Sparks, Nevada, Kiwanians help kids and their families maintain, repair and enjoy their bicycles at a special bike clinic.
Story by Jack Brockley | Photos by David Calvert
Derailleur. It’s hard enough to spell. Try fixing one. A derailleur is a gear-changer on a bicycle — and a young cyclist needed hers repaired as she struggled through an obstacle course at a Downtown Sparks, Nevada, Kiwanis Club bike camp.
When the campers later moved inside for repair classes, she consulted with club member Shane Kapala.
“Let’s get it up on the stand and take a look,” Kapala said.
He showed her how to index a derailleur, lining it up at its lowest setting and then setting the cable tension so it worked.
“From there, we just moved up through each of the gears and lined it up so they all functioned as they should,” Kapala said.
Twenty years ago, the Downtown Sparks Kiwanis Club inherited a bike program from another Kiwanis club. Roger Jacobson, a club member, recalls the days of donating reconditioned bikes to schools and children-focused agencies in the Reno-Sparks community. Back then, the club budgeted US$5,000 for its Kiwanis Bike Program; today, it’s just under $200,000. And it’s much more than giving away bikes.
“In those early days,” Jacobson says, “we had some members — myself, my wife, Ellen, and Les Ede — who had been 4-H leaders. We soon began to ask ourselves why we weren’t doing more. Why weren’t we teaching kids responsible bike ownership, which means keeping your bike in good working condition so you can ride safely?”
The Kiwanians began adding safety rodeos and repair classes. Then came earn-a-bike incentives, family rides, school-based bike clubs and more.
At their repair shop, the Kiwanians sell reconditioned bikes, but rarely new ones. Nor do they charge for repairs. That would spoil a good relationship with local bike shops.
“What most people may not know is that bike shops make most of their money on repairs, not selling bikes,” Ellen Jacobson says. “If we’re teaching repairs, we’re not competing with the stores. If we’re selling repairs, we’d be in competition with them.”
Still, the club needs money to maintain its wide range of operations. At bike swaps, area residents sell their own bikes and give the consignment fees to the club. But the club’s biggest fundraiser — accounting for $50,000 annually — involves one of Earth’s most unusual cultural events.
Burning Man brings nearly 70,000 people from around the globe to a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert of northwestern Nevada. Wikipedia describes the one-week festival as “an experiment in community and art.” One of the attendees’ primary departure points is Sparks. Because motor vehicle use is limited at the festival, many “burners” rely on bicycles to get around the 7-acre community. That makes the Kiwanis bike shop a popular outfitter for them.
“We sell about 1,000 reconditioned bicycles each year to burners,” Jacobson says. “One of my favorite photos is of a woman from Ghana standing beside our map of the world with pins from visitors from around the world. She was on her way to Burning Man.”
When the week ends, many of those bikes are left behind and recycled yet again through the Kiwanians’ shop.
Jacobson also treasures a photo of a 10-year-old boy and his 80-year-old Kiwanis bike-shop mentor. The boy, who was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, became a volunteer in the Kiwanis bike program and continued through high school.
“He was a typical teenager,” Jacobson remembers. “He’d say, ‘I’m not going to get hurt. I’m totally perfect on my bike. I don’t need a helmet.’ So I’d tell him, ‘If you don’t wear a helmet, you can’t come into the shop anymore, because you are a role model for all the younger kids.’”
The next day, the teen slid through a puddle, crashed and landed hard on his head. “If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, he would have died,” Jacobson says. “Instead, he became our best advocate for fixing bicycles and bike safety.”
A year later, that teen joined the United States Navy. He’s now a nuclear engineer and credits the Kiwanis shop with giving him a practical foundation of mechanical know-how.
Lauren Brilliant is a story unto herself. Currently an honors student at the University of Nevada-Reno with med-school plans, Brilliant was required to complete a service learning project. A friend suggested the Kiwanis Bike Program.
“I didn’t even know how to fill a tire up with air when I started,” she says. “I learned pretty much everything I know (about bikes) at the shop. After I completed my service learning hours, I ended up staying on as a student employee.”
Along the way, she met Rafael.
“When she started out at camp, she was really unsteady on her bike,” Brilliant says. “Watching how she became increasingly confident, skilled and a safe rider was one of the most rewarding experiences, as Les Ede and I worked with her throughout the week.”
At the end of the camp, Brilliant, Rafael and other campers completed a successful long ride.
“While I will eventually be a doctor for other people, I currently am a doctor for bikes,” Brilliant wrote in a school essay.
Les Ede fondly remembers a timid 10-year-old girl named Emma.
“Emma was always the last one to do anything,” he says. “Of course, she was the last one to go out on the pump track.”
The pump track is a looped course with a series of mounds and flat dirt. The purpose is to use the upper and lower body to “pump” a bike around the circuit without pedaling. “It’s a full-body workout,” Ede stresses.
“The first lap, she was a bit slow,” he remembers. “The second time around, she picked up a little more speed. After about two hours later of whoop-de-dos, we had to physically go out and pull her off the track.
“From then on, she was always first in line to do anything. It was a 180-degree character turnaround.”
The Truckee River Flood Management Authority recently offered a new location for the club’s bike program. Now called the Kiwanis Activity Center, the 1.5-acre site has room for the bike shop, bike courses, pedestrian-safety classes and more.
“It’s been a much more complex move than we ever thought,” Roger Jacobson says. “After six months of repairing it, we’re just now (March 2020) getting permission to occupy the new building.”
But the new center is already generating new stories.
“Big Brothers and Big Sisters decided to come in once a month and teach kids how to garden in our garden,” Ellen Jacobson says. “Not only do we have Big Brothers and Big Sisters coming into our shop to fix bikes, but they’re also coming in and planting garlic and onions. How’s that for crazy!”
This story originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.