“We just decided to go for it,” says Ryan Schutz, a towering, genial, bearded guy — Hagrid in a service-station shirt. With him is Mike Decker, similarly attired, one arm in a sling but the other rocking a Mongo-sized cup of coffee. Schutz is the executive director of Bikes Together, a nonprofit based at 2825 Fairfax Street, and Decker is the general manager of the new Mariposa branch, at 1060 Osage Street, which is almost complete. Almost.
“We are opening Mariposa on Bike to Work Day, June 22,” says Decker, who adds that construction delays in booming Denver have pushed the projected completion date back more than once. “If the building’s not done, we’re just going to set something up on the sidewalk. We’ll have people there.” And a Mariposa District Bike Party station, featuring bike technicians, music, snacks and raffles.
It’s a key time for Bikes Together. The city’s rapid expansion makes cycling a more viable everyday alternative for drivers sick of congestion. With new infrastructure along the Front Range, the region’s already-extensive bike routes are hooking together to form a comprehensive system that makes living and working without a car, over formerly unsurmountable routes, more feasible than ever before.
“The culture is very different from that of 1978, when the first big improvements came for riders along Cherry Creek and the Platte,” says Schutz, referring to the first big burst of city spending for cycling amenities. “There’s a huge influx of the young now. Twenty-five percent fewer young adults have driver's licenses.”
But young-adult transplants aren't the only ones who want to ride bikes. The nonprofit's mission is to “get people on bikes and keep them there.” Over time, it has morphed from a neighborhood group to a community bike shop to a source of education, assistance and mentoring – practical, unadorned service that touts two-wheelers as a tool to improve health, save the environment, reduce stress, build community ties and empower the pedestrian.
Bikes Together got its start in the mid-1990s, when the Park Hill Bike Club formed to sidetrack local youth involved in such unsavory activities as drug use and gang membership. The group waxed and waned, but the idea didn’t go away. In 2008, a city-business-community triumvirate funded and opened the Bike Depot, which grew from an intermittently open workshop space to what is now Bikes Together: a full-time, full-service, volunteer-staffed bike shop on Fairfax that's open every day of the year but one – the day of the annual bike-and-beer Tour de Fat festival.
Schutz leads a tour of the Fairfax shop, where dozens of bikes fill the racks in the back room. Volunteers in a short run of bays crank away at two-wheelers suspended in repair stands. Donated bikes are reconditioned for giveaway or sale, or disassembled for parts. (Given that the group has worked on just about every kind of bike imaginable over the past eight years, the repair room has assembled a major collection of used parts). Nearly 6,000 bikes have been refurbished here; Bikes Together has given away as many as 3,500 two-wheelers.
Many more bikes are piled in the shop’s crowded, muddy back yard, waiting for diagnosis and treatment. The facility expanded into a next-door storefront in 2013, a small space that inspired big plans.
Today Bikes Together's fundamental programs start with Fix-a-Bike, open-door sessions that provide free space, access to tools, advice and assistance for bike owners. “The people who need to can just rock up,” says Schutz. “For some of the homeless, that’s it. Everything they have in the world is on their bike.”
The Earn-a-Bike program enables those fourteen and up to do just that. After ten hours of volunteer labor and a graduation class, participants receive a free bike, helmet, lock and lights. The Bike Rodeo targets kids ages three to thirteen, offering them the same education and free equipment; that program has given away approximately 1,100 bikes to date.
Bikes Together also offers a roster of classes in simple and advanced bicycle mechanics. Additional programs include the popular two-week Bike Camps, with the five sessions this summer nearly full. The co-op has collaborated with Swansea Elementary, the GrowHaus nonprofit indoor farm, and others; the Mariposa branch will seek similar partnerships in the La Alma/Lincoln Park area.
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“We will be plugging in to what’s existing, in terms of the neighborhood, in terms of transportation,” says Decker. Light rail has revolutionized travel through the metro area, and the public transit/cyclist interface is moving ahead of the awkward, two-bikes-on-the-front-bumper solution still used by RTD buses. The light-rail station at 10th and Osage is another new, bike-friendly part of the transportation web that Schutz hopes will “facilitate the cultural shift.”
Schutz touts that shift like a cheery evangelist. It’s significant that Bikes Together’s statement of values includes the bullet point “Fun.”
“We want to demystify, to educate those who are intimidated by the bike,” says Schutz. “We are looking to connect with the people below that level of ‘cyclist.’ You know, it’s just transportation. And after what we put ourselves through to get from one place to another, alone in our cars, doesn’t it make more sense? Riding a bike creates a positive feedback loop of freedom. It’s cheaper, it’s easier than driving. It’s better than Prozac.”
Park Hill Bikes Together is located at 2825 Fairfax Street; Mariposa Bikes Together is at 1060 Osage Street. For more information or to volunteer, visit bikestogether.org.