A Day at the Bike Shop
With a thatch of jet black hair and his Ryan Seacrest stubble, the manager of the student-run Bike Shop put down his wrench, walked over, and said, “Hi, I’m Roman.”
To this haven where bicycles are king come most everyone on two wheels – from Lycra-clad racers and mud-splattered mountain bikers to campus cruisers in their jeans and flannel shirts.
And yet the Bike Shop at Middlebury College doesn’t exist to fix people’s bikes; it exists to teach others how to master the basic skills of bicycle repair.
“It’s definitely a great advantage to be able to fix your own bike,” said Roman Mardoyan-Smyth, a senior geography major from Sag Harbor, New York, and manager of the Bike Shop. “A lot of people get paralyzed when their bike stops working. We see it all the time. So they just lock it up and don’t ride it for the rest of the semester.
“But if they come down here to the shop, we can show them ‘this is the problem and this is the solution,’ and then they can fix the bike themselves and be riding it again.”
All of the used parts and services at the Bike Shop are free, except for new cables and housings for which a nominal fee is charged. There’s no cash register and there’s never a labor charge. The cache of used parts is plentiful, and the use of all tools including bike stands, truing wheels, and wrenches of every size and configuration is complimentary too. The paid staff of student-mechanics is trained to help others with their bicycle-related projects and to teach basic bicycle repair.
Last Thursday, shortly after Mardoyan-Smyth unlocked the door to the cavernous shop in Adirondack House, senior Ken Grinde bounded in with his red Raleigh Super Course bike. “My brakes are too loose,” he said, and 15 minutes later – after getting a few brake-adjustment tips from Mardoyan-Smyth – he was back on his bike again.
Business in the shop was steady during Mardoyan-Smyth’s three-hour shift: some students stopped by to pump up their tires, others came in to inquire about bike storage over the summer. (The shop charges $15 to store a bike for the summer or a semester.) Just then Jay Voit dropped in with his Trek 820 mountain bike. The senior from Mercer Island, Washington, needed to true his rear wheel and oil his chain – not because he wanted to go for a ride, but because will be graduating in two weeks and has to sell his bike.
“I’ve already gotten a few calls,” Voit said. “I might even sell it today.” Will you be sad to see it go? someone asked. “It’s been my beloved campus bike for years, but now it’s time for it to go. I’ll get a road bike in Seattle.”
Straightening, or “truing up,” a bicycle wheel can be a tricky task. But after a brief lesson from Mardoyan-Smith, Voit adjusts the tension on a few spokes, spins the wheel, adjusts a few more, spins the wheel again, and, in a matter of minutes, his wheel is fixed, his bike is road-worthy again – and he did it himself. Voit pulls out his cell phone to arrange a meeting with a potential buyer and pedals away, forgetting his jacket in the process.
The next visitor, Jebb Norton ’13, came in with his Raleigh 10-speed. Mardoyan-Smyth knows this bike and customer well; the sophomore spent weeks building the bike from odd parts he found around the shop. He started with a frame and found every other needed component – handle bars, pedals, derailleurs, wheels, seat, chain, tires, etc. – in the shop.
And where do all these parts come from? Abandoned bikes (of which there are dozens every spring) get turned over to the Bike Shop by Public Safety and Facilities Services. The shop tunes up the best bikes and sells them to the campus community in the fall, with all proceeds going toward the operation of the shop. The bikes in serious disrepair are used for parts. The shop also earns money by renting bikes (always with a lock and chain) to students for $25 per semester, and it has received support from the Environmental Council.
Just then two students stopped by to see if the Bike Shop was selling any bicycles. Mardoyan-Smyth advised the students to come back in the fall for the annual bike sale. Another student came in and browsed around the underground shop with its gobs of bike parts stacked in neat piles, arranged in drawers, and hung on hooks all around the yellow space.
The next visitor was Lyn DeGraff from the Reprographics Department who came in with her Specialized Crossroads that hasn’t been ridden in two years. As Mardoyan-Smyth helped her adjust the brakes and derailleurs on the hybrid bike, they chatted about bike repair, Commencement, and mutual friends.
That’s when it became clear that the shop isn’t really a shop at all. It’s a cooperative. Its services are available to all Middlebury College students, faculty, and staff; it provides training and support to its “members”; and it strives to be democratic, independent, and autonomous. And like all good co-ops, it aspires to a higher ideal: sustainability via its teaching of repair skills, emphasis on bike riding, and reuse of bikes and bike parts.
While Mardoyan-Smyth was washing the day’s bicycle grease off his hands, Jay Voit reappeared and announced gleefully that he had just sold his mountain bike. He came back to say thanks and, um, to retrieve his jacket too.