COLUMBIA FALLS — For Columbia Falls High School freshman Owen Shipp, a functioning bike is the key to unlocking a world of freewheeling adventure. Until recently, that world had eluded him.
As he pedaled around the school parking lot on a recent weekday, however, bunny hopping up a curb and grinning ear-to-ear beneath his helmeted head, it was clear he’d found a gateway to a two-wheeled kid kingdom.
“I just love bikes and I’ve always wanted a mountain bike. I’ve never had one so I kind of just sit around the house and dream. Now I can go riding,” he gushed.
Shipp is among a cross section of students participating in the new Gateway-to-Cycling program, a volunteer-led, after-school workshop that allows teens to build new bikes from scratch, cobble incomplete bikes together piecemeal-style, or refurbish the bikes they already own and restore them to working condition under the supervision of a trained mechanic.
According to the program’s mission: “The students will leave the program with a bike of their own, skills to do basic maintenance on their own bikes, an understanding of bike safety, and a connection to the greater bike community in the Flathead Valley.”
“For some of these kids, a flat tire means the bike is broken,” said Chris Lewis, a school-based mental health worker with Kalispell Regional Healthcare who helped start the recycled-cycles program. “This teaches them basic bike maintenance, gives them a forum to hang out with peers and work on and talk about bikes and learn basic maintenance skills.”
Last week, about a dozen students – all of them recommended by school counselors, teachers or the principal on the belief that they will benefit from the program – gathered in a classroom brimming with bike parts and tools, as well as a fleet of cycles in need of a tune-up.
“We are trying to empower the local youth to get outside and exercise. We’re involving kids that otherwise aren’t involved in extracurricular activities,” Lewis said.
On hand to lead the workshop was mechanic Vincent Erickson, a 2012 Columbia Falls High School graduate who, after attending the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Ore., landed a job as a bike mechanic at Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish.
Erickson showed the students how to repair and patch their inner tubes, which for some is a skill that means the difference between a functioning bike and one gathering dust in the garage.
“I’ve got to replace the tubes on both tires and replace the rim,” sophomore Christopher Winsor said. “I mountain bike pretty hard so I pop my tires a lot. I want to learn how to build bikes and keep up on maintenance, and here I can learn from people who know how.”
In addition to the volunteer hours to facilitate the program, the bicycles, parts and tools are the result of an outpouring of donations from the community – bicycle shops and local residents have dropped off equipment in droves, while Gateway to Cycling has received grants from Plum Creek Timber Co., Whitefish Credit Union, Nelson’s True Value, and the Grace and Orville Ritzman Children’s Fund.
Great Northern Cycles in Whitefish donated a bike stand, while Free Cycles Missoula, on which the Gateway program is based, contributed scores of bike parts.
“I have so many thank you notes to write,” Carrie O’Reilly, a special education instructor at Columbia Falls High School, said.
Tyler Tourville, a longtime mechanic at Glacier Cyclery and the founder of Flathead Fat Tires, provided a lesson plan for the 10-week program. The syllabus covering everything from tube patching to making repairs on derailleurs and wheel sets.
“Hopefully by the end of the program we will have covered all of our bases,” said Katy Kelly, who helped start the program, which also encourages students who benefit to give back to the community.
To that end, the Gateway students will demonstrate bike safety at local elementary schools.
“The kids are stoked on it, so that’s the biggest reward in the end,” Lewis said.
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