Free Wheelin'

The Bozeman Bike Kitchen.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” —anonymous

It isn’t often that knowledge comes free. A lot of it is quite expensive. Just look at the price of college semesters, gap-year programs, or even just an avalanche course. But every once in a while, there’s a service that operates truly for the people. Every so often, you find an organization that’s immune to the temptations of capital gains. One such example is Bozeman Bike Kitchen.

The nonprofit started in 2005 with the mission of salvaging old bikes, educating the community, and providing affordable transportation to those in need. Shop manager Art Schwaller has been volunteering for nine years. “It empowers people, because they come in and learn to do the work themselves,” Schwaller says.

The Bike Kitchen does not operate the way a traditional shop does, though the volunteers are all good mechanics. Their approach is much more pragmatic in the sense of do-it-yourself education. “We’re not gonna fix your bike for you,” Schwaller tells me. “But we’d love to help you fix it.”

Not only was my ride in good shape for the season, but I had done it all myself.

The entire inventory is made up of donations from the community. Heaps of bikes, both broken and repaired, take up whole rooms in the warehouse on Industrial Drive. During any given “open shop” (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays) you can find a handful of friendly volunteers tinkering around with parts, building new from old. And when they’re not restoring bikes, or building new ones altogether, they’re helping others fix theirs.

With a fleet of work benches, unlimited tools available to use for free, and great advice in every direction, the Bike Kitchen is an optimum learner’s environment. They have programs like Earn-a-Bike, where folks donate time working in the shop in exchange for the guidance and parts necessary to build their own ride. Another popular one is their Community Bikes program, devoted entirely to providing transportation to those who can’t afford it—simply volunteer your time at local charities, and the Bike Kitchen will give you a bike. Schwaller also hosts his annual Christmas Kids Bike Giveaway every year, giving out anywhere from 75-100 free bicycles.

Last spring, my brake pads and cassette needed replacing, so I went to ask for advice. Self-conscious about my own lack of knowledge—I didn’t even really know how a derailleur worked—I half-expected to be teased about my inexperience. What I found was exactly the opposite. Eli, an amiable volunteer, walked me through the entire process, stepping in only when I needed a hand, but making sure I did all the work. When we finished, I felt satisfied, even proud of myself. Not only was my ride in good shape for the season, but I had done it all myself.

Because I gained the knowledge and ability to fix my bike, I have a more intimate relationship with it than I did before. Plus, I made a knowledgeable friend in the process. Now, when I shift gears riding through town, I think of the energy transfer from the lever through the cable to the derailleur and onto the chain. I know how it all works, which is pretty cool. So thanks, Bozeman Bike Kitchen—for myself and everyone else out there you’ve taught to fish. I’ll be back.