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Bicycle recyclers empower riders

Programs in New York and elsewhere train young mechanics and provide ‘beater’ bikes.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 2008

Natalie Feliciano (l.) and Gina Estevens work to repair a bike brought into the Recycle-a-Bicycle shop in New York’s East Village. Both young women went through the shop’s youth mechanics training.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

A year ago, Natalie Feliciano couldn’t tell the difference between a derailleur and a bottom bracket. A bike was a thing, made up of other shiny things, all of which churned together in some strange, magical concert. Sometimes she’d walk the streets of her East Village neighborhood and see rusty frames jammed into trash cans. “I’d think, you know, what a waste,” she grimaces. “All that garbage for someone else to clean up. But I never knew how much went into a bike.”

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These days, her outlook is considerably more refined. On a warm fall afternoon here, standing in the cluttered back room of Recycle-a-Bicycle’s Manhattan store, Ms. Feliciano absentmindedly runs a greasy chain through her fingers and holds forth expertly on all things two-wheeled. She talks about the sudden passion in New York for fixed-gear bikes – once popular only among reckless, bombastic couriers – and her own stable of rides, which includes a bicycle she repaired on her own time. “I like knowing I can help my friends with their bikes. I like to know that I can be there,” she says. “And I like knowing how they work. How everything fits together.”

The nuts-and-bolts approach is something Recycle-a-Bicycle has always done particularly well. The organization was founded in 1999 with a straightforward mandate: Repair abused, remaindered, broken, or worn bikes and funnel them back to consumers. At the time, New Yorkers were wary, says Lisa Stein, the executive director. Used bicycles were something for the junk pile, and most experienced riders preferred the security of a brand-new aluminum frame.

But over the past decade, Recycle-a-Bike has gained an enormous amount of local ballast. A crew of employees and volunteers now runs a pair of New York stores, one here in Manhattan and the other in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn. (DUMBO means “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass.”) The organization’s youth programs are a big draw for students like Feliciano, who enrolled last year at her public high school. She is now an expert wrench-slinger and a paid Recycle-a-Bicycle associate. Under the tutelage of an experienced mechanic, Feliciano and fellow associate Gina Estevens labored recently to tune up a long line of bikes.

“I never, ever thought I’d be working in a bike shop,” says Ms. Estevens, as customers pour in and out of the shop’s front door. They pore over the bicycles that Estevens and Feliciano have fixed up: the clunker mountain bikes, the sleek single speeds, and the antique-looking one with an oversized front wheel. “That one,” grins Daniel Wendlek, resident teacher and senior mechanic, “takes a little bit of skill to ride.”

In an interview at the East Village shop, Ms. Stein says that the bikes, which sell for about $250, appeal to riders who want something they can leave locked up on the street. They want what’s known as a “beater” bike – a roadworthy tank that can withstand the rough wear of city riding.

“They don’t feel intimidated when they come in,” Stein says. “It’s a friendly environment. And buying from us is a way to feel a part of the community. It’s a way to think about sustainability.”

As more Americans begin to think about clean energy and efficient living, interest in bike recycling is rising across the country.

“We’ve changed the whole aesthetic of what people ride in Chicago,” says Lee Ravenscroft, founder and president of an Illinois cooperative called Working Bikes. “Before we were in existence, people were riding mountain bikes. Now they ride fixed-up, vintage Schwinns and Raleighs. No one here would be caught dead on a Wal-Mart bike.” Working Bikes and Recycle-a-Bicycle are part of a loose network of similar organizations nationwide that includes Boston’s Bikes Not Bombs and Recycle Bicycles in Colorado. All share the same interest: getting more bikes on the road.

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