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

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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.

click to enlarge Free Cycles originally began as a mission to put free-to-use “green bikes” on street corners throughout Missoula. - PHOTOS COURTESY FREE CYCLES
  • photos courtesy Free Cycles
  • Free Cycles originally began as a mission to put free-to-use “green bikes” on street corners throughout Missoula.

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.

click to enlarge Free Cycles founder Bob Giordano sits on the roof of the property his nonprofit now owns. His longterm plans for the lot behind him include gardens, a bigger bike boneyard and a path connecting Free Cycles to the Riverfront Trail. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Free Cycles founder Bob Giordano sits on the roof of the property his nonprofit now owns. His longterm plans for the lot behind him include gardens, a bigger bike boneyard and a path connecting Free Cycles to the Riverfront Trail.

"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.

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