Jake Oswalt rolled a lime green, Ninja Turtles bicycle across the Community Bikes shop floor. With every step Oswalt took, the bike’s new rider — a little boy whose family recently came to the United States as refugees — grew more visibly excited.

The boy wiggled and chattered and stamped his little Velcro sneaker-clad feet until he was jumping up and down, squeezing his fingers around the handlebars when Oswalt presented the bike to him.

As Oswalt helped the boy’s three older siblings find their own bicycles, Community Bikes Executive Director Lauren Riegl pulled a new Spider Man helmet down from a shelf. The boy recognized the character immediately and grinned ear to ear as Riegl gently clipped the helmet below his chin. 

Moments like this are common at Community Bikes, a local nonprofit organization that has been giving away bicycles to those in need since 2001. They’ve become even more common over the past year, as Community Bikes has moved into a new, larger space and expanded its programming.

Jake Oswalt, Community Bikes operations manager, asks a group of siblings about their experience riding bicycles. Oswalt and the kids did not speak any of the same languages, so they communicated via hand signals, facial expressions, and head nods. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf / Charlottesville Tomorrow

When Community Bikes started more than two decades ago, anyone who wanted a “free” bike had to donate their time to build one. 

But, under that model, longtime Community Bikes volunteer and current Program Director Kyle Rodland had a feeling that the people who really needed free bikes weren’t actually getting them. So he partnered with three local organizations to help with that: The Haven, a day shelter for unhoused community members; Piedmont House, a residential re-entry program for men convicted of felonies; and the Women’s Initiative, which offers counseling, social support, and education for women, regardless of their ability to pay.

The partnerships worked on a sort of voucher system, where the organizations would send the folks they serve, who also needed bikes, to Community Bikes.

Now, Community Bikes partners with more than 30 such organizations, including the International Rescue Committee, who brought the brothers in to select and test-drive their new sets of wheels.

Test-driving bikes is just one of the many benefits of Community Bikes’ new space in Preston Plaza on Preston Ave., around the back of the building that also houses Sticks Kebob Shop and Mona Lisa Pasta.

(For those who remember, it’s where the “Down Under” space of the Outback Lodge venue was, Oswalt said. He chuckled at the memory of the wild shows he saw in the space where he now gives away Ninja Turtle bikes to small children who have, by terrible circumstances, found themselves thousands of miles from home.)

Community Bikes moved into the new space about a year ago, in June 2021.

Before that, it operated — rent-free — out of a garage on the corner of Garrett and Avon Streets, a building owned by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The CRHA needed the space for a housing development and terminated its agreement with Community Bikes in early 2021

While the move wasn’t made by choice, it does come with benefits, said executive director Riegl.

The new space is better laid out and it fits more of everything: bikes, bike parts, bike accessories, tools, volunteers and mechanics, customers.

With the new space, the group hopes to continue growing.

Community Bikes moved into its new location in Preston Plaza nearly one year ago. The space holds more of everything: Bicycles, repair and work stations, gear, parts, and people. When Charlottesville Tomorrow visited, they were playing the Go-Gos on the turntable. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf / Charlottesville Tomorrow

A lot of folks know about the organization’s charitable arm, said Riegl, in part because of the work Rodland and others did early on and continue to do.

But it’s also a bike shop. Lots of folks aren’t aware that even if they’re not eligible for a free bike, they can come to Community Bikes to purchase parts and gear (even brightly-colored cycling jerseys), or a refurbished bike. 

“Refurbished bikes sales are a huge part of our revenue,” said Riegl. They’re a major factor in how many bikes the group is able to give away. People can donate bikes and bike parts, and volunteers will fix them up to either sell or give away. “When you buy a bike at Community Bikes, it goes directly to supporting our programs,” she said.

Community Bikes’ website has more information on its programs, including free bike vouchers, refurbished bike sales, mobile repair clinics, social rides, and more.

They also raise funds via events and grants, and receive donations from other organizations around the area.

In 2021, Community Bikes sold nearly 400 refurbished bikes and gave away more than 800 — about 600 to kids, 200 to adults.

From its new space, the organization also started mobile repair clinics. “We bring out a bunch of volunteers, a bunch of tools, a bunch of parts,” said Riegl.

“And fix as many things as we can in three hours,” added Oswalt.

During a 90 minute mobile clinic, Community Bikes volunteers can fix about 40 bikes. At no cost to the riders. They try to set up shop in public housing and low-income communities, to make sure that folks who need these services can get them as easily as possible. Sometimes they set up at Westhaven around the time the school bus drops kids off. Kids will race home, grab their bikes that need fixing, and race over to the mobile bike shop trailer, said Riegl.

Recently, Community Bikes brought the mobile clinic to the Riverside Ave. community (Riverside is one of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority communities). It took a while for the kids there to figure out that they could get their bikes fixed, said Oswalt. 

But, once they knew what was going on, they told their friends, parents and siblings, and in about 45 minutes, Community Bikes volunteers fixed 26 sets of wheels, said Riegl.

Oswalt works on converting a race bike into a commuter bike. It’s a common thing, said Oswalt, and requires adjustments to the seat, the handlebars, and gears so that they’re more comfortable to ride. Community Bikes receives a lot of older (and even vintage) race bikes as donations, and staff and volunteers “have to find a better way to use them,” he says. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf / Charlottesville Tomorrow

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Erin O'Hare

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's neighborhoods reporter. I’ve never met a stranger and love to listen, so, get in touch with me here. If you’re not already subscribed to our free newsletter, you can do that here, and we’ll let you know when there’s a fresh story for you to read. I’m looking forward to getting to know more of you.