BRIDGEPORT — Navy veteran Rob Walker looks at the chipped frame of an old Schwinn bike and sees the revitalization of blue-collar Chicago manufacturing.
Walker, 38, wants to transform a handful of donated 1970s-era Schwinn bicycle frames into a fleet of high-end commuter bikes, each outfitted with state-of-the art upgrades.
"Let's take this 40-year-old bike and see how modern we can make it for today. Let's give it the absolute best components on the planet. Let's see if we can take this old machine and just ridiculously overengineer it and make it work," said Walker, who works with Leave No Veteran Behind, a nonprofit veterans resource agency.
To make it happen, the Hyde Park resident has enlisted the help of two different sources: disadvantaged teenagers and Bridgeport bike mechanic Adam Clark, who operates his Pedal to the People mobile repair shop from inside the Bubbly Dynamics sustainable manufacturing center, 1048 W. 37th St.
"Adam has the best reputation in town when I talked to all the other bike guys," Walker said.
Walker, a former mechanic on a Navy nuclear submarine and an attorney, is an energetic tinkerer who's fond of "thrifting, swap meets and finding Chicago's old junk."
The veteran's group he works with has partnered with GreenCorps, a city program that aims to teach green industry job skills, like solar manufacturing and agriculture.
"Basically these are kids who never handled a wrench or screwdriver in their lives. They've already learned how to build bikes out of the box. And it was cool to help build some cheap Wal-Mart bikes, but frankly these kids are bright. Let's see if we can't take that up a notch and start teaching them engineering," he said.
Working without a blueprint, Clark has marching orders to bring the old frames back to life as lightweight, high-speed bikes designed for the discerning rider.
The process has been fraught with trial and error.
New parts aren't fitting the old ones. Steel has been bent. There have been frantic Web searches to track down a specific Dutch manufacturer's handlebars.
"This has been a learning experience for me, too," Clark said.
Soon, the prototype will be stripped, sandblasted, powder coated and painted dark green. It will feature all-new everything, including the addition of a small generator to charge electronic devices and lights.
They're hoping to debut it at a Critical Mass bike rally in March.
Then, Walker and Clark would bring the GreenCorps teens into Clark's shop to lend a hand building nine more "Smartbikes," plus a pair of other bikes — a heavy duty cargo model and a bike that will function as a power generator — the same way.
Walker has launched an online crowdfunding campaign to help the veterans group buy parts for the remaining bikes.
"What I want to do is give these kids a chance to build the type of machine that's the best of its kind on the planet. We’re hoping that we can send a message, that we can take things left over in this great city and make them new and great pieces of art all over again," he said.