By Aaron Retherford
Passersby might hear the occasional sound of an air pump inflating a bike tire or the clank of a crescent wrench, but Freeride Montpelier has been quietly providing an inexpensive bike repair service in the Capital City for nearly a decade.
Freeride Montpelier, a volunteer-run bike repair/sale shop located at 86 Barre St. in Montpelier, isn’t a flourishing business by any measure, and that’s part of its charm. Still, it’s managed to remain viable since 2006.
“I’m sometimes amazed,” Colin Gunn, one of the original volunteers, said. “We’ve always been on a shoestring budget. I haven’t done the books in many years. We’ve pretty much only made money through selling bikes that we fixed up and through donations.”
Gunn said most of the money now comes in through donations. The group asks for donations to cover shop usage time. Freeride Montpelier does have a variety of bikes for sale throughout the year that range anywhere from $10-$200, but they tend to sell out quickly in the spring.
With 6 or 7 core volunteers and a few more who help out when they can, Freeride Montpelier has the volunteer base to keep the shop going.
But it isn’t a love for bicycles that connects the volunteers as one might expect. It’s something more inspiring. It’s a desire to help people.
Some volunteers view the bike shop as a way to promote bike riding as an environmentally responsible alternative to driving. Others like how selling used bikes helps keep bikes out of landfills. While others, like Brian Stearns, find the combination of personal enrichment and being able to pass on that new knowledge, rewarding.
“It lets me learn about all the new bikes. I grew up with old bikes and came from a family who couldn’t afford bikes, so trying to help out others who can is a pretty good thing,” he said. “To be able to show somebody who’s never fixed a tire and patched a tube; walking them through it and letting them do it themselves, is a pretty nice feeling.
“Whereas a lot of your bigger bike shops, you bring it in, they fix it, you pay and that’s it.”
Gunn said many of the volunteers enjoy the cooperative and horizontal decision-making structure of the organization and the fact everyone is learning together.
In the early going, the founders of Freeride Montpelier collected free bikes and asked local shops if they had any extra parts and tools to get started. The group spoke with Bike Recycle Vermont in Burlington, which helped Freeride Montpelier place its first order for tools they needed.
Freeride Montpelier has collaborated with other bike groups in the past and has a longtime relationship with Vermont Works For Women. Freeride Montpelier regularly has a representative attend the “Woman Can Do” conference and also has held several workshops with Rosie’s Girls.
Gunn said he hopes to accomplish more of the group’s mission of teaching people how to fix their own bikes rather than relying on the shop volunteers to fix it for them. Of course, for those who don’t want to touch a tool, the volunteers are willing to walk them through it step by step.
“It’s about getting that knowledge and self-sufficiency out there and spread around,” Gunn said. “One thing I’d like to do more of is give away bikes in the right situations, be able to give away safety helmets, locks, and all the gear. Bike Recycle in Burlington has been doing that for years. They find people who need transportation and couldn’t otherwise afford it.”
During the winter, the repair shop is open on Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. for those who would like to learn how to fix bikes. For more information, check out freeridemontpelier.org.