Sounds of bike-tinkering accompanied the bop of the radio in Strong basement at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. Lily Feingberg-Eddy ’21 knelt down to examine her current project. “Look at that,” she shouted out to fellow bike mechanic Miles Schulman ’23, whilst she gave the wheel a good spin. “The hub and axle are not interacting well,” Schulman contributed from the back corner of the intimate lounge space.
Student mechanics such as Feinberg-Eddy and Schulman work at the Vassar Bike and Repair Shop, which has been operating since the ’60s. Students, faculty and staff alike are encouraged to bring their malfunctioning bikes to the amateur gearheads, who either fix the bikes or teach riders how to make repairs themselves. Although the shop is not equipped to accommodate the entire Poughkeepsie community, mechanics will fix locals’ bikes if they bring them to the shop. Mechanics dedicate several hours of their week to repairing bikes, working on as many as 20-30 bikes within that time frame.
Feinberg-Eddy revealed that she only recently discovered that mechanical work is her personal outlet. “I had come to Vassar not having done anything mechanic-y related,” Feinberg-Eddy said with a laugh. “At Vassar you get a real mental workout all the time, but you don’t have a manual tinkering outlet.” Schulman agreed. “That’s a really good way to put it,” he chimed in. “I thought that should change. I’m on a bike way too much to not know anything about them.”
The Bike and Repair Shop’s ethos stretches far beyond repairing bikes. The space is meaningful to its mechanics for its personal and historical ambience. Bike mechanic Parvaneh Jefferson ’21 described the bike shop as a place entrenched in student history—including fliers and trophies that date back generations. “The space feels homey, it has remained untouched by the renovationist efforts by institution to ‘modernize’ dorms and make spaces look more ‘spiffy,’” she said. Feinberg-Eddy echoed her sentiment, describing the shop as cozy.
Feinberg-Eddy, Schulman and Jefferson all became involved with the bike shop in their first years. Feinberg-Eddy decided to start volunteering after receiving an email urging students to contribute to the bike distribution program, which she called the “brainchild” of Jefferson, who began working there a semester before. “I saw the swaths of bikes we had laying around that could be made completely usable with some work and thought, ‘Why not?’” Jefferson explained. Students can receive a bike not by exchanging currency, but by investing two hours of their time volunteering at the shop.
Before Jefferson began her work with the bike shop, the idea of a bike distribution program had been in the works for years. With the help of former bike mechanic Alexia Garcia ’18, Jefferson gathered volunteers to rehabilitate abandoned bikes. The Bike Shop first piloted the program last year. Because of the program’s tender young age, students are still smoothing out the kinks, Jefferson noted.
The shop is also pursuing its overarching organizational goals that extend beyond the confines of the shop. For example, the bike distribution program promotes its goal of environmentalism. “Being under the Office of Sustainability, our job is to promote eco-friendly options, and getting as many people on campus a bike is just part of the job,” Jefferson stated. Climate change needs to be addressed from a multitude of different angles, Feinberg-Eddy noted, and using an eco-friendly mode of transportation is a bottom-up method of reducing carbon emissions in one’s day-to-day life. “It helps rework the framework of how we want to live our lives in a way that’s healthful and helpful to the environment,” she said.
The shop also engages in community outreach and hosts workshops. Previously, they have hosted workshops on how to change bike tires, held art shows and participated in a food drive called “Cranksgiving.” In the future, mechanics are considering running a tutorial on how to ride a bike and a closed-circuit bike race known as a criterium, or crit for short. Through these events, the bike shop hopes to broaden its role as a community space. According to Jefferson, “[T]he Bike Shop is one of the few spaces on campus that actually has the ability of naturally creating community and we have begun that process.”
The Bike and Repair Shop and its team of mechanics plan to keep connecting with the community, while also ensuring that with every bike diagnosis and clanking of metal, bike wheels can keep turning. Hopefully, they can help the Earth keep turning, too.