Pedal power to the people
Nicole tests out the finished product.

Pedal power to the people

BF Community Bike Project seeks to get more residents on two wheels

BELLOWS FALLS — With all of its hills, Vermont is not the easiest place to bike. Even in places like Burlington and Brattleboro, encountering a hill at some point in one's travels is inevitable - and the difficulty can create an impediment to alternative forms of transportation.

But one woman in Bellows Falls thinks it's a perfect place to bike, and she has backed up that idea with a plan that has become a reality.

Now in its second year, the Bellows Falls Community Bike Project (BFCBP) is finding traction, as it offers the community access to affordable bicycles, the space to re-use and repair them, and the visibility to promote and encourage their use.

In a village dominated by automobile and commercial traffic, founder Bonnie Anderson is seeing a growing interest in bike transportation from people of all ages.

A musician, painter, and mosaic artist, Anderson lived in Burlington for 15 years before moving to the Village - and the Exner Block - two years ago.

While in Burlington, she had been impressed and inspired by a similar project there: Bike Recycle Vermont. On settling in off the Square, she said, she'd noticed “not many people rode bikes,” and felt there was a need to provide the opportunity to do so.

“There wasn't even a bike repair shop,” she said.

So, under the umbrella of the Sustainable Valley Group (SVG), the nonprofit BFCBP emerged.

A community undertaking

According to its website, the group provides youth and adults with “a fun and safe space to learn and share bike repair, maintenance, and safe riding skills.”

Staff offers mentoring to volunteers, whose work can earn them credit toward a bike and the skills to keep it in good repair.

With support from SVG and the help of $6,075 in grants from the Windham Foundation and the Vermont Community Fund in 2012, BFCBP's founders opened a shop across from the Exner Block at 24 Canal St.

The bike shop's small, unassuming sign outside the bottom floor of the building on Canal Street belies the fact that BFCBP's space is “a lot larger than the average cycle shop,” Anderson said.

Inside the very well organized shop, bikes appear in various states of repair, with approximately 15 bikes for sale at the front of the counter.

Behind the counter is a wall of tools, and several bike stands holding bikes being dismantled, repaired, or tuned.

Shelves toward the rear of the shop are filled with thousands of similarly ordered parts and pieces. A side room houses at least 100 donated bikes.

The Upcycle Project, which takes up a back room, puts random bike parts to new life. Here, a small floor mat is fashioned of woven inner tubes. Spokes can be transformed into jewelry; rear sprockets can set a mood as candle holders.

The shop is busy today. Walk-ins trek in, and staff members tune and repair bikes from people in the community. It has become home to 20 to 25 volunteers who help with various aspects of the bike project, but Anderson noted that without its five core volunteers it would not be open.

Anderson said that she sees more of the community using the repair and tuning services. She said she also sees an uptick in shoppers eyeing, test riding, and purchasing bikes.

For $5 an hour, a customer can come in and put the tools to work on his or her own bike. Otherwise, a suggested donation of $20 per hour covers repairs and tuneups. Refurbished bikes range from $40 to $95.

All prices are suggested, Anderson said: “We don't check people's bank balance.”

She added it is exciting to see more people using the shop, and that she particularly loves to see families come in together to work on a bike in the “earn-a-bike” program.

“I have one family whose son is in the earn-a-bike program, and each week either the father or the mother comes in with their son to work together on it,” she said.

She said that family's daughter often accompanies them, and she points out that the whole family is engaged in learning new skills together.

She said she's had kids as young as 6 or 7 come in and learn how to change a tire, a valuable skill in anyone's toolkit, and certainly one to grow with.

A desperate need for more volunteers

Anderson said growth is bringing unexpected changes: fewer workshops teach repairs and tune-ups, and demand is up for one-on-one time with mentors or skilled volunteers.

She said she discovered that workshops don't really work, as learning to repair or tune a bike is such a hands-on skill. More volunteer mentors and teachers would help.

