Michael Young is pacing around the shop with a wrench in one hand and a towel in the other. His fingers look as if they were dipped in brown goo, like a fudge ice cream cone, drenched in bicycle grease.
As he wipes the sweat from his forehead he leaves a black strip of grease on his skin. Common courtesy led to a mirroring motion, wiping my own forward to hint at the mark routine. Young smiles and says, “Oh this grease sticks no matter what. It’s become a part of my wardrobe.”
West Town bikes is a shop in Humboldt Park and offers bicycle mechanics workshops, youth programs and special events to members of the community.
The goals of West Town Bikes are to promote bicycling in the city of Chicago, to educate youth with a focus on under-served populations and to foster and serve Chicago’s growing bicycling community.
Owner of West Town bikes, Michael Young, 35, of Bolingbrook, has been the operations manager at the shop for two years. The employees at West Town are made up of volunteers, ranging from four to five people who come in to work regularly to two hundred people who come in spontaneously depending on the season.
There are 13 apprentices at the shop. An apprentice, said Young, is a mechanic-in-training, and someone who regularly helps people fix their bikes and earns their stripes and skills through first hand experience.
As Young answers questions, he is multi-tasking: adjusting seats and wrapping handlebars, running from station to station. Inside the shop the walls are lined with tools, each one outlined to it’s exact shape so to be put back correctly after being used. There are 10 stations, five on each side, with bikes hanging from each, ranging from three wheelers to fixed gears.
“Our generalized mission is that we want to improve physical and social wellness of every one in our community and cycling is our engine,” Young said. “In this shop it is not the bikes, it is the people… we took something awesome and turned it into a non-for-profit organization.”
New Belgium Brewing Company, the beer company known for reaching out to the bicycle community across the U.S has taken a special interest in West Town Bikes and their mission.
“They have chosen West Town bikes two years in a row now,” Young said.
The Urban Assault Ride is an annual event that combines the best parts of a bike race, an obstacle course and a backyard party. Two teammates set out on a citywide quest for checkpoints, some mapped out ahead of time, plus two mystery spots. Riders must decipher clues to find them.
At each checkpoint, riders drop their bikes and complete a funky, fun, absurd and physical task in order to earn a bead. The goal is to complete all the tasks and collect all the beads in the shortest amount of time.
“We celebrated with D.I.Y. button making, silk-screening T-shirts, personalizing our own post cards plus the dance party in the street, with prizes for the victors and for the best amusingly dressed team,” said Web Behrens 33, an apprentice of West Town Bikes and former victor in the Urban Assault ride. “There’s also an auction to benefit Break The Gridlock, a Chicago-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting non-fossil-fueled transportation.”
Alex Wilson was the original creator of West Town Bikes, after the Urban Bike Plan of 2000 that was prepared in 1992. The successful plan included a 315-mile bipedal network is in place; 10,000 bike racks provide convenient parking throughout the city.
“City agencies now consider bicycle issues as part of their mandates, and a Bicycle Program with professional staff is established at the Chicago Department of Transportation,” said Alex Wilson, 33.
Young hosts free classes for kids, women and anyone who wants to be learn how to ride, fix or race a bicycle. And if a person does not have a ride of their own, West Town Bike Shop provides for those in need of wheels through donations.
- Benefits of Biking(cityofchicago.org)