Bicycle recyclers empower riders

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

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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
Natalie Feliciano (left) enrolled in Recycle-a-Bicycle’s youth program last year in high school and learned bike repair. Now she’s an expert wrench-slinger. ‘I like knowing I can help my friends with their bikes,’ she says.

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.”

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.

“Our sales have increased dramatically,” says Samantha Wechsler, executive director of Bikes Not Bombs. Ms. Wechsler says interest is being driven by the opening of a new stand-alone shop in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Most bikes there sell for about $300, she says. With a little work, most customers could find a bike on, the online classified site, for much less. But Wechsler says that Bikes Not Bombs patrons want to reinvest in a local, sustainable organization. They also know that the bicycles bought there have been carefully restored by trained mechanics.

“People have always needed bikes. I don’t think it’s the need that’s increasing,” says Matt Picard, the youth programming director at Bikes Not Bombs. “It’s the awareness that is [increasing]: Environmentalism has been brought to the forefront.”

When Mr. Picard joined Bikes Not Bombs, he remembers being skeptical about the organization’s ability to inspire people. “I wondered if this would actually get a kid to wear a helmet,” he says, “or encourage biking in general.”
Now, he points to Bikes Not Bombs’ youth-employment program, similar to the curriculum sponsored by Recycle-a-Bicycle. “When you finish the program, you can apply to be an instructor,” Picard says. “It’s an important avenue to build confidence. You can see the satisfaction. We’re always thinking about the environment, but in a way, that becomes almost secondary: What we’re really doing is to help create young, independent cyclists.”

Not all such organizations are as big as Bikes Not Bombs. Bruce Lien lives in Pine, a small Colorado town southwest of Denver. In the past decade, working primarily out of a shop in his family’s barn, Mr. Lien estimates he has restored about 4,700 bikes. Last year, Lien retired from teaching and began to spend more time at the workbench. “I fixed about 696 bikes,” he recalls. “It was exciting to see what I could get done with all that time.”

Lien works mostly by himself or with another senior volunteer, but he is a member of a larger umbrella organization, Recycle Bicycles, which distributes bikes across Denver.

Recycle Bicycles, though, gives away every bike it repairs. The primary recipients, says Lien, are homeless men and women. “Back when I started, it was about making a difference on a small scale,” Lien says. “I’ve been a witness to how powerful a thing a bike can be. Bicycles are very empowering things.”

Stein, of Recycle-a-Bicycle, says she expects the appeal of these programs to continue to swell. “They’re in line with the trends,” she explains. “There’s the green aspect and the environmental awareness. And people want to live better. And then here in New York, for instance, there’s the focus on alternative transportation – on cutting down on traffic. So we get some of the Lycra crowd. We get the former messengers. We get the casual riders. We have people from all those strata contributing to a shared cause.”

Other bike recyclers

Got an old bike that needs a new home? Consider donating it to one of these organizations. (You’ll find others online.) Or, if you’re in the market for a new ride, think green – and buy recycled.

Bikes Not Bombs
Boston (Jamaica Plain).
Phone: (617) 522-0222

New York
Phone: (718) 858-2972

Bikes for the World
Arlington, Va.
Phone: (703) 525-0931

Recycle Bicycles
Pine, Colo.
Phone: (303) 908-7982

Working Bikes Cooperative
Phone: (312) 421-5048

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