Jeff Egbert, who hails from Charlestown, N.H., is an avowed bike enthusiast who has been pitching in on bike repair here for the past 10 months. The demand for more volunteers is “desperate,” he said, and promised that anyone coming in to help can be taught the needed skills.

And as he spoke, he got up to show a new volunteer, Michael Hannaberry, what tools to use to take a bike apart.

“At this point, he is where I was 10 months ago,” Egbert joked. “He doesn't need to learn how to put a bike back together again; he just needs to learn how to take it apart.”

“And a good thing, too,” Hannaberry quipped. He turned a wrench and snugged the bolt on a front wheel.

Of course, that's not to say skilled volunteers would be turned away. Anderson said another three skilled volunteers are on her wish list.

For his part, Egbert said he enjoys seeing kids come in - on their own, with groups, or with parents - to “slow down” and learn to use the bike world's specialized tools.

Anderson said kids and adults who come in for volunteer service not only leave with a bike they have earned, but also with a sense of accomplishment and self esteem. She said she sees a renewed sense of confidence when they leave - and that fills her with joy.

Anderson said she usually gets one or two kids to volunteer pedal power for one fun project, “bike-powered smoothies,” set up each Friday at the farmers' market at the Waypoint Center.

On the day The Commons was there, one young volunteer, Nicole, helped Anderson set up a bike retrofit as a blender.

When it came time to make the smoothie, with the smoothie strapped to the front of the bike above the front wheel, Nicole sat and pedaled, blending the ingredients. Soon, two fresh smoothies were poured into cups.

In addition, Anderson noted, BFCBP this spring led a six-week after-school basic bike maintenance workshop for students at Bellows Falls Middle School. Anderson said one of those students continued as a volunteer and earned a bike.

More projects, future dreams

Anderson also spoke of her desire to team up with the community for more community-based projects, such as the adaptive trike refurbishment they took on for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union and Bellows Falls Union High School special education program.

Todd Ward, who owned ReCycles Brattleboro, and from whom a lot of the tools and parts came to the BFCBP, took on the adaptive trike project when he heard about it from Anderson. Custom-building the three-wheeled vehicle BFUHS's occupational therapy program was really a community project, he said.

“The trike came in initially as a repair to a front wheel, but because the parts were no longer supported by the original maker, the project quickly became a complete refurbishment of the adaptive trike,” he said.

Ward recalled that as he and Anderson would visit J&H Hardware on the Square trying to figure out what common parts could be used, someone from the community would often overhear them and ask what they were working on.

“We got so many people in as part of this project,” he said.

Ward explained that many people wanted to participate in the project, ranging from those who were “just interested” to those who brought in confident mechanical skills and donated their time. From planning to redesigning the adaptive trike to welding and finishing it (with spray coating and lettering), Ward says some 25 professionals from the area had a role in fitting the trike to the needs of the special education department.

“They've already loaned it out several times,” Anderson said, and now the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union is exploring having the Bellows Falls Community Bike Project make similar trikes for use elsewhere in the district. Since this spring, Anderson said, the unexpected demand for bike tuneups and repairs has helped the BFCBP financially, as no grants are in the works.

Through revenue from products made through upcycling, Anderson says, the organization can develop its mentor program, build bike trailers and three-wheelers for adults (by popular demand), offer all-age group rides, and put the nonprofit's board to work, building out and shepherding all aspects of the program.

Immediate plans include raffling a Puma Nevis - this is a new city bike with a front cargo rack - at Rockingham Old Home Days, Aug. 2. Tickets are $5 at Village Square Booksellers. The drawing will take place at 3 p.m., and winners need not be present to win.

Anderson also noted that BFCBP plans to sell bike- powered smoothies at the Waypoint Center that same day, along with the wares of other vendors.

Anderson said she could use five new volunteers for five to 10 hours a week to accomplish some of the additional project goals she has in mind: update the organization's Facebook page, take on Anderson's Upcycle project, staff the front desk, and balance the books.

“Right now, I'm doing everything,” she said.

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