Ride on

Reno Bike Project turns 10 this year

Ray Eliot’s title at Reno Bike Project is also his job description—“Mechanic Educator, Bicycle Repair Class Instructor, & All Around Mensch.”i Vagner

Ray Eliot’s title at Reno Bike Project is also his job description—“Mechanic Educator, Bicycle Repair Class Instructor, & All Around Mensch.”i Vagner

Column note

Over its first decade, the Reno Bike Project has grown from an idea that a few friends started tossing around to a full-service bike shop and a spirited community organization. Its goals are to make bicycling as safe and accessible to as many people as possible. In the bike project’s early years, it amassed support and established stability—and now it looks forward to its future roles as an advocacy group in a developing Reno.

In the mid-2000s, Noah Chubb-Silverman was attending college in Bellingham, Washington, and volunteering for a community bike shop called The Hub, which collects donated bikes, repairs them, sells them and offers bike-repair education.

In 2006, he moved back to Reno, his hometown. That same year, his friend Kyle Kozar graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno. The two, along with artist Mike Burke, began kicking around ideas for a new organization using The Hub as a model. Thus was born the Reno Bike Project. The group started soliciting used-bike donations and storing them in a friend’s yard.

The next step, Chubb-Silverman said, was “just getting people together in various places to fix the donated bikes and sell them—or to help other people fix their bikes.”

“I’m not sure that everyone quite understood exactly what we were going after,” he said. But still, people seemed eager to help. Silverman credits the bike project’s early success in recruiting volunteers to three separate phenomena.

“It was the height of the fixed-gear bike craze,” he said. “And it was, I think, about halfway through the Iraq War, so gas prices were at the highest they’ve ever been.” (A survey by national advocacy group People For Bikes found that in 2009, “80 percent of retailers said gas prices were helping them sell more bikes for transportation.”) Also, organizers knew several recent college grads with few commitments and a lot of enthusiasm, many of whom volunteered.

“We also got some monetary support early, which helped us achieve some goals, buying equipment and tools, pretty quickly, much quicker than we actually expected,” said Chubb-Silverman. The group received a donation from the city during its first year—“about $8,000,” he remembers—and also support from a foundation run by a volunteer’s parents.

Two years into its existence, RBP hired its first employee, a bike mechanic. The group set up shop on Bell Street in 2008. Then, in 2009, it found a permanent storefront on East Fourth Street.

The biggest setback RBP encountered was the drying of donation and grant funding in 2008-09 during the recession. While it slowed growth, that problem turned out to have a silver lining.

“We largely learned to subsist on revenue from our shop,” said Chubb-Silverman. That revenue comes from sales of used bikes and parts, professional repairs and, to a lesser extent, repair-station rentals, which run $4 an hour, including advice.

Chubb-Silverman and Kozar kept their day jobs for a while. During the third year, they began splitting the executive director salary. Now, Chubb-Silverman is the sole executive director, and RBP has “seven or eight employees” and a small army of volunteers and interns.

Life cycle

During those lean recession years, the bike project offered fewer grant-funded programs. Volunteer-based programs were still possible though. A Wednesday-evening event called Dan’s Night—hosted by long-time volunteer Dan Ruby and focusing on socializing over bike repairs—started during that era and is still going strong. A similar long-running event, Ladies Night, held each Tuesday, is hosted by Lyndsey Langsdale.

Now that the economic state is once again conducive to fundraising, the group offers more grant-funded programs. One is the Major Taylor Ride Club, which teaches cycling skills to middle-school and high-school-aged riders and leads them on 5-to-30-mile bike rides. That club has worked with local schools and groups such as the Children’s Cabinet, Kids Kottage and the Girl Scouts.

“A cool thing we started this year is a program called the Future Cycle Program,” said Chubb-Silverman, “which is basically a job skills training program, utilizing the bike project to provide at-risk youth with the skills needed, really, for any job.”

Christian Neff, 18, is a 2016 Reed High School graduate who began in the Future Cycle Program and is now an employee. On a busy day he helps around 15 to 25 customers with repairs, the most frequent being tire patches.

“I knew how to patch a tire [when I started],” Neff said. “But not the proper way. I learned how to do everything the proper way.”

“We work with a lot of people if they’re low on money,” he said. “Usually anybody that comes in with money or not, we try to keep them riding. … Today was a good example. There was this girl that came in. She’s homeless. She needed her bike to get to a job interview, and she was in a hurry. We took [her tire] off, and there were too many thorns. We just gave her a free tube so she could get to her job interview.” Neff also teaches customers how to repair their own bikes.

The road ahead

Looking back on the group’s first decade, Silverman said that the reason the bike project started—and the reason it’s been successful—is this: “People were just passionate about the bike culture and just helping people get on their bikes.”

The passion is visible. The front of the bike project’s modestly sized cinder-block storefront livens up East Fourth Street with a bright pink paint job. The bike-parking racks outside on the sidewalk are made of welded together cranks. Cycling-themed paintings, stickers and event posters hang inside the shop, and each year Reno artists have eagerly contributed bike-themed artworks to the group’s annual We Heart Bikes fundraiser exhibit.

“The thing that’s harder to quantify is our effect on Reno,” Silverman said. One thing he can quantify is the number of hours per year people spend at the repair stations. It’s about 1,800. More difficult to get a reading on is exactly to what extent the organization can effect changes that would make biking safer and more accessible.

“It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg story,” Chubb-Silverman said, about planning for a more bike-friendly Reno. “The city and RTC [Regional Transportation Commission] constantly use the argument, ’Why should we build bike lanes if no one rides bikes?’ Every cyclist says, ’Why am I going to ride a bike if I run the risk of getting run over?’ It’s the if-you-build-it-they-will-come classic story.”

Davis, California, is one city that deliberately planned for a thriving bike culture by putting in bike lanes in 1967, before the demand fully justified them—and before it was even legal to do so in California. Over decades, it became among the most bike-friendly cities in America.

There isn’t a bike-friendliness rating for Reno, but the League of American Bicyclists compiles state rankings, and Nevada comes in 31st with a 31.1 percent score.

“I’ve spent many, many hours meeting with RTC, meeting with City Council,” said Chubb-Silverman. “They’ve added a lot of bike lanes without a doubt.” But he’d like to see many more. He’s found that a few city reps are receptive to the idea, but that there’ve been many times he’s felt that cyclists’ concerns have gone ignored.

Bike racks on RTC busses have been helpful, he said, and more bike lanes on streets would be an affordable, effective step.