Spinning wheels in a biker’s sanctuary

Your hipster friends may have told you about all the bike shops around town. But a cycle sanctuary they may not have been aware of can be found tucked quietly away in the basement of

Your hipster friends may have told you about all the bike shops around town. But a cycle sanctuary they may not have been aware of can be found tucked quietly away in the basement of a University City Episcopalian church.

The Divine Bike Church at 3916 Locust Walk in the heart of University of Pennsylvania’s campus is a unique cycling resource. The Bike Church is part of a larger organization called the Neighborhood Bike Works, a nonprofit youth agency dedicated to the empowerment of children through bicycling. A typical night at the Bike Church begins with a small congregation of cyclists loitering outside the doors of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. At 6:30 p.m., the facilitators begin taking groups of five to the church’s basement where they can work on their rides.

“We do it like this so that the facilitators don’t get overwhelmed, and can properly focus on each patron,” said Andy Dyson, executive director of Neighborhood Bike Works.

“It actually lets the process move more quickly in the long run.” It’s important to understand that the Bike Church is not a bike shop. You can’t go there any time of the week and expect to quickly select a bike and purchase it.

“We’re a place where people can work on their own stuff, with assistance from our facilitators,” Dyson said. “It’s really a place to come if you’re interested in doing it yourself, and want a little bit of guidance.”

The Bike Church’s operation is more assisted-service driven than sales oriented. Although bike parts are sold here, an availability of parts is never guaranteed.

“The only things available to buy here are things that are surplus to the youth program. No mountain bikes or BMX bikes either,” Dyson said. “People shouldn’t come here expecting to get a normal line-up of used bikes.”

Old, beat up – though perfectly functional
– road bikes are the usual surplus. The parts available at the Bike Church are primarily donated, so the low price comes with the wear and tear of prior usage.

What the Bike Church lacks in sales it makes up for in service. The facilitators are avid cyclists, each with a keen understanding of the mechanics of bicycles. The difference between taking your bike to the Bike Church for repair versus any of Philadelphia’s fine bike shops is in the do-it-yourself aspect. At the Bike Church, your bike isn’t worked on for you – you perform the work with some assistance from the facilitators, who offer free guidance, not a free bike-fix. The Bike Church follows the classic saying: “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

At the Bike Church, bikers are taught to “fish,” while other shops sell you an overpriced one. The advantage of the Bike Church is that services are cost-free. Money made from donations or sales of various parts are given to the Neighborhood Bike Works youth program.

Dyson said the Bike Church makes approximately $12,000 annually to benefit the program. If the parts are available, the option to build your own bike is possible at the Bike Church. According to Dyson, anyone can put together an as-is operating bicycle for as little as $40.

Although, according to other facilitators,
a more respectable bicycle will start at a price closer to $100, which is still less expensive than average cost, starting at around $150 at other shops.The Bike Church promotes a friendly community.

Pretentiousness does not exist here. Regardless of interest level, any cyclist can learn a thing or two about fixing a bike. However, your dreams of turning your 10-speed into a fixed-gear may not come true, at least not in one night.

“I hate people who come here and say ‘I want to put a fixed gear together tonight.’ It just won’t happen'” said Kevin, a facilitator who declined to provide a surname.

“It’s a wide range of people that come in here,” said Matthew Yoder, a veteran Bike Church facilitator. “We get a lot of college students – people that are living in the city long term and people here for a year or so [who are] just looking to fix up a bike for temporary reasons. All ages too. We have high school kids coming in with people in their 70s.”

So don’t be intimidated if you don’t even know what a fixed-gear bike is. Any bike and any rider is welcome at the Bike Church, where all riders are treated equally.

Julian Root can be reached at julian.root@temple.edu.

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