TAMPA — Larry Robinson II could probably buy a bike himself. It’d be hard but not impossible, thanks to the compensation he gets as an injured veteran.
But he’d rather earn one with some hard work, and learn to build one if he can. So on a Thursday morning, the 48-year-old walked in to WellBuilt Bikes, ready to help. Nothing glamorous at first — pumping up a pile of inner tubes to see if they hold air. But it was a start, and that’s all Robinson was asking for.
In return for a few days’ worth of service in this unusual shop, Robinson will get a bicycle. Not a speedster, maybe, but something that will help him get around. It’ll be a big help as he navigates the web of services that he needs: appointments at the VA Hospital, classes, home to the transitional housing center where he is staying.
A bike is the perfect implement," he said, hunched over a tangle of inner tubes. "This can cut an hour out of my travel time … And now it becomes a pastime, a hobby. And it becomes my way to contribute to society."
In an out-of-the-way corner of Tampa’s University Mall, an experiment in social enterprise is taking place. WellBuilt Bikes is a full-service shop, offering bicycles, gear, and low-cost repairs to the general public. But that’s only part of its goal.
With the Earn-a-Bike program and other efforts, its staff helps participants like Robinson gain mobility. Sometimes, they’ve found, that’s the most important thing a person can have.
"One of the biggest problems for people on the streets is lack of access," said Chris Scotto, 28. "To sevices, to jobs, to everything."
Scotto holds the title of Chief Bike Peddler. He helped start WellBuilt Bikes last year as an extension of The Well, a ministry/group of friends that takes radical approaches to poverty in Tampa.
In the past, these efforts have gotten them into hot water. The Well occupied spaces in V.M. Ybor and Tampa Heights where they offered meals, showers, and a place to sit down out of the heat. There was a "ReCycle Bin" full of free bikes and bike parts, and a mobile donations unit.
But some neighbors in the economically changing areas did not take kindly to the idea. Code enforcement complaints came regularly.
"It was like water torture," said Jon Dengler, cofounder of The Well. "But worse than that was the feeling that your neighbors don’t want you there."
At some point, they realized that the work with bicycles could be more sustainable — and rewarding. They combined their ReCycle Bin with ideas from God’s Pedal Power, a ministry that used to operate nearby.
"It built real community," said Scotto. "Three people could come together, and maybe nobody knows how to fix a whole bike. But I can true the wheel, and you can swap the derailleurs, and she can change the cable. And suddenly we have a bicycle."
That sense of community is central at WellBuilt Bikes. The store is an impromptu gathering place for The Well’s extended family. There are couches and a keg of cold-brew coffee. A group of neighborhood kids often ride straight into the store to talk bikes.
The location — wedged between a Finish Line shoe store and Grand’s Department Store — may seem like a odd place for a grassroots organization focused on social change. But Dengler said it has yielded many benefits.
"It’s been great, man. I did not expect to get a lot of traffic from the mall, I expected to do a lot of advertising. But the majority of our business has come from folks just passing by. We’ve been adopted by a lot of people."
And there are the inherent benefits of the American shopping mall. "I’ve come to love and feel loved by the Philly cheesesteak stand in the Food Court," Dengler said with a laugh.
Moving away from Tampa’s urban core gave some staff hesitation. Who would show up? But as they learned, people need bikes everywhere in transit-needy Tampa.
"Sometimes riding a bike is faster than the bus," said Robinson.
But the bond between man and bike can run deeper than simple convenience.
One weekday afternoon, a well-known bike named the Starship Enterprise rolled into the shop. Its pilot is Kareem Kirk, Sr., who likes to be known as Kaptain Kirk. He has owned the black Schwinn covered in Marine Corps insignia for over 40 years. Their connection is real.
"She’s my girlfriend, she’s my wife. This is my soulmate… I’m sixty-six and ain’t never been married, but I’m married to her."
The staff urged Kirk Sr. to retire the Starship Enterprise, with its bent wheels and iffy frame. But he resisted.
"No, no," he said. "We’re going to keep doctoring her. She ain’t got cancer, she ain’t got leukemia. We’re just going to keep doctoring her."
The staff respected Kirk Sr.’s wishes. After all, 100 percent of the shop’s bikes are used, and most took some fixing. They come from a variety of sources, mostly private donors or Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. A lot of bikes are abandoned on the city’s bus lines.
Those are exactly the ones WellBuilt Bikes likes to use.
The analogy is clear. Bikes that would be tossed in a garbage heap or left to rust in an alleyway are rebuilt into crucially-important vehicles. And people who are sometimes passed over by society are given the tools to navigate their own future.
Robinson II got his new Diamondback recently. He’s averaging 40 to 50 miles per week on it. Or at least he was, until his crash. He overcorrected and hit a curb, fracturing two ribs.
"Nothing too major," said Robinson II. This is a man who used to jump out of planes.
He is undeterred. The bike is too valuable. It cuts hours of travel time out of his day, and he has plans for that extra time. "Getting involved in my daughter’s life," for one.
"We’ll put our bikes on a bus and go out to Clearwater and ride around."
And with what he’s learned at the shop, he plans to help other bicyclists in need. He can do that now. A bike is a simple machine, after all: a couple of wheels and some gears, powered by the human heart.
Contact James Chapin at email@example.com.