Free repairs in bike-shop desert get Anacostia cyclists back on their wheels
Novon Britt, 10, stood in front of the mechanic with his silver Mongoose and its deflated tires and asked a simple question: “Excuse me, sir, can you fix my bike?”
Bayley Vanderpoel knelt down so he was eye level with Novon and pointed to the line of others who had come to the Anacostia Neighborhood Library seeking similar help.
Yes, Novon would get his bike fixed, but he’d have to wait his turn.
Vanderpoel is one of more than a dozen volunteers who work at the makeshift repair shop held there for five Saturdays from June to August. For many residents of Ward 8, it’s the only place to go to get a bike fixed.
Ward 8 doesn’t have a single repair shop; residents must instead travel to co-ops in Northeast Washington or Alexandria. And although biking has grown in popularity as a form of transportation in the city — with about 4 percent of residents commuting to work by bike and more than 100 miles of trails and bike lanes — Ward 8 has less than two miles of dedicated bike lanes. Of the 255 Capital Bikeshare stations in the District, only 23 lie east of the Anacostia River.
As a result, the area’s bike culture is limited, despite the fact that cycling is one of the cheapest modes of transportation and could benefit many residents.
That’s why volunteers with various nonprofit groups and bike co-ops decided to set up shop at the library. Residents show up with their broken bikes and are matched with a mechanic on a first-come, first-served basis. The repairs are made free.
This is the fourth summer the library has hosted the clinics, which are supported collaboratively by the D.C. Public Library and the D.C. Public Library Foundation, along with nonprofits and bike co-ops, including the Bike House, Gearin’ Up Bicycles, VéloCity Bicycle Cooperative, Chrome Industries, Phoenix Bikes and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
“The best thing about this program is that it’s located right here, because a lot of times, Ward 8 constituents can’t afford to get on the Metro” to go downtown, said Micah Powell, a library associate and one of the facilitators of the bike clinics. “But that’s where all the hospitals are; there’s a lot of contracting jobs, a lot of construction and a lot of things that they need to access in the city by riding their bikes.”
Powell, 27, has lived in Anacostia most of his life. Though not an avid cyclist himself, he remembers the first time his childhood bike broke — and the sinking feeling he had when he realized he had nowhere to go for repairs. He scoured the Encyclopaedia Britannica set his parents had invested in to learn the intricate details of how bikes are built.
Now he hopes the clinics will strengthen the community through education, health promotion and empowerment, as well as by encouraging biking, a healthy habit.
The mechanics give verbal instructions as they make repairs so owners can learn the skills themselves. They also hand owners maps of nearby bike trails, as well as pamphlets on topics such as how to properly lock up a bike or what to do after a crash.
The three clinics so far this summer have each drawn 45 to 65 people. Visitors are asked to fill out a survey so library staff can track clients’ demographics and other information, such as what they are using their bikes for and what repair options they have besides the clinics.
“The overwhelming response from people was that they had nowhere else to go,” Powell said.
Kevin Ellerbe, 56, brought in his green Mongoose to have the gear shift fixed. He’s had the bike for 10 years and came by the clinic for the first time last year because of problems with the brakes. A native Washingtonian, he said the clinic holds a special importance for Anacostia because “this is the community that’s forgotten.”
“When I was a kid, I’d ride in Rock Creek Park, and that’s how I found out about the rest of the world,” Ellerbe said. “I learned a whole lot just by having a bike. I’m glad to see the little brothers and big brothers with broken bikes in their arms running over here, so now they have something else to do besides hanging in the neighborhood, where a bunch of wrong stuff might be going on.”
Just before 10-year-old Novon arrived with his bike, Vanderpoel coached Robin DeBruce, 54, on how to properly pump her tires and adjust her handlebars and seat. Vanderpoel, whose day job is as an IT specialist at the Department of Homeland Security, has volunteered at VéloCity Bicycle Cooperative in Alexandria for four years and has supported the Anacostia clinics for two summers.
“The basic idea is you want people to be more self-sufficient with their bicycles,” Vanderpoel said. “Have you ever heard the term ‘MAMIL?’ ‘Middle-aged man in Lycra.’ We want biking to be less of that and more of a common thing.”
It was DeBruce’s third visit to the clinic in two years, and she said it was “like Christmas all over for me” the first time she got her five-year-old red Mongoose bike fixed. DeBruce said that she has struggled with her mental health since fighting in Operation Desert Storm and that she is calmest when riding her bike.
“It does so much for me, for my mental state,” she said, holding back tears. “And when someone does something for me, I cannot keep it to myself. I spread it among other people in the neighborhood. It goes on and on.”
Keith Jackson, 49, of Gearin’ Up Bicycles in Northeast, was helping Macey Robertson, 37, adjust his brakes. Offering verbal cues, Jackson handed Robertson a 5-millimeter Allen wrench to adjust various cables and help take some slack out of the brakes.
Robertson’s black-and-red Ironhorse bike had been broken for about six months. Now he’d learned enough that he could help his three daughters if they ran into problems with their brakes.
“That’s like a $300 job right there,” he said.
Mickey Love, 25, arrived at the clinic too late to have his bike fixed this session, but he hung around to watch what was going on.
“People are just grabbing bikes that have been in storage for years,” he said. “It’s like it’s being rejuvenated.” The remaining clinics will take place noon to 2:30 p.m. July 22 and Aug. 5.
Bayley Vanderpoel teaches Anacostia resident Robin DeBruce how to fix her bike at a Saturday repair clinic in the neighborhood.