Free Cycles envisions future with property on the line

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John Bonewitz, one of Free Cycles’ shop directors, cleans up a new collection of derailleurs taken off used bikes in the boneyard. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Nearly every week for the past several years, Bob Giordano has sat for coffee at a downtown cafe. Rain or shine, he arrives by bicycle, thinking nothing of his chosen mode of transportation.

For the executive director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation and its many programs – including Free Cycles – it’s best to lead by example.

“How our cities are built and how we move around, it has a huge effect on the natural resources we consume,” said Giordano. “We share this place and we need to learn to take care of it. Missoula is on an incredibly exciting path.”

Giordano helped launch Free Cycles in the 1990s to give city residents a commuting alternative to the automobile. Nearly 20 years later he has launched a new and equally urgent mission. The storied organization is looking to purchase its home on First Street, a place it has occupied for the past 11 years.

But the clock is ticking and quickly so. The organization has less than one month to raise roughly $1 million.

“This property came on the market last fall and was about to be sold, torn down and made into condominiums,” Giordano said. “While we need places to live, we said give us a chance to buy it. They gave us six months to raise $1.1 million.”

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Bob Giordano

To date, Giordano said, Free Cycles has raised roughly $110,000. While it’s a good start for a nonprofit ramping up its fundraising campaign, it’s far short of what the organization needs to raise by early May.

To help reach their goal, Free Cycles and its list of supporters have established a crowd-funding website and turned to social media to reach the community. The days are moving quickly, Giordano said, and time is of the essence.

“If we don’t make it, we’ll ask for an extension,” he said. “It’s been a process to get the fundraising together – to get a fundraising scheme. Now it’s starting to take some wings.”

On a spring afternoon, members of the cycling community gathered at Free Cycles to patch old tubes, pick parts out of the boneyard and fit children with the perfect ride – free of charge.

Before the organization was founded in the 1990s on a “green bike” philosophy, an estimated 500 bicycles were scrapped each year at the local recycling center, or ended up as trash in the landfill.

Since it’s inception, however, Free Cycles has intercepted many of those old bikes. Thousands of throw-away rides make their way to the shop each year, some destined for repair and reuse while others are scrapped for parts.

“You get all sorts of people in here with different needs,” said John Bonewitz, one of the program’s shop directors. “You never know what to expect. It’s a great community space and it’s great to see people coming together. It’s a second home for some.”

Bonewitz had just returned from the boneyard with a collection of derailleurs suited for certain applications. The parts on hand throughout the shop rival an auto-parts store. Need a new front fork? They’ve got it. Brake cables? Chains? Wheels? They’ve got those too.

“I’m repairing this bike – it’s my project bike,” said JD Hoskins, who spent the afternoon piecing together on old Raleigh using parts from the boneyard. “Coming here, I get help that I wouldn’t get any other place. It really gives you self worth, accountability and responsibility for yourself.”

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JD Hoskins spent a recent afternoon piecing together on old Raleigh using parts taken off other bikes in the boneyard at Free Cycles in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

With tools and parts on hand, along with the expert advice on applying them, it’s easy to lose sight of the organization’s many missions. Free Cycles began with a simple philosophy, believing that short vehicle trips could be replaced by bicycles if those bikes were readily available.

But in the years that have passed since Free Cycles was formed, the organization has expanded to tackle issues of sustainability and community design. With success, it has lobbied for bike lanes and pathways, complete streets and overall rider safety.

It has become a mission that supporters believe in.

“Part of it is sustainable transportation, getting people from point A to point B without burning fossil fuels,” said Bonewitz. “Climate change is a huge deal and I think it’s really important, finding an alternative way to get around.”

In a recent presentation to the Missoula City Council’s Committee of the Whole, Giordano described the organization’s vision for the future. It currently pays $2,500 a month in rent and is looking to raise the remaining $1 million to purchase the property.

It must do so by May 8 – the deadline given by the sellers.

The two-acre lot tucked away in an industrial center on the corners of First and Walnut streets includes a collection of buildings that encompass roughly 28,000 square feet. Today, portions of the property include a workshop, a wide selection of free bikes for kids and adults, and old frames double-stacked in an open shed.

If Free Cycles achieves its fundraising goal, Giordano envisions an expanded workshop, an education center, a testing lot and a hostel for cyclists peddling through Missoula. After all, he noted, Missoula recently received national publicity as one the top 10 U.S. cities for cyclists.

“Free Cycles has been a labor of love for 20 years, and it also led to the creation of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation,” he said. “For me and the organization, it’s gone from environmental justice to social justice. Our goal is to get more people biking.”