Transition hangs in the air, that unmistakable feeling that something has just moved out and whatever is moving in isn't quite there yet. Furniture is sparse, just a couple of chairs and some shelves. The rooms are cold, as though the heat has been off for a while. Sunlight filters through tinted windows, and somewhere down a hallway and around a corner, someone has left a light on. Otherwise the fluorescent bulbs are dark.
Bob Giordano, 47, sits behind a desk in this dimly lit atmosphere, his stubbled face breaking sideways now and then into a huge grin. Standing, he doesn't quite crack six feet, but his presence is large, and he's usually dressed Missoula-sharp—a heavy wool sweater, maybe, or a button-up shirt, and always a flat cap over a short-cropped ring of hair. As he talks in an easy-going baritone, he passes a grease-stained finger over a map of this property on South First Street, its various components shaded either blue or orange. Orange, he says, marks the spaces currently in use by Free Cycles. Blue denotes areas still occupied by other tenants. This office, formerly occupied by Northern Building Supply, went from blue to orange just a few weeks ago. Other spaces, like the large building that now houses Zoo City Apparel, won't go orange for another couple years.
"This feels natural," Giordano says, describing the slow build to an all-orange map. "It doesn't feel out of the ordinary. In fact it feels very ordinary in a way, and real, and necessary. ... I really couldn't picture a scenario of wrecking balls on this property, and people saying goodbye to the buildings and us moving into some other place. That didn't seem like that was an option at all."
Giordano found himself in a tough spot in late 2015. Developers were sniffing around the Free Cycles lot, attracted by its potential to house new condominiums. As the offers came in, owners Tom and John Hightower came to Giordano with an offer of their own: a buy-sell agreement giving Free Cycles six months to purchase the property itself. The $1.1 million price tag was steep, especially for a shoestring nonprofit.
"That was definitely a unifying moment for us all," says Free Cycles shop director John Bonewitz.
Anyone else might have seen the pitch as implausible, pulled up stakes and moved on. According to Emily Jensen, programs director for Free Cycles and its sister nonprofit, the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, quite a few folks offered their condolences.
"They were just very set in the mindset that we weren't going to be able to make the goal, that it was too huge, that we wouldn't find a way to make it work," she says.
Bob Giordano, though, always saw things differently. With every new challengea looming deadline, or the discovery of decades-old gas plant residue on the property requiring cleanup—he'd just smile, nod his head and say, "We got this."
In December 2015, a few days after launching the Cycles of Change campaign to raise the property's purchase price, Giordano was lounging in the Free Cycles bike shop next to a plate of bagels left over from the kickoff brunch. The shop was the usual beehive of activity. The sound of hands scrabbling through milk crates full of spare brake parts and shift levers echoed off the worn hardwood floor. The nonprofit hadn't quite hit the 20 year mark, and tax records indicate Free Cycles' annual gross receipts were less than $50,000. Giordano was oddly calm for a man who had just asked the Missoula community to help him pony up for a two-acre lot in the center of town. In fact, his mind was already several steps beyond that $1.1 million, mulling the prospects for a community bikeshare program and a transportation learning center. Like the wheels on any of his three bike—she rides a road bike, a mountain bike and a cruiser—the gears in Giordano's head are always turning.
There's a lived-in charm to the shop where Giordano spends so much of his time, an atmosphere as pragmatic and abiding as one of Giordano's wool sweaters. The boneyard out back houses hundreds of bicycles of all models, sizes and states of utility. Free Cycles has given away more than 18,000 bikes since Giordano founded the operation in 1996. As for how many Missoulians have come here to tune their bikes, cobble together new ones or simply learn the mechanical basics, Free Cycle's estimate of 200,000 seems fairly conservative.
