How Bob Giordano and Free Cycles made their dream home a reality. 

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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."

click to enlarge A Texas native and lifelong bike tinkerer, shop director John Bonewitz literally pedaled into Missoula in 2014 and has been a Free Cycles devotee ever since. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • A Texas native and lifelong bike tinkerer, shop director John Bonewitz literally pedaled into Missoula in 2014 and has been a Free Cycles devotee ever since.

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.

click to enlarge Emily Jensen joined Free Cycles nearly two years ago as a climate change studies intern. These days she finds herself tapping into her social work background around the shop. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Emily Jensen joined Free Cycles nearly two years ago as a climate change studies intern. These days she finds herself tapping into her social work background around the shop.

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."

click to enlarge In its earliest days, Free Cycles operated out of Giordano’s garage on East Essex. Realizing he couldn’t just have people showing up on his doorstep to tune bikes, Giordano began searching for a more permanent home. - PHOTO COURTESY FREE CYCLES
  • photo courtesy Free Cycles
  • In its earliest days, Free Cycles operated out of Giordano’s garage on East Essex. Realizing he couldn’t just have people showing up on his doorstep to tune bikes, Giordano began searching for a more permanent home.

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.

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