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Community Bike Shop Reinvents the Wheels

By Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page C04

Beside a wallful of Allen wrenches, derailleur tools and a rubber chicken, three boys in baggy jeans squirt Orange Multi-Purpose Deodorizing Cleaner on a mountain bike. They rub its frame with soft, red cloths, and a powerful citrus scent permeates the little concrete workshop in Arlington's Barcroft Park.

The boys, who are in their early teens, meet each day after school to perform the equivalent of the "Six Million Dollar Man" operation on broken-down bicycles. They make the bikes stronger, faster and a lot cooler than they were before -- so cool, in fact, that one boy was approached by a stranger wanting to buy his banana-seat lowrider, from under him.

Julian Giovanetti and Julio Gomez, both 14, evaluate a repair on a bicycle. A program called Community Spokes teaches the teenagers to build and fix bikes. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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The shop is home to Community Spokes, a three-year-old program that teaches teenagers to build and fix bikes. The program, run by the county's department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources, attracts teenagers who are not old enough to drive and who could really use a bike to get around.

The bikes are donated by the public and by Spokes Etc., a bike shop. Some are in sorry shape, others have nothing worse than a flat tire. After they're fixed, the program gives the bikes to other community programs or sells them cheaply to the public. They also fix people's bikes for a small fee.

The teenagers don't come in with much knowledge of the trade. "Most of the time, it's just anti-knowledge," said Bruce Hamilton, 35, the "den master" who teaches bike maintenance, oversees homework sessions, reminds the teenagers to wear helmets and argues with them about which radio stations are cool.

Many come from low-income families with larger problems than how to adjust a brake pad. "The thing that's neat about this program is that it teaches kids how to do small, practical things," said Hamilton, who grew up in Annandale and has been tinkering with bikes since he was a child. "It gives them a sense of accomplishment, even if they can't do anything about the bigger issues at home."

The 12 boys and two girls who work here aren't paid, but for each 48 hours of work, they get to choose any bike they want from the shop and do whatever they want with it.

"I've gotten, like, 10 bikes for working 48 hours and sold them for money," said Hans Herrera, an affable 14-year-old wearing an oversized pink T-shirt, thick silver necklace and gelled hair. He also has given bikes to friends and family members.

Hans, an eighth-grader at Gunston Middle School, joined the program two years ago. Now he writes "Happy Trails With Hans," a bike-safety column, in the program's newsletter, Spoke 'N' Word.

To get ideas for the kind of souped-up bikes that attract offers in the street, Julio Gomez, 14, Julian Giovanetti, 14, Tommy Palmer, 13, and Ben Camp, 15, recently pored over Lowrider Bicycle magazine, which features custom bicycles resembling Harley-Davidsons -- or insects. "Some of them aren't ridable," Hamilton conceded, pointing at a bike with handlebars more conducive to Stretch Armstrong than Lance Armstrong.

The shop also has bikes that aren't ridable. A brown 1980s Dutch tandem bike hangs from the ceiling. By the door is a knee-high microbike with four-inch wheels that looks barely able to support a poodle. The boys used to race it around the tennis court outside before construction started there. To demonstrate, Hamilton straps on a helmet, folds his 6-foot-3 frame over the bike's 10-inch frame and wobbles up and down the concrete path.

The bike with most interesting provenance is a silver Schwinn Stingray that was donated last year. Hamilton said it was stolen from him in the late 1970s, when he was 10, and he recognized it from the series of parallel dents where he had banged on the handlebar stem to try to fix it. He will leave it to the next generation to finish the job.

For information, call 703-228-3600, Ext. 9966.

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