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earning my wheels: A series on Free Ride Pittsburgh

By Zach Brendza
On February 1, 2012

  • After looking at tons of bikes, I finally found the bike I would work toward earning in the Earn-A-Bike program. The red Centurion Signet will be mine after I volunteer 11 hours and fix the bike up a bit. Pat thompson / For The Duquesne Duke
  • After looking at tons of bikes, I finally found the bike I would work toward earning in the Earn-A-Bike program. The red Centurion Signet will be mine after I volunteer 11 hours and fix the bike up a bit. Pat thompson / For The Duquesne Duke
  • During their winter hours, Free Ride is open Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. Volunteering for the Earn-A-Bike can be done during that time. Pat thompson / For The Duquesne Duke
  • During their winter hours, Free Ride is open Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. Volunteering for the Earn-A-Bike can be done during that time. Pat thompson / For The Duquesne Duke

This is the first in a series of stories about my experiences with the Adult Earn-A-Bike Program at Free Ride Pittsburgh, a bicycle recycling and education facility focused on teaching a do-it-yourself approach to bicycle repair and maintenance. This week, I found the bike I'll earn by volunteering.

What is Free Ride?

Will Wedler, 25, of Bloomfield, got involved with Free Ride when he earned a bike in 2005 and was a student at Carnegie Mellon University. He is now a council member at Free Ride, a bicycle recycling and education facility in Point Breeze.

According to their website, Free Ride teaches visitors a "do-it-yourself approach to bicycle repair and maintenance."

Wedler believes the Adult Earn-A-Bike program is one of the most important aspects of Free Ride. The Adult Earn-a-Bike is a program where a bicycle may be eanred form Free Ride, in exchange for attending basic mechanics classes and volunteering.

"You get more out of Earn-A-Bike. [You] miss out a lot if you just buy a bike," Wedler said, describing it as a "throw yourself into the fire" experience.

According to Wedler, Free Ride's mission is bicycle education, "but it's more than that," he said.

Free Ride offers classes ranging from basic mechanics, where participants are taught to do standard tune-ups, to special topics classes, which vary on topic, and often require more than one class period or special tools. Both cost a fee.

The Free Ride community consists of 10 staff, 10 council members and about 50 active members. But at any given time, about 20 people, members and non-members alike, use the open shop to fix bikes, volunteer or help others.

"Free Ride is going to be different depending on how you interact with it," Wedler said, noting that the level of involvement differs for each person who visits Free Ride.

Obtaining membership to Free Ride is relatively easy; you have to volunteer for four hours over a three month period. But membership is not required to use Free Ride's shop, and non-members can use the shop for a monetary donation, Wedler said.

During winter months, from November to March, the shop is open only on Saturdays for Open Shops, where anyone can use the shops and its resources. During riding season, from March to late November, Free Ride is open two days a week for four hours for open shops sessions, when anyone can come in and use the shop and its tools. It is also open two days a week for bike education classes and one night a week for volunteer night.

My Free Ride experience

I decided to take Free Ride up on their Earn-A-Bike offer. If I volunteer four hours every Saturday for the next month, I can repair one of the bikes they have there and eventually take it home for free.

My first visit to the shop was Jan. 28. As I opened the door to Free Ride, located in Construction Junction, a building-material reuse retailer on North Lexington Street, I was daunted by the enormity of the warehouse I had to walk through in order to reach Free Ride's headquarters in the back of the building.

But when I got there, it was worth it. Free Ride is a cyclist's dream-come-true: a work space with the full gamut of tools and what seemed to be an infinite amount of spare parts. Three hundred bikes, situated on two rows, one on top of the other, line the shop. Tires, rims and spare parts are piled up in a back corner for the taking.

I was greeted at the front desk by Tom Anderson of Point Breeze, who has volunteered at Free Ride for the past six months. Tom helped me begin the Adult Earn-A-Bike Program with the first step to earning my two wheels: paperwork, of course.

While I'm filling out the forms for membership, I strike up a conversation with another volunteer who is just starting out at Free Ride. Dave Banas, 37 of Cheswick, develops online businesses for thirstmonger.com when he's not at the shop. Unlike me, he came to Free Ride just to help out, and didn't even think about earning a bike.

"I always liked bikes. I wanted to start doing things to work with my hands," Banas said.

"Most of the time, I'm working behind a desk."

Banas, a 1997 Duquesne grad, started volunteering by disassembling an old bike for Free Ride to use its part, which he said was a "good way to learn" about bike mechanics.

As Dave continued volunteering, I talked with Tom about Free Ride and how I could get involved volunteering. Since the shop is operating on Winter Hours rather than Normal Hours, I would need to volunteer for four hours instead of attending the usual two basic mechanics classes, which aren't taught during winter.

I made my way over to the almost endless racks of bikes so I could pick one to "earn."  Free Ride has both ample supply of mountain bikes and road bikes. However, I was on the hunt for a road bike.

Choosing a bike was a more difficult decision that I had thought. Not only would I have to work for the bike by volunteering, but I would have to fix up the bike itself. So, picking the right one became an even more important process. Tom had shown me some of the road bikes and then left me by myself to find the perfect one.

Taking the bikes down from their hanging racks was difficult, and finding the right size bike made also made the process a bit difficult. I tried a light blue-ish gray Schwinn road bike, but it was too big. I took down a gray Murray road bike hoping it would be my size; it was not.

But after much searching, I finally found my match. A red Centurion Signet which was just about the right size for me. I mounted the bike and discovered it was an almost "Goldie Locks" fit — just right.

I took my newfound bike to the register, where Tom performed a valuation of the bike so I could find out how much I would have to volunteer to make the bike mine. The bike was graded on its quality and its condition, and it received grades of B-C and B, respectively, giving it a value of $50. I would have to volunteer a total of 11 hours to get the bike.

I returned my bike to its rack, and bid Tom and Free Ride goodbye for now. I would be back next Saturday to start earning my wheels.


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