A Montpelier bike co-op reinstates the wheel
Try to imagine a machine aboard which a human being becomes the most efficient animal on earth: a fantastic science-fiction creature able to travel 3000 miles fueled by the calories contained in one gallon of gas. H.G. Wells might have dreamed it up, but for the simple fact that the machine frequently passed before his eyes. "When I see an adult on a bicycle," he said, "I do not despair for the future of the human race."
A similar romantic optimism has taken hold of Colin Gunn and Eric Blokland, the creators of FreeRide Montpelier, the capital city's first bicycle co-op. In the tradition of Burlington's Bike Recycle, FreeRide Montpelier, which is opening its doors at noon on May 12, will take donated bicycles in any condition and make them roadworthy again. The refurbished bikes will be available for purchase for a nominal amount based on ability to pay, or as payment in kind for laboring at the co-op. Memberships to the co-op will be offered for a small, yet-to-be-determined fee - $30 a year, for example - which will give members an all-access pass to the benefits of a community bike shop.
Gunn and Blokland are both 24. They're roommates in Montpelier and recent graduates of Oberlin College in Ohio, where they learned, among other things, how to wrench bicycles at the Oberlin Bicycle Co-op. In the dim light of their modest co-op space at 89 Barre Street, among piles of bikes in various stages of repair and disrepair, they speak with a fluency that shows they're familiar with the import and bounds of their new venture, like newlyweds in their first house. Radiohead's disaffected notes spill from a boom-box over bike stands of diverse vintages and a bare-bones work-bench, then drift over the loading dock of a neighboring business.
Gunn, who wears a quasi-mohawk and has hard blue eyes, is a substitute teacher at Montpelier High School. He grew up riding his mountain bike up and down the hills around the capital. Blokland is thin and soft-spoken, with close-cropped hair and Calvin Klein spectacles. His job? "I'm looking for one desperately," he says. But when the topic turns to the co-op, he surveys his surroundings with pride and says, "Everything you see here was either donated or lent to us. We're stocked enough to work on just about everything."
The co-op's primary purpose, Gunn explains, "is having the shop open four or five shifts a week, so members can come in, use the tools, use the space, and ask the mechanics how to make something work." The goal, he says, is to get members "learning how to fix their bikes themselves, so we're not just doing it for them."
The idea of a cooperative was first put into action in England in 1844, when 29 weavers got together to amass buying power in the inflationary heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the many different types of co-ops share four common principles: The customer is the member, each member has a say in how the co-op is run, the co-op operates for the benefit of the members, and it is nonprofit. Bicycle co-ops follow roughly the same rules. But they focus their energies on renovating bikes for sale and charity, teaching repair skills to members, and giving them a place to work on their bikes, all in the name of promoting pedal power.
Becka Roolf is the former director of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, a bike and pedestrian advocacy group. She cautions that FreeRide Montpelier "is trying to root in one of the smallest cities for such a program." Still, Roolf thinks the time is ripe for a bike co-op in Montpelier: "Montpelier's bike culture is growing."
If anyone would know, it's Roolf. Since leaving the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, she has formed Going Green, a transportation consulting firm focused on bicycling and walking. The very existence of such a business hints at a larger change in people's patterns and preferences when it come to motion. "There is a rising awareness of bicycling as a transportation option," Roolf opines, linking this change to higher gas prices.
That awareness is evidenced by the birth of a new bike group under the umbrella of the Montpelier Energy Task Force, a town meeting team that takes a multifaceted approach to energy consumption and global warming. The bike group's stated objective is to double the use of bikes in two years and reduce carbon emissions. Those are two goals FreeRide Montpelier is excited to accomplish in conjunction with the larger group. "We've been getting a lot of help from the Energy Task Force," Gunn says, "in terms of support, advice and getting the word out."
Roolf points out that it's not just activists calling for transportation change. "The Montpelier Downtown Community Association is also supporting bicycling and walking, and this makes a huge difference, to have this voice from business," she says.
