It started, like all good things, with a bike ride.
One dewy morning, Nancy Stimson was riding along the Monon. She pedaled down the pavement, her tires spraying up a fine mist, riding by a group of neon runners, and a man shuffling along with his sheepdog. Further down, a pair of kids rode their bikes. The shorter one followed the taller one as if they were two ducklings on their shiny bikes. Red, white, and blue streamers flowed from the handlebars as the two rode with fresh-off-the-training-wheels speed and swooping navigation. Nancy smiled as the young girls passed, feeling the wave of whimsy in their wake.
Nothing compared to the freedom and joy of riding a bicycle.
The sun sent rays glimmering through the trees, and as the birds in the leafy canopy chickadee-dee-dee-ed, from behind Nancy came a lower register imitation of their cheerful song.
"Chicka-dee-dee-dee!" The imitation was so lifelike Nancy turned her head. A tall, thin man in black and blue Lycra whizzed by her left side on a skinny racing bicycle. His jersey bore the initials BAP huge across the back.
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Birds Are Pretty? Bicycles And Parakeets? Birds Always Poop? Nancy wondered which organization endorsed this bicycle-riding birdcall man.
What Nancy would soon find once she returned home and researched this acronym was that Bicycle Action Project was a children's earn-a-bike program started by Charles Hammond in the late '80s. And that bird-calling biking man's name was Dean Peterson and his Lycra initials stood for Bicycle Action Project. Bicycle Action Project is a program that worked to instill qualities of leadership, responsibility and purpose in the lives of neighborhood youth, while teaching them basic bicycle mechanics.
Dean was a volunteer for the program as well as a board member, and he ran a team of men and women who raced bicycles to raise money for this non-profit organization. But it had been a while since they'd raced – Bicycle Action Project had had some financial trouble in 2004 and run aground, closing its doors to its community of young mechanics and volunteers.
Nancy sat in front of her computer. She stopped scrolling and drummed her fingers on the table. She had recently retired from her career as a youth minister over at Broadway Church, and she missed those kids. She missed the way their little faces would light up when they learned something new. She missed seeing the change in their disposition from September to May. She thought back to that old Schwinn, and the two girls on the Monon. The kids in her neighborhood could be a part of something bigger than themselves, something that allowed them to build their own bike, and then ride it. They'd feel the wind in their hair instead of a couch under their butts. They'd feel pride in a job well done, and they'd learn responsibility and action.
And she knew if there were bikes involved, they would come.
Nancy stood up from her kitchen table, grinning in a square of sunshine from her window.
This was just the adventure she had been waiting for.
The bike shop at Freewheelin' Bikes is around the back of the storefront, past a couple colorful murals and through a bright yellow door. The workshop is cluttered and the ceiling is lined with rows of bikes hung from rear tires. There are six small work benches and a yellow-painted pegboard, each tool on it color-coded and outlined in Sharpie to mark the exact place it belongs. The back of the shop is lined with racks housing all the in-progress bikes the students are working on, and upon closer inspection, it's apparent that all the benches, racks and paint jobs in the shop were done by the hands of volunteers.
The rumor floating around is that it's this very shop where the first car to win the Indy 500 was built. That may very well have been the first of many great things to emerge from the shop's backdoor, sparkling in the sunlight, ready to open and change someone's world.
Twelve kids circle around the child-sized table. Earn-a-Bike class instructors Andrew Korb and Achebe Lateef stand near the head workbench as the group discusses the rules of safe riding. Andrew is a tall fellow with a big smile and a friendly-looking beard, clad in his usual work attire: khakis, graphic tee, well-loved, grease-dotted Adidas indoor soccer shoes.
Together, the group reviews the skills they went over during previous weeks under the wise tutelage of Korb and Lateef. Together, they'd chosen a bike to resurrect after learning to size a bike, clean the chain and fix a flat.
This class comes to the shop on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings. During the 12-week session, they will learn basic bike safety and mechanics. By the end of the program, the kids who finish earn the bike they built, a helmet lock and the mechanical skills to keep their bike safe and functioning.
For the kids who want to get a little more serious, there is the apron program. They can learn skills and move up the ranks, from a green apron to red, purple and then black. At the black level, participants have the skills to work as a mechanic in a shop, doing everything from fixing flats to overhauling bottom brackets. These kids then pay it forward through the program.
In late March, Fresenius Medical Care held a build-a-bike project to build 321 bikes for local kids in area Boys and Girls Clubs. Two recent black apron earners – one 16-years-old and one only 12 – were on site volunteering to help show company members just how to build the bicycles.
Seeing their skills in action is the type of thing that makes program directors and volunteers mushy, and really glad they do what they do.
Back in the Freewheelin' headquarters, Andrew details safety rules on a small whiteboard. The rules form an anagram that spells ROUND SCAB, "because they will keep you from getting a round scab," he says. Kids laugh as he highlights them.
One wall of the blue and yellow painted room is lined with bins and file cabinets with Sharpied labels denoting their contents: handlebars, cranks, brakes, helmets. From the soaring rafters hangs pink bikes with purple streamers, mini red bikes, rows of tires, wheels and one rickety wicker bike posthumously hung in honor of Nancy Stimson, the woman whose vision created all the learning and excitement in the room now.
Not a day goes by where the shop employees don't mention her. She loved bikes and she loved kids, so she wanted to create a place for them to learn to work on bikes, ride those bicycles, learn leadership — and if they wanted, pass on the torch and start a place like this.
As Nancy began to form her vision, her thoughts returned to those two girls on the Monon that morning. That joy was something she wanted to spread to as many people as possible. And she knew bicycles could be vehicles for much more than just a person.