Funny thing is, a bike shop wasn't even part of the plan 21 years ago. Giordano was still a relatively fresh transplant from North Carolina at the time, having traded the Blue Ridge Mountains for graduate studies in resource conservation under University of Montana professor Stephen Siebert. Initially, Giordano and several roommates set out to put "green bikes" on various corners around Missoula, mimicking a free bike program in Portland as a way to increase local bike use and reduce reliance on automobiles. As Giordano recalls, the group sent a letter to 15 local businesses seeking sponsorship and referring to the green bike initiative as "the beginning of a journey we can't predict." Within two years, it became abundantly clear to Giordano that the effort had stirred something in Missoula, and that the journey wouldn't end with bikes on corners. The fact that people began showing up on his East Essex doorstep drove that realization home.
"When we started getting people at our house wanting to use our garage to fix a bike or fix a green bike, that led to, 'We gotta get a place where people can work on their own stuff. We can't have them just knocking on our front door all the time.'"
Free Cycles moved around quite a bit before finding its home on South First 10 years ago. Giordano can still rattle off the history: a garage in the lower Rattlesnake, the back room of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, Building 18 at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, a friend's two-car garage on California Street, a shed with no electricity and no running water at the University of Montana's community gardens off South Higgins, and, finally, a rock-walled basement beneath a computer store near the intersection of Higgins and Broadway. Landing that space downtown was when things finally began to feel real, Giordano says, but lugging bikes up and down the stairs was problematic. When the Hightowers put the building at 732 S. First St. up for rent, the timing, Giordano says, was "serendipitous."
Giordano early on parlayed his vision of Free Cycles into the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation (MIST), advocating not just for cyclists but for pedestrians and public transportation. Over the decades he's become a fixture in any municipal debate regarding street improvements and transportation development—any avenue by which he can further the MIST mission. He proved instrumental in the establishment of protected bike lanes on North Higgins, and stumped hard for traffic-calming devices like the roundabout installed in 2009 at Higgins Avenue and Beckwith. In 2005, 14-year-old Colin Heffernan was struck and killed by a pickup while riding his bike at that location—one of several Missoula bike fatalities that helped motivate the roundabout push.
Giordano's passion has led to a few clashes with city officials and, on at least one occasion, local police. In September 2010, after UM's annual homecoming parade, Giordano and two friends took their concerns about the lack of bike lane markings along the Hip Strip to the street. Using stencils and spray paint, they marked roughly a dozen bike lane signals under cover of darkness. The cops caught them and charged them with criminal mischief. Giordano later disputed that characterization in an interview with the Missoulian, preferring to call it "positive citizen action."
If Giordano's actions occasionally come off as unconventional, it's perhaps because bike-related injuries and fatalities weigh heavily on him. While in Holland and Denmark this January on a fact-finding retreat paid for by a Cycles of Change donor, Giordano heard a story about a female cyclist hit by a passing truck. Then Bonewitz, who was on the trip as well, was rear-ended by a car at an intersection in Holland—an accident that damaged his wheel but left him unscathed. And just weeks after the Free Cycles crew returned, a shop regular named Lee came limping into Free Cycles with his tricycle, informing Giordano that he'd been struck at night while crossing the Orange Street bridge.
"The bike lane was snowed and iced in, so he had to take the lane," Giordano says. "He got rammed from behind—hit and run. He's lucky to be alive. It's just—that's got to change."
Whether Giordano is advocating for lane reductions on Fifth and Sixth streets to increase cyclist safety or trying to make small cash contributions add up to a cool million, he proceeds with an almost impossible optimism. He gets just as excited about the buck and change gifted from some kid's lemonade stand as he does about the $7,500 donated by Top Hat owner Nick Checota.
Giordano came to Missoula in the early 1990s, and within a few short years he'd found his dream. Building Free Cycles from the ground up took a lot of sweat, a lot of grease and a lot of patience. During the green bike era, the outfit was pulling in maybe $2,100 a year, and there were times when the nonprofit struggled to make rent. Today, Free Cycles runs on an annual budget of roughly $100,000, mostly from donations and event proceeds. Only in the past five years has Free Cycles been able to afford to pay three staffers, at $12 an hour. Giordano himself doesn't pull a dime from the operation. He lives frugally, living off barter and the savings he's managed to accumulate from odd jobs, like consulting for other cities on their transportation systems. Not owning a car helps, Giordano says, in terms of finances and health both.
