Empowerment on two wheels


“People threw the bikes into the river” said Dan Kueny, a board member of the Sibley Bike Depot. Sadly it was the same problem bike sharing had in Amsterdam, the bike capital of the world. Except there they have canals and the bikes ended up in the canals. It was an ignomious end to a yearlong grant to help people access bikes in the yellow bike program.

From the ashes of such and end rises something stronger and more skilled. Empowerment, community, and biking all come together at the Sibley Bike Depot.

Sibley hosted an open house this spring along with their annual board meeting. Attendance was excellent with 40 or more people and a sprinkling of local kids all showing up to see their new storefront and shop. Located on University Avenue in an active and multicultural neighborhood, they chose the space so they could separate the storefront, where you can buy a very reasonably priced used bike, from their shop, where they offer free tool use, classes, and stripping. That’s stripping rusted bikes for usable parts and recycling.

If you want to learn more about Sibley Bike or volunteer you can find them at www.bikeped.org or at 712 University Avenue in St. Paul.

Sibley Bike survives on donations: donated money, donated time, donated bikes. Their main goal is to provide a place to learn about bike repair, maintain your bike with their open-to-the-public tools and shop, and to help you ride more. If it weren’t for a lot of passion and tenacity they wouldn’t be around today. Sibley’s history is sprinkled with failures and false starts, yet their members and all-volunteer board have a strong vision: Making bicycles and biking more accessible in the Twin Cities. From a failed start with the yellow bike program, they have made a transition to advocacy and involvement to the current form of a public, open-to-all bike shop that is about empowerment and knowledge. Their journey started in 1989 and is, now, seemingly, on the right track, or trail.

Sibley volunteers offer a number of services. The have a shop of good used bikes. They offer a free repair shop; they provide the space and tools, you do the work. Included in that is an opportunity for various classes on bike repair. Current classes are full for April and teacher/mechanics for the April and May classes are needed.

Sibley Bike has been looking for opportunities to partner with other organizations and groups that benefit both. Cynthia McArthur has been running a “side program” as a volunteer for the past few years. She has facilitated the exchange of unusable bikes donated to the Center for Victims of Torture. In return, about 30 people from the CVT have gotten working bikes or bikes with baskets for groceries each year. These people are often struggling for basic services and so the bike becomes their main transportation and is a source of pride, confidence and self-sufficiency.

The kids in the neighborhood benefit, too, with an opportunity to learn bike maintenance in free classes and their earn-a-bike program. Sibley Bike survives by the thin thread of volunteer efforts and public donations. This is where their empowerment theme comes into play. If you’re poor but have some time to work at the shop you can put in hours and literally earn yourself a set of wheels. Their goal is that by the time you’ve earned yourself wheels you’ll also know how to take good care of your wheels and so have more independence and confidence. The program isn’t just for young kids: it was originally designed for the big kids among us, those in our 20s, 30s, or 80s that want or even need a bike.

Sometimes individuals will donate a used bike, but more often the bikes Sibley receives are from neighborhood clean-ups. These are volunteer-intensive days and weeks in the spring and fall. Neighborhoods and cities alike are happy that there is less going directly to the landfill. A very large percentage of bikes collected from clean-ups are rusted beyond repair or of very poor quality.

Regularly, on Saturdays, help is needed in the shop, stripping bikes too far gone for repair and refurbishing. There is a small income stream from parts and materials from the stripped bikes. However, stripping bikes that are rusted beyond relief is very labor-intensive so you’re welcome to help and bring a friend while your headed that way.

Copper Harding lives and writes in the Twin Cities.