The founder of EPFL's Bike Center leaves a lasting legacy

2021 EPFL / Alain Herzog (CC BY-SA 4.0)

2021 EPFL / Alain Herzog (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sixteen years after setting up EPFL’s Bike Center, Jacques Simonin has downed tools and handed over the reins to Mayeul Barthes. EPFL President Martin Vetterli said a big thank you to Simonin, who will now head off to the Antilles to spend the winter working on solar energy projects.

It is not easy to say goodbye to the Bike Center. The center’s founder, 73-year-old Jacques Simonin, has spent many hours there over the last couple of months, despite stepping down as the manager this summer. The Bike Center is located on EPFL’s Lausanne campus, and is in safe hands with Simonin’s successor, 26-year-old Mayeul Barthes, who previously worked there as a student assistant. Barthes obtained a Master’s degree in communication systems from EPFL in 2017, but he chose to return to the Bike Center rather than pursue a career as an engineer. This testifies to what a special place the Center really is – its staff are always available to help, advise and supply parts to members of the EPFL community.

At the request of EPFL President Martin Vetterli, the Center held a farewell cocktail party for Simonin on 22 November, and almost all the current and former student assistants showed up to say their goodbyes. Vetterli praised Simonin for all his hard work over the last 16 years. He recognized the considerable effort Simonin had made “against strong headwinds” – for a long time, he ran it out of shipping containers and subsequently at a spot next to the engineering building. In 2018, the Bike Center finally got a permanent home, in a building described by Vetterli as “very cool.” It was designed by students as part of an architecture contest held by Prof. Emmanuel Rey and the team at his lab.

“Every time I pass by this place, there’s so much going on, and I can tell that everyone involved is very enthusiastic,” said Vetterli. “Some people have even made a career for themselves here,” he added, in a nod to Barthes. “They may have taken classes at my lab, but in the end, they decided bikes were more interesting.”

Jacques Simonin has created a wonderful Center – it makes such a difference to our campus. This initiative shows the value of teamwork, and I hope it will inspire more collaborative projects in the future.

Martin Vetterli, EPFL President

    From electric to recycled bikes

    It all started in 2005 when Simonin, who graduated from EPFL in 1972, began importing electric bikes from China and selling them on campus for three times less than what they’d usually cost in Switzerland. Following a suggestion from Jean-François Person, a fellow EPFL graduate and a self-confessed bike fanatic, the Center began offering repair services on a semi-voluntary basis shortly afterwards. After the Center had been running for over a year, the School provided Simonin with funds so that he could hire student assistants to help him.

    Since 2010, the Bike Center has been recycling used bikes and reselling them for the reasonable price of CHF 130. It also buys used bikes from EPFL students and staff members for half that price, or finds and purchases them elsewhere. All repairs are completely free of charge; the Center charges only for replacement parts, which are sold at cost.

    “At first, we sold around 100 used bikes a year,” says Simonin. “This year, it’s been closer to 800, and about 150 of those were bikes that had been abandoned around campus. In a very small way, I’ve given back to EPFL some of what it gave me,” he adds. Simonin is not overly nostalgic, however – he’s already looking ahead to his next venture. He loves the Antilles, and now plans go there more often and expand the solar-powered water-heater business he set up there a few years ago.

    As the farewell party drew to a close, Simonin thanked all his student assistants: “We’ve had a great time together. I hope you all succeed in your studies and go on to have fulfilling careers. I also hope your commitment to sustainability – and the circular economy – continues!”

    Rapid-fire questions

    We asked Simonin and Barthes some rapid-fire questions to get to know them a little better.

    If you were a bike, which type would you be?

    Simonin: “A tandem because two people working together are always stronger than one person alone.”

    Barthes: “An old steel road bike.”

    If you were a bike part, which part would you be?

    Simonin: “The wheel because I like to keep moving.”

    Barthes: “A big chainring – it’s not the best-looking part, but it makes you go fast.”

    If you were a tool, which tool would you be?

    Simonin: “A tire iron because they’re really useful and so simple. You can repair a puncture quickly with one of those. The people who come to the Bike Center can’t believe how quickly we can fix their tires.”

    Barthes: “An Allen key because you can use it to repair anything on newer bike models.”

    If you were a bike ride, what would your route be?

    Simonin: “Somewhere in the mountains because I love mountain biking. I also like cycling along the lake, but I prefer going up into the mountains to get a good view. I live in Valais, and one of my favorite routes is the Sanetsch Pass.

    Barthes: “I’d go up to the peaks of the mountains. I don’t have a specific place in mind, but anywhere where there aren’t too many trees, so you can enjoy great views while you’re cycling – that’s really beautiful.”

    What time of the day would you be?

    Simonin: “Noon because it’s the middle of the day. You eat and then you have the second half of the day ahead of you.”

    Barthes: “The sunrise. It’s probably a bit egocentric to compare yourself to a sunrise, but it’s just my favorite time of the day.”

    What weather event would you be?

    Simonin: “A cyclone – I lived in the Antilles for a long time, and I was always really impressed by the cyclones. There is nothing you can do about them. You just have to wait for them to pass and hope they leave as little damage as possible!”

    Barthes: “A gust of wind! It comes when you’re least expecting it and causes chaos.”

    If you had to switch places with one another, what would you do while in the other’s shoes?

    Simonin: “I’d carry on what Jacques started!”

    Barthes: “I’d continue mountain biking and sending pictures of the Sion sunset!”

    If you had a superpower, how would you use it?

    Simonin: “I’d make sure that Mayeul could continue developing the Bike Center.”

    Barthes: “I don’t think I’d do anything. A lot of superpowers seem great, but they can also take the fun out of life. I think it’s more exciting not knowing what’s going to happen and working hard to achieve things. Then when you do achieve something, it’s much more impressive!”

    If you could change something at EPFL, what would it be?

    Simonin: “I’d make it easier to launch initiatives like the Bike Center, because I had to jump through so many hoops to set it up. There are a lot of rules and regulations you have to follow here, like at all institutions. More people from outside the School should be able to make things happen.”

    Barthes: “I’d teach EPFL students about simple technology, rather than everything being so high-tech and advanced. Students get a lot of important skills and knowledge from studying here, but it would be great if they could also learn about basic materials and less sophisticated mechanics.”

    For more information, visit the Bike Center website.

    Author: Emmanuelle Marendaz Colle

    Source: People

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