What did she want to create? A community bike shop. And she knew if she put some bikes out there, the kids would come. If she could get kids into bikes, there was the way to change their attitude about themselves and about the environment.
She called a friend to talk things out. As soon as she picked up the receiver, Nancy began chatting a mile a minute.
"This is going to be something wonderful!" she babbled on, explaining her idea. "They'll earn their bike! We'll teach them to fix flat tires and brake levers, and they'll ride together. Oh, they'll be... responsible! And accountable! And wear aprons!"
"Nancy, Nancy, Nancy! Whoa, let me catch up! What are you talking about?"
Her energy and passion were soaring, and it didn't stop for the next nine months. She made calls, requests, did financial research and personally recruited volunteers and instructors.
After a sit-down with Andrew and Lateef, the elementary and middle schoolers from IPS 19 donned their yellow aprons and got to work. The student found their bikes, and the volunteers helped get them in the stands.
Their task today? Complete an A-B-C-Quick-Check on a bike.
"Okay, so what's A?" a tiny girl named Rosie* asked her bench partner.
The answer rang out: "Air!"
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The kids located the recommended air pressure for their tires and make their way down the checklist, practicing to prepare their bikes for a safe ride, checking the brakes, dropping tools, and tightening quick release skewers.
Rosie's bench partner Maria tells me she's trying out for the 5th grade volleyball team on Thursday. She signed up here because her family has some bikes with flat tires at home and she is excited to be able to fix them so they can ride again.
"I think I know why they have us work in pairs," she says, referring to herself and Rosie. "We help each other! But she helps me more. I just get her apron down for her."
Some kids are here to learn a bit and have fun, but a few have very serious ambitions. Miguel tinkers at his work bench across from Maria and Rosie. He wants to be a car mechanic when he grows up, so he's getting his small hands greasy for the first time with bikes, per his father's suggestion.
One volunteer named George Morrell is working to start a career development program for kids like Miguel. The plan is to take kids over the age of 16 who become "black apron" level mechanics and put them through an apprenticeship up in the storefront, and introduce them to local bike shops that would be willing to hire a young mechanic.
"By doing this we're teaching kids how to prepare and to get a job [plus] responsibility and pride in what they do. And to not be scared of what's out there," George said.
What this program will offer young mechanics is awareness of their other options for getting a job in technical school. Everybody is pointing to go to college, but that's just not a realistic answer for everybody. George's goal is to encourage kids, be enthusiastic and help them set goals, because they don't always get that at home.
The shop made connections in the neighborhood through the good work they are doing. For a lot of neighbors, bikes are the main vehicles. Plenty of commuters bring their bikes in to the front part of the store with missing cables, rusted chains and other barely ridable messes. Freewheelin' is the place where they know they can be taken care of and get back on a bike in good condition.
Example: One man who frequently picks up tin cans and scrap metal around the shop transports himself by bike, and one day the guys that run the storefront asked if they could take a look at it.
They put it up in the bike stand, and returned it to him in wonderfully improved condition. He cried.
With Nancy's mission and passion at its root, many volunteers and community members are investing time, money, and expertise to keep the program financially and organizationally in check. Chuck Okenfuss, an engineer at Eli Lilly and a member of the Freewheelin' board, volunteered with the Earn-a-Bike classes for going on three years.
The board of directors is a diverse group of eight or so people includes local attorneys, community members, doctors, lawyers, and finance people "who want to make sure this program is around for a while."
"All right, let's start cleaning up!" Andrew announces when the clock hits a quarter after six. The kids begin to return their tools to the carefully outlined positions on the benches, and unhook their bikes from the stands. A few elbow each other on their way to the basin sink en route to use the gritty orange degreaser to clean under their fingernails.They hang their aprons and head back over to the mini table.
Trey raises his hand.
"I learned that Chuck is awesome because he was really patient with me when he helped me check my brakes."
At Freewheelin' Bikes, Nancy's vision is alive and well. In Earn-A-Bike classes, kids are engaged. They work together. They laugh and joke, they make mistakes, and they learn. They learn what it's like to need someone's help, and they learn how to pass on their knowledge to peers in the shop. The teens in the apron program reach out to build bikes, fix bikes and make community members' transit easier.
It's one thing to build a bike, to ride a bike, or to do either of those things well. But in the process of teaching the skills to do that, Freewheelin' passes on skills to kids that might be lost on them otherwise. It's a community to belong to, a team to be held accountable by, and a safe place to make mistakes and ask questions. When you're building a bike for the first time, there are no silly questions, and there isn't much you can mess up that can't be undone. As these mini mechanics share the experience of learning to build a bike together, they explore the world. They learn what it's like to be held up to expectations, and they get a taste of Nancy's passion for them.
And for riding like the wind.
On the date marking one year since Nancy Stimson died, it rained. The Freewheelin' community still gathered at the shop. About 60 clad in raincoats stood there in the drizzle, some young Earn-A-Bike riders and some old childhood friends of Nancy's.
They were gathered to ride the "Be like Nancy" ride to commemorate her life. They pedaled and chatted, they pedaled and thought.
Rainwater sprayed up from the ground, coating the face and arms of the riders in tiny cool droplets.The riders went to Hinkle Fieldhouse to 100 Acres to Major Taylor Velodrome. They laughed at the memories they had riding of with her here and helping her out there. Her energy and optimism shone through the mist on that dreary day. People made friends, shared picnic lunches and smiled through the rain.
Nancy is missed. But for the people at Freewheelin' Bikes, she's definitely not gone.
* Earn-a-Bike kids' names have been changed.