Bike building can earn a Free Ride

By Gareth Gebhardt

It’s cheaper than you might think to join the growing number of Pittsburgh… It’s cheaper than you might think to join the growing number of Pittsburgh cyclists.

Far from a typical bike shop, Pittsburgh’s Free Ride wants to teach you how to build and maintain a bike on your own — for free.

Tucked away in the middle of an old repurposed warehouse in Point Breeze amid islands of old, shrink-wrapped televisions and piles of construction lumber, hundreds of recycled bikes and bike parts in various states of assembly hang from the rafters and walls. Assorted tools, chairs and deflated tires occupy much of the floor and counter space.

It doesn’t look like your traditional bike shop, and it sure doesn’t operate like it either.

Billing itself as “Pittsburgh’s Do-It-Yourself Recycled Bike Collective,” Free Ride offers a variety of programs for bicycle-interested folk. One of them, called Earn-A-Bike, is precisely what it sounds like: Rather than trade hard-earned cash for two-wheeled transportation, program participants donate their time during the shop’s weekly volunteer nights.

Earn-A-Bikers start by creating a contract with the shop. They choose a recycled bike to repair — each one has a set value, usually between $20 and $150 — and for each hour volunteered, Free Ride credits $8 towards the purchase price.

At a bike shop, models typically run $300 or more in order to balance quality and profit, Cory Cannon, service manager at Biketek in Squirrel Hill, said. For students and others on a budget, he suggested Craigslist, Toys “R” Us and Dick’s Sporting Goods as alternative places to make economical bike purchases. “If you’re a student, there’s no need to buy a thousand-dollar bike to ride to and from class,” he said.

As for building your own, it usually takes participants eight to 20 volunteer hours to earn their new rides. During that time, they’re also required to attend two educational classes at which they’ll learn about a variety of bike maintenance issues, ranging from flat-tire repair to derailleur adjustment.

But employees at other local bike shops said there are advantages to getting a bike the traditional way. Cannon emphasized Biketek’s quality guarantee. “You know you’re getting a bike that’s put together right,” he said.

At Iron City Bikes in Oakland, manager Steve Kurpiewski voiced some concern about bikes not built by trained mechanics. “I’ve seen plenty of stuff that people do wrong, and it’s unsafe,” he said. He added that consumers can also save time by having a professional work on their bikes, rather than trying to figure it out themselves.

Yet both men spoke encouragingly of Free Ride. “It’s a great program,” Cannon said.

Earn-A-Bike is one of Free Ride’s most popular programs, and it’s not hard to see why.

Joe Russino, an Oakland resident and first-time participant, said the program was a way for him to get an inexpensive bike after starting a new job. But there are other benefits to the program as well.

Biking is “a nice way to stay in shape, and it’s nice for the environment too. And recycled bikes are in the spirit of that,” Russino said. “I like learning how to take care of a bike while I build it.”

Will Wedler, a Free Ride staff member and instructor who first participated in Earn-A-Bike in 2005, emphasized that recycling and education are central to Free Ride’s goals.

“It goes to the idea of reusing and repairing instead of getting [something] new,” he said. “You learn a lot through the do-it-yourself mentality. Fixing things up yourself, refurbishing things — these are the sort of things you learn at Free Ride.”

Free Ride’s volunteer cooperative structure and emphasis on recycling allow it to maintain very little overhead, Wedler said. All of its revenue comes from donations and small sales of bikes and parts, which afford it the ability to maintain programs like Earn-A-Bike.

Information

Free Ride is located at 214 North Lexington St., inside the Construction Junction warehouse. It’s about a 15-minute bus ride outbound via the 67 or 69 or, if you want to get into the spirit of things, about 30 minutes away by bike. Drop-in classes are held every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and on Tuesdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Volunteer hours are every Monday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Visit www.freeridepgh.org for more information.

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