If They Build It…

…then they’ll ride.

On a Friday afternoon in late spring, as the sun mops up the vestiges of a long mud season and a James Brown tune plays on the radio in the Middlebury College Bike Shop, Emma Drucker ’11 is tuning up the bicycle that’s going to carry her home to Chicago at the end of the semester. Wearing a sundress and no small amount of chain grease, Drucker mounts a gear rack over the rear wheel of her road frame. The rack is designed to hold pannier bags full of provisions for the 700-mile trip home. The size of her coed cycling party, which plans to take a Canadian route with a stop at Niagara Falls, is growing by the week: she has six tagalongs by last count. She seems unconcerned, though. “Riding a bike is like hiking,” she says. “It’s intuitive.”

The Middlebury College Bike Shop is as full of big ambitions as it is of rusting derailleurs, castoff handlebars, and paint-chipped frames. Just two years old and wholly student-run, the shop is a space that both an architect and a sociologist might term “underground.”

In its quiet way, the shop is doing its best to subvert the normalcy of a liberal arts campus. The agenda is simple: Get students out of cars or off their feet and into the saddle of a hand-built bicycle.

Four afternoons a week, one of the shop mechanics props open a nondescript door with a wooden-rim wheel mounted above it, and the Bike Shop is open for business. Down the stairs, the space opens up into a well-lit workshop, with stone walls and a bowed, creaky ceiling. Blue countertops ring the room. Sheets of plywood, painted bright yellow and bolted to the walls, are adorned with penny nails and hung with a bike mechanic’s tools: cup, crescent, pedal, spoke, crank and Allen wrenches; cable strippers; a chain tool; and an oversized rubber mallet.

The floor and shelves of the shop are something of a bike graveyard. A stack of Tupperware drawers is full of nothing but brake components and pedals; a far corner is dedicated to handlebars; and overhead, dowels hang with misshapen wheels of various sizes and widths.

Still, there is a sort of order to the chaos: The counters are free of clutter and grease. Every spanner, puller, and torsioner has a place on the wall, marked by an outline of its shape. And at the end of every evening, the cracked cement floor is as spotless as an operating room.

Before Middlebury had its own bike shop, it had the Yellow Bike Program—a failed experiment in socialism. The idea was that volunteers would maintain a fleet of communal, unlocked bikes for use around campus. Need a bike? Take a bike.

Wayne Darling, Public Safety liaison for student programming, explained: “Around 2002, a group of students rebuilt [bikes] to make them as simple as possible and painted them bright yellow. These were hideously ugly bikes.”

But, even covered in bright yellow paint, the bikes had a tendency to disappear. “We ended up finding them in some pretty unusual places,” Darling said—on the far corners of campus, tossed into bushes, or in the middle of the quad with all their spokes stomped in. Trying to keep the Yellow Bikes rolling, or even in one piece, was a Sisyphean task.

When Hubert d’Autremont ’07 inherited the remnants of the program, it included about seven partially intact bicycles, not one of which could be ridden. His solution was a kind of libertarian approach to a “tragedy of the commons.” Instead of supplying campus with ownerless bikes and waiting for them to get wrecked, d’Autremont designed a workshop for students to build and repair used bikes—at little or no cost.

Using a community-bike collective in his native Tucson as a model, a “really empowering nonprofit with a huge presence,” d’Autremont set about dismantling and rebuilding the College’s bike program. He first went to Public Safety. “I knew there was a stash of bikes in the barn,” he said. “It’s just one of those rumors around school. You know they’re there.”

Then he approached Facilities Services in search of a space, because at this point, “our shop was still in the basement of the Japanese house, which was pretty horrendous. They showed me the basement of Adirondack House and said, ‘Will this work?’

I said, ‘This is absolutely perfect.’”

Finally, he approached College administration. “I went to President Liebowitz, and I said, ‘Look, here’s the deal, don’t use the Yellow Bike Program to bolster the College’s environmental image if you’re not going to support it. Either support it, and then we have a great program, or just kill it, because no one wants to deal with it.’ And he said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’”

Equipped with a barn full of discarded bikes, a new workshop, and a grant from the Environmental Council, d’Autremont enlisted the aid of the College’s Vitality of the Artistic Community Association to help christen the new space.

“They had years’ worth of extra paint and said, ‘Wow, this would be a really awesome spot to do an art show. Before we get any tools or stands, let’s paint the shop and let people know it’s here by having an art show.’”

Before it was a repair shop, then, the Bike Shop was a gathering place, a guerrilla-style art house, and focal point of creative energy. It was a space designed to transcend its own definition.

Though the two have never met, Chris DiOrio ’12 could be Hubert d’Autremont’s protégé. DiOrio, one of the shop’s two chief mechanics, has shoulder-length hair that falls across his eyes as he sands away coats of old paint from his Schwinn road frame. When the shop is full—and
it almost always is—he’s responsible for running from stand to stand, lending expertise, advice, or just a third hand. The day after his last exam, he’ll ride solo from New Jersey to New Orleans. He guesses it will take at least a month.

“The understanding you get from building bikes is very different from the understanding you get from fixing bikes,” he says. “When you take apart a bike completely—or take a bike that has nothing on it and figure out what needs to go on there—you learn a lot. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong in building my bike did. But it was great because it meant I learned a lot.”

DiOrio describes his political persuasion as “anarcho-bicycalism,” which emphasizes bioregional agriculture, self-sufficiency, and an end to the car culture. “The bike-collective aspect of teaching people is part of a greater vision I have for the world,” he says, without any trappings of naïveté.
That Chicago-bound Emma Drucker is spending her Friday afternoon wielding a set of hex wrenches says something about how maddeningly irrepressible bike repair can become. The shop seems to run on that basic impulse: Even when the repairs aren’t pressing, taking apart a machine, modifying it, and putting it back together satisfies a deep-seated urge to tinker.

It’s precisely this sort of intelligence and pleasure that d’Autremont wanted to create a center for in founding the shop. “It’s one of those things where, once you get their hands dirty, people really can fall in love with it. They’re only going to become more interested.”

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