St. Petersburg Bicycle Co-op welcomes range of devotees

A place for communion and DIY adjustments takes shape.
Published May 13 2013
Updated May 14 2013


From the Spandex-clad roadies zipping at car speeds along First Avenue N and S to beach-cruising retirees on Coffee Pot Boulevard, sustainability evangelists, health nuts and lifers, the organizers of the St. Petersburg Bike Co-op want to build a community.

But to start, the volunteers are happy to lower barriers for would-be cyclists by providing space and advice for bicycle repair do-it-yourselfers. The plan is to open shop in the converted storage shed at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club at 559 Mirror Lake Drive and start classes within the month.

"There's nothing like this" in St. Petersburg, Matt Allan, one of the principal organizers, said as he attached a fluorescent shop light over a workbench with an old bicycle chain. "It makes cycling more accessible to people. There's a big gap of underserved people."

"We'll teach you how to fix your bike, but we won't fix it for you," said Allan, a bicycle mechanic for five years. "It's about making people realize they can ride bikes. It's not just weirdos or DUIs or bike racers," said the 23-year-old, who by choice does not have a driver's license.

Membership and day-use fees will be on a sliding scale, based on income, or users can trade volunteer hours for access. Six hours of time or $40 will grant a yearlong membership. Members can also earn one of the bicycles donated to the co-op by volunteering.

Accessibility is one of the founding tenets of the co-op, said Marshall Eli, one of the original volunteers who worked on the project nearly two years ago. Cycling can be expensive, he said, but "if it's more accessible, more people will do it."

This also means breaking perceptions of cycling as dangerous, and mitigating the conflict that can come from the "share the road" ideal, which can easily escalate into "compete for the road" between cyclists and drivers.

The co-op will also ease the elitism Eli found while working as a bicycle mechanic for two years. Stepping into a bike shop and discovering a less-than-welcoming culture can be daunting for new cyclists. The co-op is "not about drawing lines" between the various subcultures of cycling, but to "blur those lines," he said.

Ultimately, "If you're on a bike, you're a friend."

Most local bike shops rely on repairs for a large share of their revenue, but most are happy to support co-ops, Eli said. "It's good for shops in the sense that bikes are contagious."

Ken Fong, who has owned Northeast Cycles at 1115 Fourth St. N since 1992, hadn't yet heard about the co-op.

"I suppose, fundamentally, it's a good idea," he said. While the majority of bike repairs can be done by amateurs, "the people that don't know what they're doing can complicate things more." Rebuilding shifters, trueing wheels and repacking bearings — "it takes a little touch to do those."

"I'm on the fence about it," Fong said, but added he'd be willing to teach some classes.

"We think the co-op is a great idea to make sure people have safe bikes and can do some minor adjustments," said Anne Fidanzato, the manager of Trek Bicycle Store at 3169 Fourth St. N, where co-op organizer Allan works as a mechanic. "It's a great way to increase the amount of community around the bicycle."

Her store can't be open 24 hours, she said, so it should be a good thing to have a place where novice cyclists can learn to fix a flat tire, for example. Though "there are some repairs that are just complicated. We don't want it to be a safety issue, we want it to be a fun community effort," Fidanzato said.

"Part of (the co-op) is a place to work on your bike. The other is bicycle advocacy," said volunteer John Potter. The co-op could become a place where seemingly unlike-minded people who happen to ride bicycles can find a common cause, whether it's for additional bike lanes, trails or normalizing cycling as a form of daily transportation.

While St. Petersburg is making significant advances in its bicycle friendliness, he said, a clear route for bicycle commuters from downtown to Carillon, for example, won't be of much use unless employers at the terminus have lockers and shower facilities.

Potter has been a recreational cyclist for 10 years, he said, but "for other people, it's their life. And that's awesome."

Eli is happy to see bicycle culture going mainstream, attributing it to new riders finding personal reasons to embrace pedal power, whether to improve health, to save money or help the environment. Another indicator of wider acceptance is that fixed-gear bikes, formerly the domain of urban bike messengers, the kings of cycle swagger, are now sold at Walmart.

There's a bike for everybody, he added, pointing at Allan's long-framed cargo bike. Allan recently used it to carry a shop vac, drills and saw, materials and a 5-gallon bucket to one of the co-op's Wednesday work nights.

Katie Miller, another volunteer, uses her bicycle as a primary source of transportation. She helps out at Suncoast Primate Rescue twice a week, a 60-mile round trip.

For almost two years a plan to open the co-op lingered as initial enthusiasm and work hours were spurned by administrative issues. Fear that the historic shuffleboard club would be privatized and converted into a restaurant also derailed efforts, as many early co-op organizers were focused on preserving the club as a public entity.

When many of the current volunteers learned of the proposed co-op, it existed only as a rumor. It wasn't until the city gave shuffleboard club leaders an ultimatum to use or lose the space that the project was resurrected.

The city is making significant efforts to improve bicycle access, said Carrie Waite, current chief organizer of the co-op. The city has added lanes and trails and approved $153,000 to design a route linking the Pinellas Trail to the Treasure Island Causeway. The $1 million extension will be paid for by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Across town, the student government at University of South Florida St. Petersburg recently voted to allow up to $11,200 from student fees for a bicycle sharing program after years of lobbying from campus sustainability groups.