One supportive business with an obvious stake in the rise of bike use is Montpelier's Onion River Sports. Carrie Baker Stahler is the marketing director at the shop and a member of the Energy Task Force bike group. She thinks FreeRide will be an important source of information-capital for the bike community: "I envision [FreeRide] filling an educational gap that exists. There are definitely people who want to know how their bikes work," she says, "but we don't have the staff or space to be both a business and a bike education center." Stahler also notes that FreeRide will likely be a popular place with neighborhood kids. "For them, bikes mean freedom . . . I think FreeRide will be able to provide a hub for that kind of energy and excitement about biking."
To remind adults of their innocent, pre-driving days, Onion River is putting on the "Muscles Not Motors" Bike to Work Challenge, which throws down the gauntlet to Montpelier workers to "form workplace teams and bike to work for one week, from June 3-9." The prizes are bragging rights, gift certificates and recaptured youth.
The city, for its part, is exploring what it takes to become a "Bike Friendly Community," a designation given by the League of American Bicyclists. "Montpelier isn't quite a 'bike-friendly city' yet," Stahler confesses, "but it is a comprehensive way for us to look at our current situation, and see what we can do better." In addition, the Montpelier Planning and Community Development is putting on Way to Go Montpelier, a program modeled after Way to Go Vermont, the Chittenden County initiative to encourage greener, cheaper and healthier commuting alternatives.
While the support of task forces and local business is nice, the co-op will need real people hankering for two-wheeled transport. Gunn's informal market research revealed just such an unmet need. "I started talking to people about this last year when I moved back from college," he says, "and right away I ran into three or four people who had similar ideas and they were really excited about it. We got responses from 'I really want to learn how to fix my bike' to 'Oh, I need a bike and don't want to buy a new one.'"
Jim Tasse, director of the Rutland Area Physical Activity Coalition, is not surprised by the positive reaction Gunn and Blokland received when they shopped their idea around. He predicts that "as gas prices continue to rise, more and more people are going to look at biking as a practical way to get around for distances under 3 miles."
It starts to look even more practical this time of year, when the hospitable weather tempts the most staunch fans of internal combustion to get on a bike. It's no coincidence that May is National Bike Month, and May 18 is National Bike to Work Day. Only in the First World would a national bike day be an event of such moment, since the bicycle is the primary means of conveyance for billions of people in developing countries.
Gunn and Blokland have a lot of ideas about how to put the bike back on the brain stateside. "One of the programs they did at Oberlin that really excited me was called Bikes and Kids," Gunn relates. The program "was about getting middle and high school kids to come in and work on building strange bikes" - mini-choppers, for instance. Blokland wheels over a Franken-bike as an example: It's two bike frames welded one atop the other, so the rider sits twice as high as normal. Its purpose? "Joy," says Blokland.
And advertising, he adds. "We're not really budgeting advertising, so word of mouth is it. We're putting a banner on our tall bike and going to ride it around." The two men also plan to organize bike-in cinema. Blokland's got the pitch down: "Movies in the park on warm summer nights."
Bike activists will be out in force this month, championing the rights of cyclists, encouraging people to ride and raising awareness. It would have made H.G. Wells proud. Or Mark Twain, though he had a characteristically more wry perspective. "Get a bicycle," he wrote. "You will not regret it if you live."
Interested in joining or volunteering with the bike co-op? Email the organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ride/Walk with Vermont Legislators: The Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition will offer a guided walk as well as a guided bike ride, encouraging legislators to attend and show support for both forms of transportation. Meet in front of Statehouse, Montpelier, on May 10, 5 p.m. Info: email@example.com or 225-8904.
Critical Mass Ride: Riding bikes to support bikers' rights and bike safety. Meet at City Hall Park, Burlington, on May 11 at 5:30 p.m. Info: firstname.lastname@example.org or 338-1613.
FreeRide is hosting an open house on Saturday, May 12, noon - 6 p.m. 89 Barre Street, Montpelier. Info, 229-9092.
Pedestrian and Bike Summit: Residents, planners and public officials will come together to identify strategies to improve conditions for walking and bicycling in Chittenden County. May 12, 9 a.m. - 12:30 p.m., St. John Vianney Church, 160 Hinesburg Road, South Burlington. Info: email@example.com or 652-2453.
Way to Go Montpelier: Five weeks to choose a different way to travel than driving alone. Runs May 7 - June 9. Info: http://www.waytogovt.org/