Jenny Kallista Learned to Change a Flat Tire at Age 8, Now She Trains New Mechanics

Slowly, industry initiatives help more women join the ranks of professional bike mechanics. That means more pros like Jenny Kallista, founder of the Appalachian Bicycle Institute, who offers her tips for bike maintenance.

Jenny Kallista, the 45-year-old founder of the Appalachian Bicycle Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, cranked out her first pedal strokes at 4 years old. She mastered how to change a flat at age 8 under her dad’s direction at home in Illinois. Then, as a teenager, she asked a bike shop for an apprenticeship. Her first project? A complete overhaul of a burgundy, late ’80s model Fuji road bike.

“I took every single component off the bike, disassembled it, tuned it, and rebuilt it,” she says. “It was fascinating.”

By 2003, she was living in Asheville, working as a glassblower and mountain biking in her down time. When she applied for a part-time mechanic job at a local bike shop, the management offered her a leadership role. “They thought it’d be great to have a woman as the face of the department,” she says. Kallista completed a three-week course at the Barnett Bicycle Institute, a bike mechanic school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and then started work.

From the shop to the classroom, Kallista’s experience mirrors historic patterns. Generally speaking, women have been an underrepresented group in the professional ranks of the bike industry. What made the Asheville shop buck that trend? “The co-owners were a husband and wife,” says Kallista. “They were ahead of the curve.” Of course, that didn’t remove all challenges to being a woman in a male-dominated field.

Kallista recalls customers who questioned her judgment because they were more accustomed to talking bikes with male techs. She answered phone calls with: “This is Jenny in service.” Callers would respond: “Can I talk to a mechanic?” Customers would approach the counter, spot her in a work apron wrenching on a bike, and ask the same question. She shrugged off the doubters, a minority, and continued to do her job. And Kallista points out she often worked with male mechanics who addressed customer concerns by saying: “I’m not sure, let me ask Jenny.”

But today, the face of the bike industry has not changed much: professional mechanics are predominantly white males. The Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association, a trade group of which Kallista is a board member, counts 1,000 individuals as members. Fewer than 20 percent are women, says James Stanfill, PBMA president. And while REI approaches gender parity among employees and customers, the co-op is still working to fill more of its bike shop positions with women.

Stanfill points to women-led cycling groups, like Chicks Who Ride Bikes, as leaders in a cultural shift, and progressive brands that sponsor women-specific skills clinics, camps and events.

When REI experienced difficulty filling bike mechanic positions in 2017, they looked to develop talent within employee ranks. REI offered a free two-week course at the Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs for 16 women employees. More than 350 women applied for the opportunity.

Why the focus on women? “We want our employee base to reflect the reality of people in the world,” says Dan Broome-Raines, REI’s retail shop program specialist. “That means creating pathways into the bike shop for those who haven’t got that experience already.”

That’s slowly happening industry-wide, too. For six years, QBP, which manufactures bikes by Salsa and other brands, has funded a women’s bike mechanic scholarship program at Oregon’s United Bicycle Institute for a two-week, pro-level course. In 2019, QPB will send 32 women scholarship recipients to the institute; applications closed November 2.

To make bike maintenance skills more accessible, REI now offers 20-hour training sessions to its full-time sales staff. Employees learn to change a flat, tension brakes and shifting systems, and adjust a bike seat or handlebars.

And while the students and faculty at both the United Bicycle Institute and Barnett are mostly comprised of men, a woman heads the Appalachian Bicycle Institute. That would be Kallista, who opened the school in 2010. There, she welcomes all skill levels, from enthusiastic DIYers to certified professionals, and instructs everything from a two-hour basic maintenance class to custom wheel building. Her day-to-day also includes developing certification standards for the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association, in partnership with United Bicycle Institute and other colleagues. And she logs ample miles on Pisgah National Forest’s gnarly singletrack.

Kallista’s advice for aspiring mechanics? Take your natural aptitude and passion to a basic maintenance class at a bike school, REI or local bike shop. Next: hands-on practice.

“At the first shop I worked at, I’d go in with my own bike and take it apart every week,” she says. “My skills improved quickly with repetition.”

Jenny Kallista is a bike mechanic in Asheville, North Carolina. (Photo Courtesy: Jenny Kallista)

Here, Kallista offers bike maintenance tips—because a little education can help every mountain biker extend their ride.

Pre-Ride Checks

Keep your bike trail-fit with preventative measures. “Make sure your chain is properly lubricated,” says Kallista. Try wax-based lubricants for dry climates, and a wetter formula in humid conditions. As you spin a pedal backward, apply a drop per link on the chain’s outer edge, then inner, and wipe off excess. Finished? Next, check tire pressure. “What psi you ride varies depending on weight and riding style,” says Kallista, who usually runs 21 psi on her rear tire and 20 up front. “I can’t tell you how many people just inflate their tires until they’re rock hard, then wonder why they feel like they’re bouncing around on the trail.” REI recommends checking brakes before a ride, too.

Clean Up Routine

After a ride, you hit the shower. Your bike? Not so fast. “Sealed bearings on bicycles only keep dirt out, not water,” says Kallista. “That’s why if you ride up to a stream crossing, if it’s bottom bracket or hub deep, you shoulder the bike rather than ride through it.” High pressure—think a spray nozzle at a car wash—almost guarantees water damage. Kallista recommends mild dish soap in water, applied with a toothbrush or sponge. Start with the cleanest part of your bike and work up to muck. And remember: “If your bike is super muddy, you’re probably being a negligent trail rider. It’s ruinous to ride trails when they’re muddy.”

Go the Distance

Give your bike a monthly checkup. “Move the wheels side to side, then wiggle pedals to make sure there’s no play developing,” says Kallista. “Listen closing for creaking or grinding.” Those noises could indicate loose bearings that need attention at a bike shop or your tool bench. And each winter, Kallista does a complete overhaul. Don’t know how? “Grab a friend who knows more than you—offer to buy pizza and a six-pack if they show you how to do this or that.” Kallista takes every component off her bike; inspects the frame for cracks, damage or water inside; then greases and lubes components as she rebuilds. It’s what she did as a teenage apprentice—and what more bike mechanics who are women are learning each year.

If don’t know how to complete an annual maintenance check on your bike, and none of your friends do either, get your bike checked out at a local shop with professional bike mechanics.

Learn More: Bike Maintenance