“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 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out freecycles.org.
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.
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.