Pressed for the source of his positivity, he'll share a story about his mother, Maywood. She spent 21 years battling breast cancer, he says, and while she was still keen to go on bike rides during her occasional visits to Missoula, chemotherapy often made her too weak to pedal herself. The pain, the clinical trials, the limited mobility—she remained positive, Giordano says, "the whole time, no matter what." In the weeks before Maywood's death in summer 2014, Giordano spent a lot of time at her bedside talking about how to make society healthier. Those memories, he says, became a critical source of inspiration as he pursued the purchase of the Free Cycles property.
"Every time I would think about her, I would just get more inspired and more, 'We're doing this no matter what,'" he says. "Part of this is to honor her."
His father, Lou, also had a strong influence on Giordano's thinking throughout the campaign. Lou has always been a feet-on-the-ground type, Giordano says, and when Free Cycles had to make a choice last summer between rolling the dice on an uncertain deal for the two acres or settling for a guarantee of half that, Lou encouraged his son to go with the latter, safer option.
Giordano went with the former.
"A couple weeks later I talked to him. 'Yup, we pulled it off. We're still in the driver's seat,'" he says. "He was like, 'All right, good job. Now ground yourself.'"
That's not to say the campaign was easy. Just ask his wife, Judy, he says.
"She's been so patient, because there's been a lot of times when I haven't been home at night because I've been doing meetings and meetings, on and on. It's really hard to do a whole lot of things, to have a personal life and a professional life and do things that you feel good about for the community. It's hard to balance."
It's hard to balance on a bike the first time, too, and the Cycles of Change campaign took Giordano well outside of his comfort zone, especially with its demand that he go asking for money.
Sitting in Free Cycles' chilly new office, he slides a book by author Paulo Coelho across the desk and asks if I've ever read his work, particularly his 1988 classic The Alchemist.
"He's an inspiration," Giordano says. "One of the central themes in The Alchemist is, if you desire something pretty strong, in your heart, the whole universe kind of conspires to make it happen. I think a lot of people may approach something like they want to do it, but they don't really think it's possible, and that's just going to suck the wind out of the sails. You've got to truly believe in these things. And if you don't truly believe in them, you probably shouldn't embark on them."
Wheeling a battered and neglected old Trek 21-speed through the front door at Free Cycles, my first thought is how Giordano will react to the state it's in. He gives it a once-over, checking the chain and shifting a few gears, and says all it needs is a little work. Some grease here, a quarter-twist of a screw there. Nearly every stand in the shop is full, and Giordano occasionally peels away for a few minutes to lend a hand or some advice to another Free Cycles patron. When his feet aren't moving, his fingers are. His eyes remain in constant motion.
Giordano didn't know much about how to tune a bike when he first arrived in Missoula. But he biked everywhere as a student and, out of interest and necessity, began to accumulate the mechanical know-how he flexes at Free Cycles today. Bikes fascinated him, the way everything fit together, the geometry of interlocking tubes, cables and chain. Most of all, he gravitates toward the wheel, a sum of spokes pushing and pulling, with and against one another. As we align my front wheel, spinning it on the truing stand and dialing in the calipers until we hear the scrape that signals a warp in the rim, he explains how one tiny change in the tension of a single spoke can affect the entire structure.
"I think a lot about the wheel," he says. "I even think about it in my own life, but also with things going on here. You don't want to spend too much time on one nipple, like trying to get the tension perfect, when there's other ones over here that are going to need adjustment. In fact, when you make adjustments here, the whole wheel's changing, especially directly across over here."
