The Magic of Missoula’s Free Cycles – Locke Hassett and Kyle Kelley

Free Cycles is a Long Ride from Here
Photos by Kyle Kelley and words by Locke Hassett

“It’s a long ride from here. 80 miles, and the first 20 are uphill. The train leaves at 5pm, and we have to be there at 4, because we have bicycles. It should be a good day.”

That was when I knew that my new job was not your ordinary bike shop gig, and never would be. Bob Giordano, the founder of Free Cycles, Missoula’s community bike shop, warmed his hands with his breath as the sun broke over Logan Pass and illuminated Heaven’s Peak, which was in our view as we stopped for morning coffee on Going to the Sun Road. This was a casual employee bonding ride: Missoula to Glacier, over the pass, catch a train to Whitefish and hitchhike back to open the shop on Tuesday. Pathologically optimistic, barely planned, and wonderful. Our plan was as loose as what got us there and without hesitation, we kept on riding. We were unsure of what would happen, but we knew it would be good, and that is the magic of Free Cycles.

The Magic of Missoula's Free Cycles

The idea spawned around 20 years ago, as a bike share program. Bob, freshly out of the University of Montana’s Resource Conservation Masters program, saw a discrepancy: too many bikes in the landfill, and too many cars on the roads. He put an ad in the paper to get people to donate their old bikes. He and his friends would strip them down, paint them green with the words “ride me, leave me” in hand painted white text, and leave them on the streets.

The Magic of Missoula's Free Cycles

Over the years it morphed into a full service, DIY Community bike shop with tools, stands, and recycled parts available to the public, at little to no cost. Run off of grants, donations, and blind faith, Free Cycles also offers a Build-a-Bike program; folks take a safety and orientation class, volunteer some time, and build or fix their own used bike to take home.

The Magic of Missoula's Free Cycles

Currently, Free Cycles is in the midst of buying it’s current location. The day before I left for the #DFLtheDivide ride, we had reached our fundraising goal of a down payment for the property. The road has continued to be twisty and full of surprises, and there is still fundraising to go. If you’d like to help out or learn more, contact us at [email protected], or check out freecycles.org.

The Magic of Missoula's Free Cycles

That is the beauty and the curse of a community bike shop. Our staff strives everyday to walk the line between being a bike mechanic, social worker, educator, and friend to all who come through our doors. We do not have the luxury to avoid working on a Wal-Mart bike, because we aren’t offering a charged service, but help to those who need it. There is no turning torque wrenches on carbon bars in this shop. It can be a massive challenge to walk this line, to help those who need it without doing it for them. To educate, engage, and empathise. Sometimes I wonder if I can keep doing it, and I dream of shiny bikes and customers who bring beer and Paul components press-fit bearings. Then I remember how much this matters, and I suck it up, smile, and help repack that 1 piece bottom bracket so that another human can get to work. And it feels damn good when they do.

Free Cycles is often running on shoestrings, and sometimes replacing stolen tools is a financial struggle, let alone buying new parts and accessories to sell. But running on shoestrings makes one appreciate a burly bootstrap, and I’ve never seen stronger ones than at Free Cycles. Raising enough money to purchase a 2 acre industrial lot near downtown seems impossible when these issues face us daily, but we manage to pull it off.

The Magic of Missoula's Free Cycles

I believe that that is the magic of pathological optimism, the magic of seeing a long, difficult climb and knowing that it will be worth it in the end when you are sipping scotch from a plastic cup on a train next to your boss who just rode a 40 year old bike 200+ miles in two and a half days. The magic of watching the concept of a barrel adjuster click in someone’s mind, helping install a milk crate basket for a homeless person, or watching a kid remove their own training wheels. The magic of going for it, of staying late so that someone can warm up, and offering more than just advice and wrenches, but community. That’s what we try to do here, and try to embody, every day. Welcome to Free Cycles.

____

Follow Locke on Instagram and Kyle on Instagram.

FOOTER_1600px

  • Nicholas Haig-Arack

    This one almost brought a tear to my eye. Those last three paragraphs are pure gold. “To educate, engage, and empathise” is precisely what this country needs right now. Thanks for doing good, Locke.
    Local bike co-ops like Free Cycles (and numerous other iterations all over the US) are a precious resource. My version was Box Dog Bikes v1.0. I think I’ll visit my local co-op today with a sixpack of something good.

    • Locke Hassett

      Nicholas, thank you. We always appreciate treats like that!

  • j0hnA

    very cool – the Birmingham AL community has benefited from a similar program by redemptive cycles….http://www.redemptivecycles.com/

  • Nicholas Petersen

    I really like this. Well done.

  • D0rk

    Man I wish I had something like this in my city. While I prefer to work on my fancy modern carbon stuff I would totally dedicate some free time to helping out at a shop like that.

    • Locke Hassett

      It can start by asking your boss (assuming you work at a shop) if you can borrow a stand and some tools. Set up on the street corner and offer advice, quick adjustments, air, lube and a good attitude. Hand out stickers or cards to your shop and direct folks there for more full service or part replacements. Set up in a park, or near a food bank or homeless shelter or halfway house. There are also hella grants out there to start something up. Cheers!

  • you

    Austin’s Yellow Bike Project

  • More posts like this please. Making Bikes A Threat Again!

  • marksupial

    This is so great.

    I’ll be moving to Missoula next fall for grad school and have been looking for way to get involved in the local bike community. Can we hook it up?!

    • Locke Hassett

      Hey there! Yep, swing by the shop when you get into town. I’m sure folks will connect with you and help you tap in.

  • Alex Alvarez

    Yaaay this makes me very happy! Sending love from the Bike Kitchen & Our Community Bikes in Vancouver, Canada
    To anyone looking to get involved, here is a wiki page for all community bike projects around: http://www.bikecollectives.org/wiki/index.php?title=Co…
    And for North American folks, there is an annual bike conference for these types of shops: https://en.bikebike.org

    Keep up the great work friends! <3

    • Locke Hassett

      Thanks, Alex! Been wanting to come check out your operation sometime soon!

  • Simon Apostol

    This is a great profile. I spent some time volunteering at Free Cycles when I was in college. It’s awesome to see that Bob’s still doing great work. Thanks for the write-up and for keeping this service going.

  • Harry Clulow

    I read this when you first put it up and it reminded me of the place I used to volunteer at in York that was sending bikes to Ghana. It shut down not long after I volunteered. So when I read this it inspired me to find somewhere I could volunteer. I’m at university in Sheffield and after a quick google search I found the Comac project at ReCycle bikes who fix bikes up to give to refugees in the city so they can get around easier and cheaper. I did my first session yesterday and stripped down and fixed an old Falcon road bike.
    Thanks for posting this up as it inspired me to get out and do some volunteering. Cheers for this one Locke. Keep up the good work guys.

  • Joe Torres

    The cyclist in me loves everything about this place. The building inspector in me wants to issue a correction notice on some life safety violations.