Tampa Bay Bike Co-op Helps Cyclists Fix Their Own

It's not the décor that draws bicycling enthusiasts to the hangout of the Tampa Bay Bike Co-op in Seminole Heights. Afterall, it's in a rented storage area in a residential neighborhood. A somewhat battered yellow sofa is by far the highlight of its furnishings.

The sofa faces a table piled with biking information and the ceilings are stuffed with insulation, but it's the disembodied bicycles all over the walls and ceilings that catch the eye upon entry. Board member Dana Putney greets visitors with an easy smile and a warm personality — a match to the co-op's cause and effect.

What exactly is the Tampa Bay Bike Co-op? Perhaps it is more clearly defined by what it is not. It is not a business. It is not a moneymaking venture. It is not organized by sharp lines, and it is not a group that discriminates.

The group's self-description is that the co-op is "an interesting project where people can show up and learn how to fix, and-or build bicycles. It's not really a business, because it is volunteer- and donation-based, but it is pretty unique." Putney talks about the co-op's philosophy on a calm recent weeknight when only a few people are trickling in, here and there.

"People bring in their bikes, and we have all the tools and parts to help you in the process," she says. "But we are going to teach them how to do it themselves. It costs a lot less than going to a bike shop, but they get an education along with it."

Two nights a week, the co-op opens its shop at 2512 Silver Lake Ave. and welcomes newcomers and members to stop by with whatever bike issues they might have. Traffic is highly sporadic, she says, but whether there are throngs of people on given nights or just a few, all learn more about bicycles, and receive the attention of a dedicated volunteer expert.

The board is made up of people who are enthusiastic about the promotion of biking, she says, and they are aware that all types of bikers may enjoy riding. Sure, there are some hardcore types, who wear serious biking sportswear, participate in races and pedal for miles and miles. But there are also plenty of less involved bicyclists who are interested in learning more about how their bikes work. They are just as welcome, she says.

Learning To Fix Your Own Bike

As Kristyn Caragher of Tampa explains that she would like a refresher course in how to change her bike tire tube, volunteer David Horst listens attentively and offers his expertise. As he handles her bike, he carefully explains what he is doing and shows her how to take over. "The whole point is that we teach people how to fix their own bikes," Putney says.

While men and women are members, it is often particularly rewarding to see women learn about how their bikes work, Putney says. "It feels wonderful to learn," she says. "Women have for so long been denied so much knowledge. When you say 'pick up a (certain type of) wrench,' sometimes we are only able to stare, because who has ever shown us before?

"We eliminate the experiences of feeling stupid. It's not stupid when you have never been shown," she says. And learning mechanical skills can be empowering, she says. "That transfers over to everything women do." The co-op has recently designated the first Tuesday of each month as a special evening for only transwomen (cq)and women to come to the bike workshop. The sessions are at 7 p.m. Putney says the objective is for everyone to have a time when they can learn in a comfortable environment.

Caragher's sole form of transportation was her bike when she first joined the co-op, so it has been invaluable to have people willing to teach her and work with her. "I am definitely one of those who would not know how to do it myself, otherwise," she says. "This way, by learning how, I don't have to go find some guy to help me with the bike. I have really learned a lot."

Paying Your Fair Share

Most anything needed to handle repairs or even build a bike is often on hand at the co-op. "Sometimes they bring their own bike tools, sometimes they use ours," Putney says. "We have a lot of spare parts here, too."

The co-op accepts donated bikes and bike parts, which are organized and set up in the rental space. Members can purchase them at very low costs, and sometimes they are used to fix bicycles that are donated to good causes.

After an initial first visit, the co-op asks for a $75 annual membership agreement. Members receive free, unlimited stand time and tool use, a T-shirt, and other perks. A discounted rate of $50 per year is available for students and seniors. If you really don't think you'll be visiting often, a $20 monthly membership is also available.

"Everyone is welcome," Putney says. "They can just stop by, make some friends, and learn more about what we're about, anytime."

The coop is open on Mondays from 6 pm to 9 pm and on Wednesdays from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm.

Mary Toothman is a Central Florida-based journalist who lives in Tampa Palms. Her son is grown, but a boxer and two rescue Chihuahuas still live at home. She can often be found at Starbucks or the nearby Jazzercise center, and goes nowhere without her iPhone. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Mary Toothman.

Mary Toothman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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