Ross Willard has some serious energy. When I recently visited his Bike Warehouse on a rainy Saturday, I was ready to go with my camera and a list of questions that I hoped to have answered about his non-profit organization, Recycle Bicycle.
After getting introductions out of the way, he jumped right in about the building we were standing in, a dim, damp, yet expansive warehouse that was donated to his organization to use as a repair shop. He told me about the countless bikes that go through triage at the warehouse and the importance of teaching people how to fix their own bicycles. About the personal transformations that people experience through the organization. About the self-sufficiency, empowerment and public service that the organization provides.
After a thorough tour of the warehouse, I had quite a lot of my questions answered without having to ask. Willard is passionate, animated, relentless and strong-willed about a free public service that strives to keep the city’s bikers safe—so much so that he left a corporate job on an early buyout to repair bikes.
Fourteen years ago, Willard encountered the personal resolve that would fuel the all-volunteer Recycle Bicycle community. As part of a food drive to feed people in Harrisburg, he acted as security for the group’s food van and became disturbed by all of the kids who would pass by on the street, pushing bicycles without brakes on the tires. “I faced a moral dilemma,” he reflects.
He remembers thinking that people who didn’t have access to enough food wouldn’t necessarily face the imminent threat of death. “But kids going through the intersection without breaks, that scared me.”
So, he began setting up shop at intersections throughout the city with a little bike repair bag and waited for people with bikes that needed a little love. Recycle Bicycle volunteers would also crash block parties with large crowds, where they would set up a makeshift street repair shop. That small repair bag became a toolbox, which became a chest, then later a van, then a trailer and finally, the Bike Warehouse, where Recycle Bicycle has operated for five years.
Within 15,000 square feet, Bike Warehouse is jam-packed with tires, wheels, brakes, chains, pedals, you name it. Most of the bike parts are donated or removed from bikes that are no longer suited for riding. These parts go toward the repair or the building of bikes, and the scrap metal is recycled.
“We’re here to help people build their own bikes,” says Willard. “We are a do-it-yourself shop that costs you nothing, but you have to invest in helping.”
Willard doesn’t believe in taking someone’s bike and merely fixing it. Instead, Recycle Bicycle provides the tools and expertise to help people learn how to fix their bikes for themselves, at what he calls his “teaching warehouse.” One of the greatest advantages that the organization provides is a sense of empowerment.
“Kids will be savvier when dealing with mechanics later in life,” Williard explains. “They will know what questions to ask.”
Other people come in to donate their time, helping with repairs, in sort of a work-share program, during which they can earn a bike after putting in the allotted number of hours.
“Recycle” is key in the organization’s name. Willard is able to supply free bikes to the Harrisburg community because the parts that go toward repairs have been recycled from other bikes. Excess parts get shipped to other bike organizations throughout Pennsylvania and the world.
“We recycle everything: steel, aluminum, boxes [that held] parts that people donated, water bottles,” Willard says. Any scrap metal that the organization collects, it recycles for cash that goes toward the purchase of tools.
Obviously, biking in an urban community, in and of itself, is a natural way to conserve resources. Within his organization, Willard not only demands bike safety, but he takes a strong stand on ecologically friendly habits and ways of life.
“Let’s live on a bike in the city and be ecologically correct,” he says. “We spend too much money on gas and oil. [Recycle Bicycle] is ecologically correct, and we help prevent too much car use.”
Not a Toy
Volunteers provide an integral component to the organization. When I visited the Bike Warehouse, I met Greg Chiesa of Camp Hill, who was hard at work repairing bikes. By day, Chiesa works for the commonwealth and, in his spare time, he gives to the bike-building cause.
“I’ve always loved bikes, fixing them, riding them,” says Chiesa, who says he didn’t know about Recycle Bicycle until he started looking for a place where he could donate biking equipment. Before volunteering with the organization, he says, “I was always into ‘the new.’ But now, I ask, ‘Can I fix it or recycle it?’”
While Recycle Bicycle reuses most of the frames and parts to build new bikes, some bike frames beyond repair are stowed away in their own special room at the Bike Warehouse. He and his team paint the unsalvageable bikes white and break out the “ghost bikes” once a year during the “Ride of Silence,” in which they display the bikes as a memorial to the Pennsylvania bikers who died while riding in that particular year.
