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Working Bikes Co-op Turns Would-be Scrap into Wheels for Thousands

By Paul Biasco | October 6, 2012 1:51pm | Updated on November 20, 2012 7:18am
 Working Bikes, a Pilsen area co-op, sends about 6,500 donated bicycles to those in need worldwide each year by fixing up and selling about a quarter of their bikes out of their storefront.
Pilsen Co-op sends 6,500 bikes worldwide a year
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PILSEN — Lee Ravenscroft knew the most valuable thing on a scrap truck was a bike, and 13 years ago he set out to cash in on that knowledge.

What started as a small effort to buy the bikes off scrappers before they could sell them to a junk yard for a dollar or two, has turned into a cooperative that donates about 6,500 bikes a year all over the world.

The cooperative doesn’t advertise in a move to maximize its donations, but word of Working Bikes has spread throughout the city.

In order to fund the enterprise, Working Bikes sells about a quarter of the reclaimed bikes and, in the summertime, it is not uncommon for a line to stretch around the block for first pickings at some prime wheels.

 Lee Ravenscroft explains the process of refurbishing a donated bike at the Pilsen-area co-op he started called Working Bikes, which sends about 6,500 bikes around the world each year.
Lee Ravenscroft explains the process of refurbishing a donated bike at the Pilsen-area co-op he started called Working Bikes, which sends about 6,500 bikes around the world each year.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

“Initially it started with stopping bikes from going to melt yards,” said Bob Hogan, who commutes from Indiana to volunteer at the shop about twice a week. “The primary purpose of Working Bikes now is to send bikes to people in need.”

The organization's outreach stretches throughout the Midwest, and, on a normal day, about 20 or 30 bikes arrive at the loading dock and are packed into the co-op's back warehouse.

Three-quarters of the salvaged bikes are shipped abroad, most to Third World countries in Africa and South and Central America, but a portion of the bikes also are distributed domestically.

Most recently, the cooperative sent a shipping container filled with about 500 bikes to New Orleans.

Ravenscroft, 61, who is retired and lives in Oak Park, said a not-for-profit in the city requested the bikes following Hurricane Isaac.

“We had an organization up by Lake Oshkosh (Wisconsin) that got 1,000 bikes for us last year,” Hogan said. “It was like, ‘What!'"

Most of the bikes heading to Africa are sent in a shipping container filled with not only bikes, but parts as well. On occasion a volunteer will join the shipment to help those receiving the bikes learn how to repair and maintain them.

“For some, such as Cuba, we give them away to the 500 poorest families in the village,” Ravenscroft said. “For others, we donate them to NGOs who are set up like us.”

Working Bikes got its roots in the basement of a six flat in Pilsen moved into a muffler shop and is now housed in a warehouse in the Heart of Italy neighborhood on the southwest side.

Since moving into the new location about three and a half years ago, the cooperative has seen a boom in retail sales simply through word of mouth.

Pete Nichols, 18, started his freshman year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this fall and left his bike in his hometown of Atlanta.

“I was just looking for a cheap bike,” he said. “I heard that I should come early to beat the hipsters who take all the good bikes.”

It is not uncommon for an expensive road bike or cruiser to be donated to the cooperative, and, Ravenscroft said, many people didn't realize the number of bikes that could be donated because of such a donation.

“It costs $10 to ship a bike to Africa,” he said. “Someone brings in a $1,000 bike, we can sell that and you just sent 100 bikes to Africa.”

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