When the Mother's Day deadline for the Cycles of Change campaign arrived last year, Free Cycles had raised just $125,000. The Hightowers granted an extension to July 1, and Giordano came up with a plan to secure just enough money for the down payment on the property$330,000, raised predominantly via CrowdRise—and use rental incomes from tenants, combined with continuing donations, to fund the mortgage payments. The plan worked. By July 1, Free Cycles had raised $385,000. Then the gas plant residue was discovered, prompting the withdrawal of some $80,000 in pledged donations and the nonprofit's third party co-signer. Giordano had to switch gears again, leveraging $200,000 that Free Cycles had already raised to create a limited liability company called Cool Corner with Missoula businessman David Bell. Cool Corner acted as an interim buyer, purchasing the property and holding it for Free Cycles until a more permanent investor could be found. Everything finally worked out just prior to Christmas, when an anonymous donor agreed to hold title on the property but give Free Cycles the deed while it pays back the purchase price.
Now, Free Cycles is the property's legal owner, collecting rent from the four remaining tenants. Two have signed one-year leases, and the other two have signed two-year leases—a situation Giordano says gives everyone room to breath, and allows Free Cycles to strategically implement new programs on different portions of the lot. "The four tenants total about $4,800 a month in income, and our payment to this local, private, anonymous investor is $6,600 a month," he explains. "So it's very manageable. We're now paying $1,800. We were paying $2,500, so we've dropped our rent, so to speak, by $700 a month."
Over time, Free Cycles plans to open a transportation learning center to foster neighborhood- and city-wide discussions on sustainable transportation infrastructure. An adjacent warehouse will become a space for accessory-type projects like bike trailers. When Zoo City Apparel leaves, it will be replaced with a bike share program. Within the next month, a landscaping operation will vacate the back of the lot, opening up space for gardens, a demonstration area for different types of pavement and, most likely, more bike storage. Meanwhile there's plenty of cleaning and rearranging to do, as well as a large wooden ceiling beam—recently cracked by the weight of snow and snowmelt—to fix.
In other words, plenty of spokes to adjust.
Giordano may have founded Free Cycles, but dreams for its future aren't his alone. His optimism is contagious, and his habit of crowdsourcing ideas, of inviting input from even the newest shop member, has the effect of giving anyone who walks in the door a sense of ownership in the place. After just a few short years, Jensen and Bonewitz are equally as dedicated to seemingly insurmountable missions as their boss. Asked about Free Cycles' ultimate goal, Bonewitz sounds an awful lot like Giordano. "A car-free Higgins," he says, from downtown to the Hip Strip.
With the property safe, Giordano now plans to ramp up Free Cycles' involvement in city infrastructure debates, pressuring officials and engineers to put cyclists and pedestrians at the forefront.
But even as the organization grows into an expanding future, Giordano isn't shirking his dad's advice to remain grounded. As important as they are, meetings and phone calls and events pull him away from what makes him most happy.
"I love being in that shop and helping people," Giordano says. "At the end of the day, that's when I feel the best. It's not meeting people or talking and designing. It's using the hands and less lofty things. It's just more trying to help people meet some need, meet an immediate need, to solve that right away."
It's those moments in the shop the offer the greatest insight into Giordano's strengths and motivations. He puts as much care into someone else's bike as he might into one of his own, but it's not about his own expertise. It's about empowerment. It's about guiding another person in their own discovery of how a bike works. He doesn't spend much time demonstrating. He talks, points, makes a few gestures, and before you know it you're tuning a bike on your own. Finish tuning that bike, truing a wheel, replacing a brake, and you'll suddenly find yourself almost subconsciously cleaning a workstation or packing scattered spare parts back into a milk crate. It's not a feeling of obligation, but rather a natural impulse.
Giordano may hang around for a minute rehashing the old days or talking about the future—about gardens, a bike share, a new path connecting Free Cycles to the river trail—but pretty soon he's strolling over to the next repair stand, complimenting a visitor's bike and asking if they need help. And soon enough his hands are moving again.