By Stan Purdum
Want to bump up your bicycle mechanic skills and do some good at the same time? Volunteer at one of the nonprofits that recycle old bikes.
I live in New Jersey and volunteer one afternoon each week as a bike mechanic in Plainfield, a community not far from my own, at a nonprofit bicycle shop called the Bike Exchange (BEX). It’s a program of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which provides after-school activities for young people. Denzel Washington, a former club member, has been the spokesperson for the organization since 1993.
At the BEX, we refurbish donated bikes and make them available to the public at low cost. Our inventory is whatever bikes are contributed, but we receive a surprising variety. Many are department store or big-box store brands, but we’ve also seen Zebrakenko racers, Peugeot Carbolites, Nishiki Tourers, various Treks and a fair number of Raleigh’s where the purchaser probably bought the bike for the Brooks leather saddle or the North County bars or just the frame. We also receive many children’s bikes.
Many of the bikes simply need cleaning, adjusting and lubing, plus tube and/or tire replacement. Others are fixable using parts we’ve stripped from other bikes that are not feasible to repair, plus a few new parts we purchase from a bicycle-parts wholesaler.
The local people tend to go for the mountain bikes, which for some, is their only means of transportation to get to work, but sometimes out-of-towners come to purchase the road bikes after seeing them on our Craig’s List posting. A vintage Pinarello Dolomite we posted recently lasted only 45 minutes online before someone called and purchased it over the phone using a credit card.
My Wrenching Skills are Much Improved
And here’s the thing: By working on these used bikes, my repair skills have taken a step forward. I keep my own bike in good repair, changing parts as needed, but as a result, I don’t often have to do a lot of adjusting of the drive train or truing of the wheels. Consequently, on the few occasions that an adjustment was needed, it had been so long since I’d done that procedure that I pretty much had to learn how all over again.
But at the BEX, I often get to adjust derailleurs, replace shift cables, true wheels, repack wheel bearings, rebuild bottom brackets, and so on. And often, there are other volunteers in the shop as well, so that when I encounter an unusual parts configuration or a tricky problem, one of the others may have seen it before and can advise how to proceed. Or we can figure it out together. What’s more, on an old bike, if you make a repair mistake, it’s not like you’ve messed up your high-end carbon-fiber steed.
I recently worked on an ancient Raleigh 10-speed that had been long neglected, but my work gave it a chance at a second life. The wheels were badly rusted, but I found other wheels in our inventory of used parts. I installed new shift cables and brake pads, cleaned, lubed and adjusted it, and it sold fairly quickly. It had an old Wrights leather saddle that, to a collector, may have been worth more than the rest of the bike – but the whole bike was serviceable when it left our shop.
An Occasional Diamond in the Rough
Our shop, which is open weekdays in the afternoons and Saturday morning, is the only bike shop in Plainfield, so we do get quite a few repair walk-ins, which we do our best to accommodate.
This week, while cleaning up an old Schwinn women’s model, I noticed something I’d never seen before: It had a freewheel in the bottom bracket and each cog in the rear cog set moved independently of each other.
One of our guys has a keen interest in bicycle history and researched this configuration online. The bike’s head badge told us the bike had been made in Chicago and provided a number code that, along with the serial number stamped on the frame, led us to the story:
The bike was made in 1980, and the shifting system was Shimano’s first attempt at index shifting, called FFS (Front Freewheel System). Their design is intended to allow a “memorized” shift under any conditions. If you are coasting, the front-crank freewheels and reduces stress on the chain, allowing a shift, even while not pedaling.
If you are stopped, the derailleur memorizes its position and will shift while stopped. (Here’s an interesting video from Park Tool that makes a compelling case that Shimano’s FFS system is the mechanical precursor of Di2!) The system appeared to be working just fine on the old bike.
Doing Good in Many Ways
While there are several organizations in addition to the Boys & Girls Clubs that offer bicycling programs, many have similar goals. The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs BEX is 1) to provide affordable bike transportation to the community and divert waste by re-purposing what would otherwise be discarded bikes, 2) to provide funding to the parent organization, and 3) to provide hard and soft skills training to young people by having them take responsibility for repair, re-purposing, and sales of bikes.
In our shop, we aim to do all those things. Certainly we are re-purposing bikes that might otherwise be discarded. We have had high-schoolers in the shop as volunteers, and last year, from our sales, we contributed more than $9,000 to the Club.
All that, and it’s making me a better bicycle mechanic.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.
John Elmblad says
In Denver, the shop is called Bikes Together. It works just like BEX, where Stan volunteers. I heartily second what he says. It is rewarding, and I have learned a lot.
Kerry Irons says
Glad your experience with FFW was positive. In my experience those things are the embodiment of evil. Perhaps they worked when new but they seem to wear quickly and become almost impossible to service. Once can argue that they were the precursor to something, but I think they were much more of an evolutionary dead end. And yes, I’ve encountered them in a local Recycle a Bicycle program where you get to work on a dozen bikes on a Saturday. Not just wrenching skills are developed, but hammering skills as well!
Stan Purdum says
We did learn online that the shift cables and housings are unique to the FFS bike and replacements are almost impossible to locate. Fortunately, the cables and housings on the one we had were okay. The cable to the front derailleur was stuck, but I was able to free it. Once I did, everything shifted smoothly without further adjustment.
David Frost says
I’m one of quite a few volunteers at Bike Works (bikeworks.org, a similar non-profit in Seattle) where we have many goals like BEX, and also offer bike repair classes for both youth and adults.
My experiences are much like Stan’s. Wrenching on other bikes certainly does expand my skills, and I’m convinced that many of our donated kid’s bikes leave in better operating condition than when they were new (often from some big outlet store). Even better is teaching others to do it themselves. Best teaching advice – “Don’t do it for them. Teach like you’re wearing mittens”. Learning to teach effectively has been a great life lesson for me in retirement.
Besides selling bikes at very reasonable prices like BEX, we have several events through the year when we [u]give[/u] away 400-500 donated and rebuilt bikes to kids of low income families and adults that need reliable transportation.