Cycle Killer

The Derailer Bicycle Collective doesn't advertise its services in newspapers or the Yellow Pages. There's no sign in front of the shop. Calls to the main number are returned sporadically, if at all. But for the collective's eight core members, luring cash-carrying customers through traditional means simply isn't a priority. This is because 1) Derailer doesn't charge money, and 2) Derailer is not interested in catering to the spandexed masses powering their Treks toward the REI flagship store, anyway.

For Derailer, the whole world can be reduced to the ten blocks that comprise the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood, an amalgam of industrial and commercial buildings intermixed with modest residential dwellings and Denver Housing Authority units, an area marked by porch-sitters, paletera carts and old men tinkering beneath truck hoods.

The sure way to find Derailer in all of this? Follow the bikes.

A group of boys pedal across busy Santa Fe Drive and past the two Denver Police Department cruisers idling in a parking lot. The preteens turn and head down tree-lined Lipan Street toward 11th Avenue -- and suddenly, it's as if a spontaneous, two-wheeled exhibition has appeared out of thin air. Little kids wobble down the sidewalk on bikes. Teenagers loll in front of the corner market on bikes. Middle-aged men check the spokes of their bikes, then spin off to destinations unknown. The boys on bikes now dart into the alleyway and ride up to the unassuming brick garage behind the two-story house at 1065 Lipan Street.

For the past three years, Derailer has opened the doors of this garage three evenings a week, offering a free, volunteer-run bicycle resource center to its neighbors, the city's homeless and anyone else who drops by. The garage can only fit so many bikes and bikers, and on some afternoons, dozens of people spill out into the alley. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, languages and smells, and sit on the ground or lean against dumpsters, oiling chains, patching flats or waiting patiently for the opportunity to scavenge parts so that they can construct bikes of their own. Children speed through the commotion to test the brakes on newly rebuilt bikes, turning to inspect the skid marks they've left on the concrete.

Occasionally a truck will pull in and drop off more donated bikes, which range from decent to decrepit. But even the most blown-out rides are stripped down and re-used, since the collective spends no more than fifty bucks a month on the shop, mostly to buy grease and patches. For members of the Derailer Bicycle Collective, it's about more than money. It's an activist philosophy: a bike as a human right, a bike as a sustainable alternative, a bike as a political statement.

But the underground nature of their salvage-and-save mission has put the collective in a crunch. On April 5, a Denver neighborhood inspector stopped by, saw the activity and slapped the Lipan address with a cease-and-desist order, claiming that its residents were operating a "non-profit bicycle shop" and a "non-profit boardinghouse" in violation of zoning regulations. At a July 25 Denver Board of Adjustments hearing, Derailer plans to plead its case for an extension until it can find a new home in the area.

This isn't the first time the group has had to defend its activities to authorities. In 2004, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the DPD showed up at the house on Lipan. The bike shop and one of its founders, Sarah Bardwell, had become the subject of law-enforcement investigations that stretched to other law-abiding local protesters, a revelation that made headlines around the nation. "And for what?" Bardwell asks. "Because we give people bikes?"

Julianne says she can't.

She can't attach the handlebar stem to the headset, she can't pull the tube onto the rim, she can't lift the bike onto the stand. The seven-year-old started showing up at the shop last summer with her friends from the neighborhood. Since school got out this year, she's been riding her cousin's bicycle. Now she wants one of her own.

Derailer's Build-a-Bike program runs from 4 to 7 p.m. every Thursday and Friday, and collective member Sarah Graves is helping Julianne construct a bike from scratch. First they looked around the back yard, where all of the bikes and many of the bike parts are stored. Julianne picked out a frame that was originally pink but at some point had been spray-painted baby blue (although you can still read the "Summer Breeze" name on the side).

A bike is such a simple device -- pedals, a crank, a chain and two wheels propelled solely by the leg motion of the individual riding it -- and yet its maintenance and repair are often beyond the technical capabilities of many riders. That's why the Derailer shop also offers bicycle education, with workshops and demonstrations focusing on basic bike anatomy.

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Jared Jacang Maher