I volunteer here when time premits



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Non-profit bike shop gets cyclists in gear

By JAMIE GUMBRECHT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/21/08

It was a frigid night in late 2004 when the lights went out on a potluck dinner of frustrated bicycle enthusiasts. Brothers Jay and Stewart Varner and their friend Rachael Spiewak had posted fliers inviting bikers to Jay's house in Reynoldstown, not realizing that 60 people would pack the living room and turn the porch into a parking lot.

Even in the darkness of a power outage, "there was so much momentum and excitement that nobody wanted to go home," said Spiewak, a 26-year-old bike rider who lives in Poncey-Highland.

So in flickers of bike safety lamps, they sought ideas and answers. How to introduce biking to more people? How to get more bikes on the road in Atlanta? How to make biking safe?

The result was SoPo Bicycle Co-op, a nonprofit bike shop and maintenance space in East Atlanta. In 12 hours each week, it offers bicycle education to daredevilish kids bored with TV, young adult commuters who can't afford cars, middle-aged parents remembering how to pedal and retirees who want a workout.

And it all started with a crank puller.

Jay bought the $40 tool one summer when he got around town primarily on a dilapidated bike. (Technically, the Varner brothers, who grew up in Dalton, share their mother's non-working 1984 Volvo wagon, but even expensive bike repair is cheaper than car repair, they say.) Crank pullers are needed once a year, maybe less often. Nobody should ever have to buy this part again, the brothers decided. Wouldn't it be cool to have a big tool drawer and share it with other riders?

The question was answered a few months later by the crowd in Jay's darkened living room. Potlucks became planning groups, networking events and on-site neighborhood bike repair. Spiewak and Jay's living and dining rooms briefly became a bike shop, where the roommates woke to bike parts strewn on furniture and all-hours maintenance requests.

As demand grew, they found a space for the shop: a $325-per-month concrete room in the alley behind the Australian Bakery on Flat Shoals Avenue. An artist worked with local kids to produce a bright, bike-filled mural. Donations of wheels, tires, frames, clips, cranks, pumps and wrenches poured in.

"We added a few tools to the drawer," Jay said. "And by drawer, I mean shop."

SoPo South of Ponce, or "so poor we can't afford a car" is plagued by typical nonprofit troubles: too many ideas but not enough time, volunteers or money. It runs on donated cash and parts, with shared labor and knowledge, like the Wikipedia of bike maintenance.

One Saturday in April, a woman shopping for a bicycle wondered, can a 10-speed be made into a 21-speed?

The question volleyed to Spiewak, who bounced it to Jay. With no conviction but plenty of enthusiasm, Jay said "sure," until Dana Scott, 60, a volunteer who hasn't owned a car in 15 years, stepped in with an explanation.

The final answer: Maybe. Let's find out.

Plenty of SoPo repairs and updates start that way. Volunteers and regulars are stumped often, especially by gadgetry from the last couple of years. They rely on books or the all-knowing-but-not-always-correct Internet for answers, then use on-site tools and parts for repairs.

"You don't take the wrench out of their hands," said volunteer John St. Louis, a 17-year-old student at Paideia School. "I learned a lot since coming here how to fix, how to learn, how to teach."

SoPo co-founders say it's not unusual for someone to wheel in a dusty, half-working bike only to pedal away with a serviceable bicycle hours later. A few dozen people, many of them regulars, come by during each session.

At Critical Mass, a monthly downtown bike ride, Spiewak used to see only about 30 people.

"Now it's 300 and I know exactly where some of their bikes came from," she says.

Organizers say they try to make SoPo a safe learning environment for everyone, from reluctant-but-curious riders to those without cash to buy brand new. The logo, a puffy RoboSheep with wheels for feet, was chosen because it's memorable, gender-neutral and nonthreatening. (So "cute" that the co-founders are tattooed with it, but not so cute that the Varners' mom has seen the ink.)

Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Mosby Archibong said the organization fit easily into the community by attracting different age groups with an environmental, healthy, economical solution to transportation.

"Sometimes [alternative transportation] is an afterthought and it needs to be at the forefront," Archibong said. "With gas prices becoming more expensive than gold bullion, I think they're on track."

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in the co-op parking lot, SoPo regular Jonathan Gaerlan and 12-year-old Dameion Johnson picked out parts and rebuilt brakes under the watchful eyes of SoPo volunteers. (Brakes, it turns out, are something worth checking twice.)

"I put new stuff on it every time I come," Dameion said of the blue bicycle he rides to school. "If I didn't know this place was right here, my bike wouldn't even be fixed right now."

The pair turned the final screws and Gaerlan announced the bike was ready for stopping. Dameion pedaled off with his friends; Gaerlan donated cash to cover the shop time and tool use and turned to his own SoPo-ized bike.

He said he gave up cars shortly after he moved to Atlanta six months ago. He fell in love with the city from the seat of his bike. He painted it black, swapped in a two-toned chain and added a bell that's become his signature sound.

"It was a safe, functional bicycle," said Gaerlan, 24. "Now it's getting the way I want it."

And there's SoPo's answer to problems pondered by bike lamp in a Reynoldstown living room: Help people make their bikes safe and build them as they want, and they will ride.

Before you bike

Don't yank that old, forgotten bike out of the garage and expect to pedal away in minutes. Before you ride, SoPo bike volunteers recommend you put your bike through an ABC Quick Check. (If you're not comfortable doing it at home, most bike shops sell tune-up services or SoPo volunteers will guide riders through the process.)

A is for air. Check the tire pressure and inflate to the proper level. If the tire treads or sidewalls are damaged, tires might need to be replaced.

B is for brakes. If the brake lever hits the handle before the bike stops, brakes must be tightened. If less than 1/4-inch of brake pads remain, it's time to replace.

C is for cables, cranks and chains. Adjust cables when you check brakes. Make sure nothing wobbles when you pedal; if necessary, lube the crank threads. Make sure the chain isn't stretched, and carefully oil with one drop for each link.

Q is for quick release. If your bike has quick releases, make sure they're tight and nothing will catch on them.

R is for run a quick check. Nothing should feel shaky, loose or out of your control. "You probably know more than you think you do," says SoPo bikes co-founder Rachael Spiewak. "If you've been riding your bike and something feels wrong, it's probably wrong."

Source: SoPo Bike Co-op and League of American Bicyclists

About SoPo

SoPo Bicycle Co-op is at 465-C Flat Shoals Ave. in Atlanta. It's open 7-10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 2-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, contact 404-425-9989 or info@sopobikes.org. Information about volunteering, donating and maintenance also is available at www.sopobikes.org.

The Bicycle Frame Show, an art show that benefits SoPo, features 37 bike frames decorated by local artists. It's on display at Radial Cafe, 1530 DeKalb Ave. in Atlanta. Any unsold frames will be auctioned off during a closing reception 7-11 p.m. April 26.

For more bike advocacy information, check out these organizations' Web sites.

Atlanta Bicycle Campaign, http://atlantabike2.org

Critical Mass, www.criticalmassatlanta.org

Georgia Bikes, www.georgiabikes.org

The League of American Bicyclists, www.bikeleague.org