Easy riding: Bicycle co-op reaches out to cycling newbies

You’re not cool enough or fit enough. You own zero spandex, and you don't know how to fix a flat. If you’re interested in cycling, but reservations like those stop you, meet Sylvia Crum. She's the new director of Revolutions Bicycle Co-op, and her goal is to make it easy for anyone to get pedaling.

 
If Sylvia Crum needed a sign to point her to a new hometown and a new career calling, she found it in an oddly eclectic mission statement outside First Congregational Church:

"A church that teaches compassion, faith …

"… and bike repair!"

Crum and her husband, Teddy, did a delighted double take the first time they read that.

It was 2012, and the Crums were on a first exploratory visit to Memphis, having brunch at Stone Soup Cafe on South Cooper Street. After nine months as Methodist missionaries in Malawi, they were figuring out where to live next, hoping to find a place where friendliness, cultural diversity and environmental stewardship were part of the vibe.

"We looked around, and there were just so many neat things happening in Memphis," Sylvia Crum recalled. "On food, we were amazed at the farmers markets, both in Cooper-Young and downtown, plus community gardens. And we were really excited about all of the bike lanes that we saw and all of the people out on bicycles …

"Then we saw this banner, and both of us were like, 'What? That's amazing!'"

At the time, Crum, now 36, owned a bicycle, but she wasn't an avid rider. Like an estimated 60 percent of Memphians, she wanted to cycle more--not necessarily to train for super-athlete status, just to get more exercise, knock out errands and reduce her family's reliance on gasoline.

The sign appealed to a simple belief in the good that cycling can do for a community. It also helped to clench the Crum family's decision to become Memphians and to join the bicycle-loving church they had stumbled upon.

Since then, Sylvia Crum has made her bicycle a primary means of transportation. She has also completed a course at the United Bicycle Institute in Portland, Ore., to earn certification as a bicycle mechanic. And in August, she ramped up her involvement in the cycling community by becoming the first paid director of Revolutions Bicycle Co-op, a 12-year-old organization headquartered in the church basement.

One of her main goals for the group: boost outreach to folks who are where she was two years ago--sincerely interested in riding, but shaky on how to get started.

How Revolutions began
Over the years, Revolutions has helped to build the enthusiasm for cycling that helped to attract Crum to Memphis--and that in 2012 earned Memphis the title of "Most Improved City for Cycling" from Bicycling magazine.  

Anthony Siracusa founded the group in 2002, when he was 17, initially with only the aim of making cycling more affordable. He was working at a bike shop and had noticed people struggling to pay for even simple repairs.

Siracusa did some research and discovered a wave of cycling co-ops nationwide, including particularly inspiring groups in Knoxbury, Mass., and Ithaca, N.Y. With those models in mind he approached leaders at First Congregational Church, commonly called First Congo, and got permission to set up Revolutions as a volunteer-staffed shop.

There, anyone who wanted could schedule appointments to learn bicycle repair and even build a bicycle from scratch, using donated parts and tools. Participants ranged from hardcore cyclists interested in customizing their rides, to newbies who had never seen a socket wrench.

The shop stayed booked for weeks in advance.

That was phase one.

During phase two, Revolutions got into civic advocacy--pushing for bicycle lanes and other physical infrastructure to make riding safer, as well as helping the city to update its bicycling ordinances. Memphis got its first bike lane in 2008 at Walnut Grove and Briarcrest roads. In 2013, the city passed the 133-mile mark, according to the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization's State of Bicycling report.

"At a certain point it becomes clear: you can't just educate your way into a strong bicycle culture," Siracusa says. "At some point, you actually have to start building things differently."

Siracusa stepped down as Revolutions' director in 2009, when he received a grant to study bicycle cultures in eight countries for a year. Afterward, he shared lessons learned with his successor, Kyle Wagenschutz, who served as director--still a volunteer position--until 2013.

Wagenschutz remains an active advocate for cycling as the first Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator for the Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Siracusa is studying for a doctorate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville now, and also serves as president of Bike Walk Tennessee.

For almost a year, Revolutions had no director. It was run by a church transition committee, on which Sylvia Crum served. In August, First Congo hired her to keep the co-op rolling.

Phase three: A focus on easy riders
In many ways, Crum wants Revolutions to continue to operate as it has in the past.

For example, the cost of membership will stay low, and instruction on bike repair will continue--$30 per year buys access to an extensive array of bicycle parts, stands and other tools. Plus a T-shirt. Members can attend classes or open-shop sessions.  

Civic advocacy and charitable outreach will also continue.

For example, Revolutions just kicked off its annual Christmas Bike Build--a program in which members meet weekly to build or refurbish about 30 bicycles to give to children and teens in December. Recipients are selected by the YMCA, and Shelby Farms is also a partner in the effort.

But there is also a fresh emphasis on helping newcomers to cycling get comfortable with making it a part of daily life.

In many cases, obstacles are social. Maybe a prospective cyclist doesn't know anyone who rides and isn't sure how to figure out the best routes or where to find a commuting buddy. Or maybe a prospective cyclist knows lots of riders who take cycling seriously, but none who are interested in taking it easy.

For those sorts of folks, Crum has added "Bike Chats" and "SLOW Rides" to Revolutions' calendar.

Bike chats are just occasions to ask questions and discuss any cycling topics that come to mind. And SLOW rides, such as a recent ride from the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market to the Downtown Memphis Farmers Market, offer an easy introduction to navigating bike lanes and pedaling at your own pace.

"We're just being extra mindful and aware that there are folks who feel intimidated to step in the door," Crum said. "We're trying to make sure it's a place where anyone can come to get past whatever it is that's keeping them from riding a bike. No matter their income or fitness level or mechanical know-how, we want them to feel like there's a place for them here."

Read more articles by Amy French.

Amy French is a Memphis-born freelance writer and communication consultant who got her start as an award-winning journalist for The Huntsville Times in Alabama and The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
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