Bicycle Culture

How ASU’s Bike Co-Op Brought a Garage Bike Back from the Dead

For four years, I’ve owned a “garage bike,” a blue Schwinn mountain bike nicknamed “Bluey.” Since 2012, Bluey has leaned against a cement wall, collecting dust and cobwebs. Each time I noticed Bluey, my heart sank. Poor little guy, I’d think. One day, I’ll fix you up nice.

Like a lot of garage bikes, Bluey was a mediocre model I bought from a generic sporting goods store in the off-season for about $150. In the era of $400 beach cruisers, this was a steal. I rode Bluey around Pittsburgh for a couple of years, grateful for its sturdy frame and 21 gears. Then I upgraded, and Bluey was left in a corner, unused.

When I moved to Phoenix a few months ago, I had the excuse to get rid of Bluey. I had two other bikes, and there was no reason to schlep this clunker across the country. But I decided to bring the bike with me. I’m not sure what compelled me. Maybe it was the decent construction, or its cute name, or my habit of anthropomorphizing my possessions. Whatever the reason, I wanted to keep Bluey. And repair it. But, like, actually repair it.

Then I heard about the Bike Co-op at Arizona State University. The little workshop is tucked into a downtown Phoenix building, on the southeast corner of ASU’s fitness center, 330 North First Avenue. The Co-op is mostly geared toward ASU students and staff, but since I’m an ASU affiliate, I could bring the bike in for free.

Arranging a time took a while: The Co-op is only open during weekdays from 1 to 5 p.m. When I finally found a free afternoon, I struggled to push the oxidized machinery into motion. After so much dormancy, the bike groaned in protest, and the half-empty tires wobbled beneath me.

“How did you hear about us?” asked Jess Garcia, one of the co-op’s mechanics, as she clamped Bluey to a repair stand. She sounded genuinely curious. The Co-op as only existed for about a year.

“I work out at the fitness center,” I explained. “I just happened to notice your sign.”

The Co-Op’s entrance stands directly in front of the fitness center’s bike rack, making it impossible to miss. Jess seemed happy to hear this. Although the workshop attracts a steady stream of ASU students, she hopes that more people hear about it – including mechanics looking for a part-time job.

“You should probably clean your bike,” said Jess, as she waved away strands of cobweb. “How long did you say it was in the garage?”

“Like four years,” I said.

Bluey was embarrassing to look at. The chain and derailleur were spotted with rust, and mud had crusted around every bolt. But there was only one serious problem – I had worn down the rear brake pads, which looked like a pair of black erasers. Without adequate brakes, Bluey was useless.

Jess oiled the machinery and adjusted the brake cables. In truth, I could do most of this stuff at home with a hex key and a ratchet set, but my bike had endured so much neglect that I felt Bluey deserved a professional. I felt a little strange standing by, hovering over Jess as she set to work.

“Should I maybe come back later?” I offered.

“Oh, no,” she said, waving off the idea with an oily rag. “It’s better when people stay. When they leave, I end up holding onto bikes overnight.”

As Jess struggled with my new brake pads, we talked about her studies at ASU, her participation in the CRAP Ride, and how she got into biking in the first place: After her car broke down, Jess started commuting by bike, and she discovered she loved the cycling community. She taught herself basic maintenance and honed her skills at Tempe-based Bike Saviours. One day, Jess visited the ASU Co-op for some repairs, and the staff was astonished by her technical know-how. They promptly hired her.

Jess wrestled with my rear wheel for 45 minutes, and I was glad no other customers were waiting. As it turned out, I had also worn down my rims, and the brake pads were proving difficult to adjust. At last she whirled the wheel. The spokes spun dizzyingly before us. Jess squeezed the brake, and the wheel stopped abruptly.

“Finally,” she said. “Anything else you need?”

Amazingly, that was almost all I needed. Bluey’s wheels were still true, its tires still had tread, and the gears shifted as smoothly now as when I first rode it. I decided to splurge and asked for a new inner tube, remembering that a slow leak had flattened the rear tire every two or three days. I’ve patched up punctured rubber by the side of the road a dozen or so times, so watching a pro replace the tube felt like the height of decadence.

I thanked Jess profusely, paid for the parts, and pedaled toward Central. The Schwinn felt like new, coasting over the asphalt with the ease of a racing bike.

Every once in a while I ponder how many garage bikes are out there, whiling away the lonely years. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are more than 130 million residential units in America, and about 66 percent of them have some kind of garage. So many bikes inhabits those garages, and with a little tweaking, most could be road-worthy again. When my friends hear about my biking obsession, they wonder aloud whether they should take that old Huffy for a spin.

The Bike Co-op can’t help everybody. Visitors require a valid student ID. But for 80,000 ASU students, the Co-op can definitely grease some wheels.
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Robert Isenberg