Lance Armstrong rides an ultra-light carbon frame Trek road bike with wind-tunnel-tested aerodynamic handlebars and a 57-function bike-mounted computer. He just won his fifth consecutive Tour de France. Summer Nelson rides a rusted Raleigh road bike with inner-tube-wrapped handlebars and three back wheel reflectors in the form of a happy face. She just rode from the Good Food Store to Greenough Park.
There can be only one Lance Armstrong. This fall, expect many more Summer Nelsons. Her commute is a product of the rehabbed and revamped Free Cycles Missoula, founded in 1996 to promote sustainable transportation through free bikes, parts, tools and skills. Over the years, the peripatetic non-profit has contributed hundreds of bikes to the community and trekked nearly as many miles as its clients. Its present home, a wooden shed near the corner of Pattee Canyon and Higgins, is its sixth. “We’ve been in three garages, the fairgrounds, and the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center,” says founder Bob Giordano. “Our current location is on land leased for free by the University of Montana.”
This summer, new volunteers took over day-to-day operations with an eye toward expansion. “We cleared the shed, installed a donated carpet floor, and sorted all the parts,” says Jonas Ehudin. Now tires hang from the ceiling and tools line the walls. Outside, a corral supports dozens of cycles in various states of repair.
Yet Free Cycles plans to keep moving. Brian Gharst built a trailer to haul unfinished bikes and a complete tool set to community events across town. “I made it almost entirely out of bike parts,” he says. “Eight forks, four hubs and two top tubes.” Wherever the trailer travels, anyone can take a bike, work an hour, and ride off.
Eventually, the group hopes to open shop downtown. There, says Ehudin, “activities will range from bicycle repair to discussions of safer street design.”
Meanwhile, Piper Chernivsky mans the shed as Free Cycles’ equivalent to Armstrong’s pit crew. “Piper walked me through making a road bike from scratch,” says Nelson. “Pretty soon, I’ll be able to help people. It’s like the trickle-down theory of economics, but it actually works.”