Missoula’s many hands

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FreeCycles is a Missoula institution, a community bike shop offering tools, parts and bikes, for free.  The operation runs on volunteers and donations and Bob Giordano has been the ringleader for about 15 years, extending a helping hand to the community even when his own are deep in another project.  When the Missoula Urban Demonstration (MUD) needed to transport their tool library to the Missoula Home ReSource project (building materials reuse center), a lightbulb flickered in Bob’s mind.  With a repurposed John Deer haywagon, a homemade three wheeled tandem “tractor”, and a couple of able bodies pushing from behind, several tons of tools could be transported across town entirely by human power.  The result was a jalopy of well-loved tools and sweaty bodies ambling and rambling through Missoula’s urban center at rush hour.  In a friendly mid-sized cycling city like Missoula, rush hour isn’t much to speak of, but pedestrians and motorists offer hurrahs and cyclists lay down their bikes to assist the effort, pushing for a block or two.  Actually, many skeptics turned down the offer to assist but several touring cyclists and locals jumped on the proverbial haywagon.

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Our route took us around the railroad tracks to avoid any topographic challenges.  With enough hands, anything is possible.

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This is Sean’s first day in town and I’ve signed him up for 5 miles of strenuous wagon-pushing.  He’s been following the blog for almost a year and when I put a call out for cyclists to join me this summer, he responded and bought a plane ticket.  He has optimized his 90’s Novara Aspen ATB with drop bars and 2.3″ Kenda K-Rad tires, which you’ll be seeing more of over the next few weeks.  A wide range of gears, platform pedals, homemade fenders, a Brooks saddle and some Swift Short Stack panniers round out the ride.  Leaving Missoula, we’re headed for the Divide.

I visited FreeCycles for the first time last fall, and was inspired by the experience.

Free bikes; FreeCycles

20110908-094800.jpgA student project 15 years ago, FreeCycles has flourished into an healthy organism; while freely changing and growing, it differs from similar organizations that intend to be self-governing and self-perpetuating. It has grown– organically– but has also received the consistent oversight of its founder, Bob. Naturally, Bob is only one human, and this human is impacting Missoula’s cycling horizon in other ways. Sometimes sweeping the shop floor should be someone else’s job.

Even “self-governing” cooperative bicycle projects rely heavily on a core, or even a single dedicated volunteer. Many community bicycle projects are blessed with the youthful energy of a rotating cast of college students, and some students may even receive activity credits or basic-pay through work-study programs for their services. FreeCycles, mostly, operates rather freely–and it works.

Some notable notes about FreeCycles; things that differ from other community-co-op bicycle projects:

-Education is central, and most often on the personal level. There are no repair tags, as all repairs are done by oneself or with the aid of a volunteer.

-Money keeps FreeCycles alive, but nothing is priced and only (exactly) one mention of money is made, on the artfully crafted mission statement. The shop is thus as free from exclusivity–based on personal finances– as possible.

-Free-ly available parts are diligenty used to fix bikes (of course); but also for homemade bike stands, door handles, a paper-towel holder, the donation jar, a chandelier, and copious wall-art. Upturned drop handlebars securely mounted to walls and sturdy floor stands account for almost all bike workstands. There is one well-used Park clamp re-welded to a homemade steel floor stand.

It is hard to ignore the impact of FreeCycles in Missoula. Bluntly, if it looks like an old mountain bike, or a bike converted to an unironic single-speed, or is pulling a custom trailer; it’s been to FreeCycles. College kid, homeless, DIY, or just a sensible guy or gal that thinks they can fix it themselves?–FreeCycles.

I left Missoula to the east today. Ten miles out I filled water bottles at a truck stop. The early 90’s Trek 950 out front came from FreeCycles and was making a 17 mile ride into town from the family ranch. I assume the ride back is another 17. Thank Bob for those 34. Better yet, drop three bucks in the donation jar. You didn’t need that latte anyway.

I cleaned my bike at FreeCycles. Johnny’s bike, and Oscar’s, and Bob’s all came from the heap. Maybe there are 1000 other bikes from FreeCycles in and around Missoula, but there are probably more. At a conservative two miles a day, that’s at least 2000 miles a day that didn’t require the use of an automobile. I rode 30 miles this afternoon, the Trek went at least 17, Oscar and Bob and Johnny each probably rode ten miles or more around town. FreeCycles may be replacing as many car-miles in a day as a single vehicle drives in a year. That’s something, even to the uninitiated and to non-believers. That’s like 365 fewer cars in Missoula; for now, numbers speak.20110908-094916.jpg20110908-095031.jpg20110908-095431.jpg20110908-095446.jpg20110908-095629.jpg

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