Kenneth “Gunny” Gunn adjusts the brakes on an upside-down, elevated road bike.
“I’ll put the chain guard back on and be done with this one,” Gunny said.
As much as the 70-year-old former machinist understands the benefits of breathing new life into old, retired bicycles, he appreciates that the bikes return the favor.
“I’m learning so much,” he said. “I’ve got a new career. Now all the kids in the neighborhood ask me to fix their bikes.”
Every Wednesday for the past three years, Gunn has made the drive from his home in Dolton to 2434 S. Western Ave. on Chicago’s Southwest Side to spend the afternoon volunteering at Working Bikes Co-op, a place where busted and broken bicycles are fixed up, patched up and called up for a new tour of duty.
“I enjoy the whole time I’m here,” he said. “I enjoy the camaraderie, and I really like the cause.”
Thousands of bicycles — hybrids, cruisers, even banana-seated Stingrays — are housed inside the red-brick warehouse. Some will be sold at deep discounts to local cyclists. Some will be donated to other Chicago-area nonprofits. Most will be shipped to places around the world where a bicycle can mean the difference between misery and opportunity.
All have been rescued from garages, basements and landfills. No amount of damage is too much for the bike repairers to handle.
Once it’s been reworked, depending on the make and model, each bike is assigned a new destination — either the bike lanes of the Chicago area or the rural roads of Peru, Tanzania or Angola.
Working Bikes, a volunteer-driven nonprofit, was founded in 2000 by Lee Ravenscroft, a retired electrical engineer, who was bothered by the number of salvageable bikes that were being left in landfills. He devised a plan to decrease landfill “donations” while increasing opportunity around the globe.
Several years ago, the burgeoning charity moved to its current location, a two-story warehouse that screams “cool.”
The yellow-walled storefront is peppered with posters asking things like, “What would Neil Young do?” Locals wade through a sea of two-wheelers, shopping to the strains of Led Zeppelin, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger. There are Huffys, Schwinns, Treks as well as buckets filled with pedals and walls lined with fenders. A sign reads “Helmets, $15 each.”
Rhonda Davis and David Nesbit came from the West Side in search of a bike for Davis.
“They have pretty cool bikes here,” Davis said. “The prices are great, and all the bikes have all been donated. It’s cool.”
Like the volunteers, the donations come from Orland Park, Chicago’s Beverly community and across the Chicago area. There are numerous drop-off points, including Beverly, Orland Park and Lansing and others from Kenilworth on the North Shore to Indiana.
Throughout the year, local schools, including St. George in Tinley Park, hold collection drives.
The donations are cleaned up, repaired and either sold at deep discounts or donated. Storefront sales fund all of Working Bikes’ operations, manager Paul Fitzgerald said.
Last year, some 2,000 bikes were sold, enabling the co-op to ship about 6,500 more bikes to Third World countries, he said. In addition, several hundred bikes are given to local organizations such as the Better Boys Foundation, 1512 S. Pulaski Road.
“Bikes mean opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “For people living in rural areas, they are a means of getting to school, to the market, to work.”
For people living in depressed areas, they can be a means of economic development, he said.
Working Bikes sends parts, tools and fixable bikes to locations around the world. With training, the materials will enable locals to establish viable businesses. Even the shipping containers are repurposed into workshops and storefronts.
A bike for every preference
“It’s funny,” Fitzgerald said, “In Chicago, people want road bikes; they don’t want mountain bikes. But in Africa, they can’t use road bikes; they need mountain bikes. It works out for everyone.”
Learning how to fix and maintain bikes can open employment doors for people here as well, he said.
“We need to create practical jobs for youth here in Chicago,” Fitzgerald said. “With the popularity of biking and with recent bike lane development, learning how to rebuild and maintain bikes are viable skills.”
Fitzgerald was a student at UIC when he realized he could significantly pare the CTA commute from his home in the Scottsdale neighborhood to the university campus by just riding a bike. He’s worked as a bike messenger and a bike builder.
Key to Working Bikes’ success, Fitzgerald said, is its roster of steady, dedicated volunteers.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said. In exchange for their service, volunteers receive a free meal while working. They also earn points that can be accumulated and used to buy parts or tools. And they get to use the last half-hour of their shift to work on their bikes, Gunn said.
Gunn has learned so much that he’s thinking about opening a “pay-as-you-can” repair shop back in Dolton.
“The kids will always get free service, though,” he said.
Across the workshop from Gunn, Aaron Brown, of Chicago’s South Lawndale community, puts the finishing touches on a green Schwinn bicycle that had seen better days.
“This one was pretty bad,” he said. “It was pretty rusty.”
On average, Brown said, he spends about 2 1/2 hours on each bike.
It’s time well spent, volunteer Dan Tamburich said.
“Bikes provide a whole new life for someone living in a Third World country,” he said. “A five-hour walk to a store or a school or a job can be cut down to less than an hour bike ride.”
A recycled bike, he said, can mean the difference between hopelessness and opportunity.