The Bike Fixer

The Magna mountain bike has seen better days, that much is clear. It’s chipped, its handlebar grips are gone, and it lacks a seat. And when Ryan Feller spins the rear wheel, it quickly scrapes to a dead stop, badly bent.

Most would see it as little more than scrap metal. Feller, a second-year student, sees it as a resource, something that can change a life. So he plunges into the New College Bike Shoppe in search of a matching wheel.

Feller is the founder and director of Suncoast Community Bikes. Its mission is to take bikes no one is using – gathering dust in garages or dumped for trash pickup – and restore them to working condition, then give them to people who need transportation.

Bus lines are good, Feller says, but the hours often don’t fit the schedules of service workers, who work late shifts. (It’s an issue he knows well, with Public Policy his Area of Concentration and transportation and urban planning his main interests.) And for people who are too poor to own cars or ride the bus, a bicycle is an ideal solution. That’s where Feller and a rotating group of volunteers come in.

He emerges from the back of the Bike Shoppe with a wheel and sums up their mission: “If we can put something together that wasn't being used before and give people access to jobs and resources they wouldn't have had access to, it works well for them, and it works well for us.”

With a corral of rusty bikes and a pile of discarded tires, the nonprofit venture looks like barely organized chaos. But it works like a case study of an effective business: It has a clear mission, it focuses on doing a single thing well, and it partners with other businesses to do what it’s not suited for.

Suncoast Community Bikes operates from the New College Bike Shoppe, which has been on campus since the early 1990s. They use the shop’s long-standing relationships with wholesalers to get discounted parts. Other parts come from cannibalizing bikes too decrepit to fix.

The derelict bikes come from community drives and individual donors. A drive last fall netted nearly 50 bikes, and another 50 came from other sources. By March they had restored 60 and given away about 40 of them.

The labor comes from Feller and other experienced bike hands like engineer and developer Art Bryant. They have a range of skills. Bryant has been fixing bikes for decades, while others, including some New College students, show up to learn the craft.

For the complicated and time-consuming job of finding recipients, they partner with community groups that identify and prescreen the bike recipients. To get the funds for purchasing bike parts, they fix and clean the nicest handful of the donated bikes and sell them. “We can sell one bike and cover 10 other ones,” Feller says.

They sold the first few on the Craigslist website, but now are selling primarily to New College students – a satisfying result, Feller said. “You know they’re being used. You see them around campus all the time.”

Restoring bikes for friends is how it all began. Feller had been riding when he was 13, growing up in Weston, in Broward County. Like many sprawling Florida cities, nothing was within walking distance. You needed some way of getting around.

“I found a great sense of freedom that none of my friends had, because in my hometown you can’t get anywhere without a car,” he says. “All my friends felt trapped inside their houses until they got cars, and then they had to get jobs to support their cars and had less time for friends and fun.”

So he started walking around his neighborhood on trash day, finding bikes people were throwing away and fixing them for his friends. Before long, some of the friends joined him in rehabbing bicycles. Their work turned into Bike Broward, which distributed bikes to the needy and homeless.

Feller came to New College with hopes of replicating the now-disbanded Broward program and was in luck. A similar Sarasota program had just closed down, and with a few phone calls he inherited its contacts and some of its volunteers, like Bryant, who has just finished fixing a 1970s-era Windsor road bike.

Feller finds that the first wheel he pulled doesn’t quite fit the Magna. He returns into the shop and emerges with another, slides it into place and sees that it fits. He starts lining the inside of the rim with tape, which covers the spoke heads and protects the inner tube. The mountain bike’s sturdy wheels are well-suited for the ruts, potholes and train tracks found on the streets of Bradenton, where many of their clients live. “You can't navigate those kinds of streets on a road bike,” he says.

The seat and seat post prove easier to find, and the Magna is almost ready. All it needs now is lights and lock, which the nonprofit buys and supplies with the bike. He used to commute 80 miles a week on his bike and knows the dangers of darkened Florida streets. “These bikes get a lot of nighttime use,” he says. “I can't sleep at night knowing I'm putting people out on the streets at night without lights to protect themselves.”

The lights also help clients avoid a $50 ticket for riding without safety gear, and the lock protects their means of transportation. It’s expensive, but worth it, he says: “If we can buy a little extra equipment, we can help out our clients in a much bigger way.”

He sets the Magna aside to do the grips and lights later and moves on to a standard single-speed cruiser. The chain is so rusted it’s almost rigid, so he reaches for the bolt cutters.

Sixty-two bikes down, 38 to go.

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