general manager. However, she didn’t plan on a career in the biking industry. She originally intended to go into medicine – her undergraduate degree from Wayne State University is in biomedical physics. But conversations with physicians dissuaded her from pursuing that ambition.
“I was going to go to medical school and had an epiphany late in my studies,” she said. “I saw a couple physicians get called in [at odd hours] and they were talking about the challenges of their family life, and I thought, ‘I don’t think I want this.’”
Brauer had worked part-time at a bike shop in Detroit while attending college, so when she graduated she joined the shop full time, learning both bike repair and sales. “I was really fortunate in that the owner and managers really, really took me under their wings and encouraged me to learn,” Brauer said. “Bike repair can be an intimidating field.”
The field also traditionally has been heavily male and remains so – Brauer estimated that 90% of bicycle service techs are men. In sales, it’s at least 60% male.
When Brauer was hired as the Evanston service manager, she was the only female service manager in the company, which has bike shops in Wisconsin and the Chicago suburbs. She’s still one of very few female managers who began in the service side of the business.
“The field is like a lot of the trades, where it’s hands-on learning and the general
stereotype is that you don’t focus on females learning the trades,” she said. “You would hope that women are encouraged to follow whatever their heart desires, but that’s just not our culture.”
Although she has faced sexism during the course of her career, such as customers
assuming she wasn’t working in the service department simply because she was a woman, Brauer nevertheless hopes more women join her in the cycling business. “I would highly recommend women coming into the industry. We need more game-changers to help bring the industry into a much more inclusive environment.”
Brauer is married and lives in the West Ridge area of Chicago, a commute of several
miles (on a bike, of course) to the shop on Davis Street. She and her spouse have one child, with another on the way. With her family responsibilities and duties as the manager of a bike shop that in peak season has approximately 20 employees, Brauer’s free time is limited at best. But she still enjoys riding her bike whenever possible.
Her current bicycles of choice are her All City Macho Man Disc bike, a Bike Friday Tikit with a front toddler seat, a tandem she and her wife ride to the beach, and a vintage Trek Singletrack 950 converted to an urban dream. (A joke among bike riders is “Q: How many bicycles does a cyclist need? A: The current number, plus one.”)
“Bikes are your first freedom machine,” she said. “As a kid, when you get a bike, you don’t have to ask your parents for a ride, you can go wherever you want.
“And it’s still a great way to get around.”
Alan K. Cubbage is an Evanston bicyclist. He is a customer of Wheel & Sprocket.