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Bikes N' Roses: No Axl But These Kids Will Fix Your Flat

By Patty Wetli | December 13, 2013 11:58am
 Bikes N' Roses turns anafter-school program into non-profit business.
Bikes N' Roses
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ALBANY PARK — Christian Nava reports to work around 5 p.m., puts on an apron, picks up a wrench and starts taking apart a bike.

He's not familiar with the particular repair that's called for — and why would he be? Nava's just a freshman at Roosevelt High School.

But he's already well on his way to learning the skills of a bike mechanic as part of Bikes N' Roses, a co-op in Albany Park that's grown in two short years from an after-school program into a bona fide bike shop.

Bikes N' Roses came into being in 2011, born out of a brainstorming session by the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, which focuses on, among other social issues, ways to increase youth employment in low-income areas.

The idea was simple: Get a bunch of kids together and let them practice fixing bikes.

For the first two years, participants learned by trial and error, taking things apart and doing their best to figure out how to put them back together. They'd hold occasional events, offering free repair clinics for the chance to hone their technique, while promoting the benefits of cycling.

Enter Oscar Antonio Rivera Jr.

The 25-year-old left a job at Lincoln Park's Cycle Smithy in March of this year looking for a more youthful "for the love of the game" environment. An Albany Park resident since graduating from Von Steuben High School in 2007, he joined Bikes N' Roses in June, thinking he'd help the group organize its events.

Less than six months later, Rivera's coordinating Bikes N' Roses' transition into a self-sustaining non-profit enterprise, business license and all.

"We can finally charge for our services," he said.

Over the summer, with help from a grant through the Summer Youth Employment Program, Rivera, who's a certified bike mechanic, was able to hire 15 teens and put them through an intensive two-week training course on the basics of bike repair. Those teens, in turn, educated another 45 youths.

Kenneth Alicarte, a junior at Amundsen High School, was one of those kids, discovering Bikes N' Roses in August.

"I just really wanted to learn more about bikes. I was basically stuck in a world of BMX," Alicarte said. "I just can't get enough of it, it's part of me now."

Alicarte's reaction is a common one.

"When you find cycling as a teen, it's like discovering Zen," Rivera said.

Even for participants who aren't planning a career that involves cycles, Bikes N' Roses teaches valuable entrpreneurial, social and communications skills.

"We also learn how to handle the clients," Jessamyn Venegas said.

A junior at Von Steuben, Venegas has a fixed-gear bike she rides "almost every day." She's been with Bikes N' Roses since the beginning and is one of the program's few female members. Though still intimidated by derailleurs — a bike's gear-shifting mechanism — she encourages more girls to give bike repair a shot.

"Try it out. It's not even that hard — it's like anything you learn," she said. "Everyone who rides should know how to fix a flat."

For now, following the expiration of the summer youth grant, the teens and Rivera are running Bikes N' Roses as volunteers, with Rivera performing approximately 80 percent of the repairs while students are at school and overseeing the youths' ongoing training during the afternoon and early evening.

"I do get a small stipend, less than $100 a week," Rivera said. "I made a deal with [the neighborhood council] that if the shop takes off I'll draw a salary but my first goal is youth internships." (He assured a visiting reporter, "My mom isn't going to let me starve.")

He worked his connections with Cycle Smithy to obtain equipment for the shop at deep, deep discounts, providing students with better tools. If his negotiations with vendors pan out, Bikes N' Roses will also add a retail component, selling items like inner tubes to boost profits "so we can expand, hire and train," Rivera said.

In the bid for viability, fundraising is a constant at Bikes N' Roses, much of it done the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors asking for donations or pledges.

"It's uncomfortably hard," Rivera said of asking for money. "We will do anything to keep ourselves from getting shut down."

Bikes N' Roses' survival is paramount for Rivera, who's found his calling working with the shop's youths.

"I don't want to do anything else," he said. "It feels nice, like I somehow found a family. Everyone here is my brother and sister."

On Saturday, Bikes N' Roses will unveil its new storefront at 4751 N. Kedzie Ave. — the old shop, one door south, had a tendency to flood from the adjacent laundromat — during a Beer N' Bikes fundraiser from 6-10 p.m.

The Active Transportation Alliance is providing a photo booth, Revolution Brewing and Emmett's Brewing chipped in with beer, and jazz bands will provide the entertainment. Admission is $10, with a suggested $3 donation for beer; must be 21 years of age or older to attend.