One particular bike that hangs within the warehouse, just beyond the entrance, leaves visitors with an uneasy feeling and a resonating lesson. It is painted in the innocent pink-and-white pattern of a child’s bike, but has mangled wheels that offer a grim picture of what happened. Willard explains that the owner was a young girl who crashed with an oncoming motorist and lost her life.
“I use it as an illustration that [a bike] is not a toy, but a vehicle that can be deadly,” Willard explains.
The smashed bike serves as a stark reminder that bike safety is important, and it paints a clear picture of why Willard is so impassioned about his volunteer service to the community.
“I don’t want the kids to die. I want people to learn that it’s dangerous out there,” he says. “We need more volunteers who understand that. They have to have my heart. I didn’t burn out because I’m hyper.”
His charismatic and entertaining personality, his fiery drive to make bikers safe and his non-profit repair shop have made Willard a popular sight in Harrisburg. He jokes that, when he isn’t riding a bike, people will recognize his vehicle, run up to him and ask when the warehouse is open. Some nights, he will pass through rough parts of the city and, “Out of the shadows, I’ll hear, ‘Hey, bike dude,’” he laughs.
“We are the best guys in town, and we feel good about it,” says Willard. “With whatever power you’re given, use it correctly.”
The Recycle Bicycle Bike Warehouse is located at 821 Elder St., Harrisburg; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bike Harrisburg 2014
May is National Bicycle Month. So, it’s a great time to check out some events that Bike Harrisburg, an advocacy group working to create a bicycle-friendly city, is either sponsoring or participating in. Visit www.bikeharrisburg.org for a full calendar of Bike Harrisburg events.
Saturday, May 10, 12:45 p.m.
14th & Derry Streets
Allison Hill Multi-Cultural Festival, Parade & Decorated Bike Contest
At 1 p.m., the parade will circle the neighborhood with marchers, dancers, musicians and various community groups. A decorated bike contest will be part of the parade. Recycle Bicycle will fix neighborhood bikes the rest of the afternoon.
Saturday, May 17, 11a.m. – 2 p.m.
Midtown Campus of HACC, N. 4th & Reily Streets, Harrisburg
Learn to Ride a Bike
Come to the parking lot at the Midtown Campus of HACC. Learn how to ride a bike for the first time or come pick up some pointers on how to improve your riding skills. Bring your own bike or use one of the bikes supplied by Recycle Bicycle. Minor free bike repairs are available for community residents.
Sunday, May 19, 11 a.m.
Obelisk on Division Street, Harrisburg
Seersucker & Lace Benefit Bicycle Ride
A fashion show on wheels. Awards will be presented for best-dressed man, the laciest woman, fanciest millinery and coolest bike. Kids must wear helmets, and all traffic laws must be obeyed. This is a public ride that looks like a fashion parade with wheels.
Wednesday, May 21
Camp Hill Borough Hall & the Capitol
Ghost Bikes at the Capitol and International Ride of Silence
Be part of the bicycling press announcement at 10 a.m. on the Capitol steps surrounded by “ghost bikes” representing riders who died in Pennsylvania. The Ride of Silence will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Camp Hill Borough Hall at 2145 Walnut St., Camp Hill, part of a worldwide event to remember bicyclists who have been injured or killed. The silent ride will slowly travel to the Ghost Bike memorial at the state Capitol and back to Camp Hill.
Wednesday, May 28
Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg
Pennsylvania Bicycle Forum & Bike the Burg Meeting
A comprehensive, interactive discussion will focus on the rules of the road and Pennsylvania’s 2012 bicycle safety legislation, plus bicycle commuting tips and transportation engineering solutions for bicyclists.
Sunday, June 1, 1 p.m.
City Line Diner, 3302 Derry St., Harrisburg
Capital Area Greenbelt Ride
Enjoy an 18-mile guided ride of the Capital Area Greenbelt. The ride starts on the Greenbelt behind the City Line Diner, 3302 Derry St., Harrisburg, at 1 p.m. The pace is casual. Riding surfaces vary, so mountain, touring or hybrid bikes are recommended.
Sunday, June 8, 9:30 a.m.
HACC Wildwood Campus, 1 HACC Dr., Harrisburg
Tour de Belt
This is your chance to have a great time on your bike while supporting the Capital Area Greenbelt. Volunteers are placed along the 18-mile route to cheerfully provide encouragement, directions and refreshments to all riders. To register or for more information, go to www.caga.org.