By Joel Warner
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Like a lot of kids who come into the shop, Julianne had first approached the nearest male authority figure. But at Derailer, the majority of the mechanics are women -- yet another reason that it's an anomaly among bike shops, where most employees are men -- and the guy Julianne tapped was actually a volunteer apprentice working under Graves. Then Graves took Julianne under her wing.
Today, like most days, the 24-year-old Graves is dressed in the anti-fashion favored by the anarcho-vegan-punk crowd. Her secondhand clothes are conspicuously absent of logos and labels from the consumer culture, and her pants -- with wide patches squaring up along the sides -- look like a bird's-eye view of farmland. Wiping the thick grease from her hands, she says, "I think that through working with a female mechanic, Julianne was getting the hang of -- well, you don't just have to ask guys for help and have them do everything for you."
The ceiling of the garage is adorned with dozens of bike rims, while the walls are covered with forks and tire tubes. A shelf labeled with "Cranks/Las Bielas" and "Saddles/Los Sillines" holds many spare, used parts, and aluminum filing cabinets serve as storage for other mechanical necessities. After picking through the options and assembling all of the necessary pieces, Julianne and Graves are now ready to reattach the rear wheel.
"Okay, you see the side that has the gear on it?" Graves asks.
"Yeah," she says, showing the girl where to position the chain so that it will fit onto the teeth of the sprocket. "Before you get it all the way in, I'm going to pull the chain back so we can get it on."
"I can't," Julianne starts to say, but then the chain pops into place. "Ahh!"
"Nice," Graves smiles. "You always say, 'I can't,' but I think that's a lie."
As if her game has finally been discovered, Julianne bursts out with a giggle. Together they twist the nut until it's tight, and Julianne starts spinning the wheel.
"Yeah! We did it!" the girl says, clapping her hands.
Veronica Barela, who as president and CEO of New West Side Economic Development has been working on commercial redevelopment and affordable housing in the Lincoln Park area for more than three decades, recognizes that many families in the neighborhood can't afford to buy their kids something as fundamental to childhood as a bicycle. "I was born and raised in the North Lincoln projects, and I would have been so grateful if somebody could have given me a bike and taught me how to fix it," she remembers. "You know, when you grow up poor and on welfare, you don't have anything. And so when somebody offers you a bike, you can imagine the gratitude of the family."
But while Barela appreciates Derailer's contributions to the neighborhood, the fact that the shop wound up in its current space was "a complete accident," Sarah Bardwell says.
The idea to start Derailer sprouted in the spring of 2001, when Bardwell and Morgan Matter, another student who'd just graduated from the Denver School of the Arts, were on a visit to Tucson and encountered BICAS, a bike co-op. "It's awesome," Bardwell says of the twelve-year-old nonprofit. "It's this huge warehouse with tons of bikes." The two teens did a work-trade deal for a pair of loaner bikes and hung out in the bike shop, which also functions as an educational space. "It was just really cool and underground," Bardwell remembers.
Bardwell has been involved with progressive activism all her life. Her entire extended family either volunteers with or works for nonprofits; her father does statistical work for liberal groups, and her mother has long been involved in the creation of politically focused art-installation pieces. When she said she wanted to start a bike cooperative in Denver, her parents thought it seemed like a tangible project. "It was something that we could do," Bardwell remembers. "If I saw a really awesome cafe, for example, I would have no idea how to start it up. You need so much stuff. But free bikes? All you need is free bikes and tools and somewhere to do it."
In the beginning, that somewhere was a single-car garage in the alley behind the Spot, at 2100 Stout Street. The Derailer Bike Collective started there in December 2001 with seven bikes and a tool set, all donated, along with a few frames, some old wheels and a jar of nuts and bolts. Although Matter had worked at a bike shop before, Bardwell didn't know much about bikes and had to learn as she went along. A few other friends -- members of the very loosely organized collective -- helped out during the three days a week the shop was open, but traffic was sparse. They did very little outreach, so often the only people who found them were kids frequenting the Spot or folks who happened to wander through the alley.
But in November 2002, the Spot merged with Urban Peak, another nonprofit devoted to helping kids, which promptly told Derailer it needed the garage back.