Kristel Paredes Álvarez is a 27-year-old bike mechanic employed by Bicitekas, a nonprofit that promotes cycling in Mexico City. Ever since Jump by Uber left Mexico’s capital, her job has been to reverse engineer 1,600 electrical bikes rescued from what she calls “cyclocide.” She does it by turning these heavy, previously high-tech bikes into functional mechanical ones. Over 500 have been repurposed. Paredes knew her way around the e-bikes because she had previously been a mechanic for Jump — until it jumped ship.
I was always fixing things around the house. We were all women, and I got sick of waiting for my father or my uncle to set up electrical connections in my bedroom. So I started doing it on my own when I was 12.
As a kid, I wanted to become a veterinarian. But life, and financial issues, had different plans for me. After dropping out of university in 2017, I joined the team of mechanics for Ecobici, Mexico City’s public bike-sharing system.
It was the greatest combination for me: I got to use tools, practice the mechanical skills I taught myself on YouTube, and work around bicycles.
Bikes are very important to me. As someone who’s hyperconscious about climate change, I believe in this form of transportation. Cycling has also been a form of therapy and emotional support since I was a young girl, so I felt life handed me a good deal.
When I got the gig in 2019 as a Jump mechanic, I was thrilled. Ecobici had been my school and my first real job as an adult. But I felt I was never going to grow professionally there. Some colleagues had quit Ecobici to go work at Jump, which had recently launched in Mexico. Unfortunately, it only lasted eight months.
In May 2020, Uber sold their Jump bike business to Lime. In Mexico City, as they did in a few other locations, Uber decided to destroy hundreds of the motor-powered bicycles, since Lime didn’t want to be in the Mexican market. Apparently, there was an intolerable amount of theft of Lime’s Mexican electrical scooters.
I was sad, unemployed, and getting through the pandemic on no income when I got the call: Bicitekas needed a mechanic that knew how Jump’s bikes worked. They had approached Uber and offered to pay a symbolic one peso [about five U.S. cents] for each bike set to be destroyed.
The deal that was ultimately struck was made under the condition that Uber’s swappable lithium-ion batteries would be removed and the technology wouldn’t be replicated.
Biciteka didn’t understand what this would entail, and their plan initially was to just rip out cables haphazardly with no actual strategy.
My job during my brief time at Jump had been to repair mechanical and technological failures of their bikes. They have a 250-watt electric motor that, when you pedal, powers the front wheel of the aluminum frame 26-inch wheel. They can go up to 50 kilometers per hour, but traffic regulations only allowed them to go under 30.
I became head of the mechanics department for Bicitekas, a tough job for a young woman in a male-dominated sector in a country like Mexico. I had to prove to my team that I was, first, able to carry a 30-kilo bike to the repair station and, second, that I knew how to fix it.
Removing the motor from the bike was the first challenge. The tech behind these bikes is entirely Chinese, and all parts, even the simplest things, like light bulbs, are unavailable in Mexico.
During my time at Jump, we learned how to repair them by trial and error. At first, we thought about completely taking the motorized wheel off. But during the pandemic, there were no spare parts to replace them.
Eventually, we found a way to remove the motor, which meant dismantling the bike to get to all the internal cables and connections. We also removed the lock and the interface controller, which is the electrical bicycle’s “brain.” We didn’t touch the pedal-assist sensor, but we did repatch the frame to hide where the motor and the battery used to be.
After that, the bikes were 10 kilos lighter, and the frame’s original design was so comfortable that it really didn’t matter that they were heavier than a regular mechanical bike.
After we understood the process, it took us a week to reverse 40 bikes. It takes me three hours to fix one bike. It would take 125 days of nonstop work to reverse engineer the remaining 1,000. But first we need the funds to do so.
The first 500 were loaned to Azcapotzalco, one of Mexico City’s boroughs. With the income we got from loaning the bikes to Azcapotzalco, $104,000 annually, combined with the repairs and spare parts sales, we are now trying to create alternative options to incorporate some form of technology in the 1,000 Jump bikes we still have in storage.
I believe we can still transform them into electric bikes without Uber’s technology. I have been working on the optimization of the motor and some way to transform pedal energy. The Jump bikes were extremely high-tech, but there are many alternative solutions.
We did some trials with the Mexican brand Mastretta, who also has e-bikes. We were able to adapt their e-bike technology to some of the ex-Jump bikes. The systems worked well, but it is still too expensive for us.
Inserting a new battery is also another big investment that we can’t afford. So far, it would cost us $350 per bike. So, for the time being, unless we get some investment or another deal like Azcapotzalco’s, our bikes will be in storage.
I feel confident I will find a solution. I have the experience of my previous jobs and an interest in helping more people in marginalized areas. Our Bicicatarinas — our ladybug bikes, in Azcapotzalco — have helped women entrepreneurs deliver their goods throughout the city.