After a year of curbside service only, Free Cycles Missoula has reopened.
“If you have old bikes, donate ‘em. If you were inclined to fix a bike and never tried, don’t be intimidated. We all work together. We’ve got space here, we got tools here. We got knowledge,” said Bob Giordano, the nonprofit’s executive director.
For the near future, the services are set up outside under shade shelters, and they are still weighing the reopening of the indoor shop.
“It seemed like the safe and responsible thing to do is just be working outside all summer,” he said.
You can fix up your bike, build or furbish one up from the “bicycle forest” of donated ones, harvest parts to work on your ride, or buy one that staff members have already refurbished. They also offer free bikes for kids 10 and under.
Since the soft opening two weeks ago, they’ve had 50 to 60 people come through a day, Giordano said. In previous summers, they might see up to 200 a day, and to prepare, they’ve hired seven seasonal staff members through Nov. 1.
Currently, the shop is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with some restrictions — it’s all outdoors, capacity is limited, and it’s first come, first served with a two-hour time limit.
The shop also doubles as a center for community events, and local and touring acts play shows there. The first show is set for First Friday, June 4, with Transcendental Express, a local improv-jazz-funk group with more bookings under way.
The space has a large garage door that can be opened to allow air flow, and “we're going to set up tables and chairs all over the property so people can chill” and space themselves out, he said.
How it works
To enter, folks need to check in at the outside gate, and then they can head to one of the five covered outdoor work stations, with potential to add more.
To get yourself a new bike, you can take a “Bike Well” class on demand, donate 90 minutes of time, and then pick out a bike from the “free bike corral” and they’ll help you fix it. If you don’t want to do the volunteer time, you can pay $30.
It’s for people who “want something quicker, they don’t have a lot of time to volunteer at an organization like ourselves, but they still like the idea of (using) their hands and tuning something up at a really affordable rate,” Giordano said.
Materials from the “parts forest” are free but donations are suggested. “It’s ‘take what you need, leave the rest for others,’” he said.
On a chilly Friday morning, Jon Hulburt, a new seasonal worker, was helping Amelia Schmidt repair a vintage Free Spirit road bike that she foraged from the “bicycle forest.” She has a mountain bike already, but wanted something for getting around town that she wouldn’t feel too heartbroken about if it got stolen. “And I get to build it myself,” she said.
Over the course of several days, they replaced the tubes and tires, adjusted the brakes, replaced brake cable, and installed a rack for groceries.
Hulburt, a fan of bikes, is expanding their knowledge and training as a new mechanic.
“I'm really happy to be learning about bikes and helping people learn about bikes, and helping the public in a lot of ways,” Hulburt said, plus “you see people leaving happy every day.”
At another station, Giordano was showing Aggie Fredette how to adjust the spokes on her rear wheel. Her bike needed work after she was hit by a sport-utility vehicle coming out of an alleyway. Luckily, she dived out of the way, but her bike went under the tires.
“It’s kind of a silver lining to be learning about my bike, and learning how to fix it,” she said.
Inside, another worker was building a seated cargo trike that a family requested.
“We’re seeing a lot of demand for three-wheel bikes, four-wheeled bikes” from people who have mobility challenges, Giordano said.
Reflecting and looking forward
During COVID-19, the shop switched to curbside service and the staff of three stayed busy as demand for bicycles leapt up. They gave away 300 bicycles by request, and ended up with a waiting list at some points. They also handed out 300 youth bikes, and filled about 500 parts orders. There was time for improvements, too. They hired carpenters to renovate the youth bike barn classroom.
A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped them weather the pandemic, and an anonymous donor gave $10,000. Their lender floated them one mortgage payment on the property, which they purchased in 2017. They passed that on to the other tenants on the property, and worked with them on rent payments. Giordano said Free Cycles’ cash reserve is “decent,” but “if there’s a big donor out here that wants to see this town explode with bicycles, please get in touch.”
Giordano also heads the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, the umbrella organization for the bike shop. He said the city needs to become “very bike friendly. We’re on our way, but too many people are getting hit.”
“Protected bike lanes are incredibly important for our main roads as drivers go faster and are more distracted already. It’s the Northern European approach, and we can do it here and get more people riding” as the city tries to meet its sustainable transportation goals.