The Long Haul
Just Another Community Bicycle Shop and Program?
The Bicycle Works is nestled along Bicycle Route 20 in the Town of San Anselmo, California—just north from San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge. Bicycle Route 20 is one of the major East/West bicycling corridors in Marin, a county famous for Redwood Trees, Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch, plenty of expensive imported cars, and being the birthplace of the mountain bike. Hundreds of people ride past The Bicycle Works daily—and more often than commonly seen, on cargo bikes. The Bicycle Works has been a hub of cycling activity for the past three years, serving the community and doing pioneering work on electric cargo bikes.
Step into The Bicycle Works and the first thing that you’ll notice is a whirlwind of activity and sounds. An eclectic mix of Hip Hop and Big Band Era music rotates through the sound system while youth, their parents, adults, staff, and curious passersby filter in and out of the shop. Look around and you’ll notice rows of bikes and frames hanging from the rafters, a long workbench with truing stands and tools neatly hung on pegboard, collections of tires, bins of parts sorted and labeled. A counter near the front has curious and hard-to-find bike parts for sale under glass. A single “Anonymous” mask grins down at a man working on one of the wheel stands. Even an Atari “Paperboy” video game console from the 1980s stands in the corner. It’s a retro-DIY-youth-friendly-neighborhood-and-community-serving-bike-shop, and it has all the hallmarks of a collective space where people unite to make the world a better place.
The Bicycle Works isn’t only expanding into the space next door, they’re preparing to open the first electric cargo bike rental program in the country. Cargo bikes—both human powered and electric assist—fill the space. Electric assist hubs, longboards, Xtracycles, Yubas, Bullitts and every manner of accessory for cargo bikes fill the space. In a back corner wood and metalworking machinery stand ready to custom fabricate parts. Battery chargers crowd outlet spaces. In the center of this all stands Jelani Bertoni ready to introduce and initiate you into the world of electric assist cargo bikes.
At the Hub of it All…
For the last three years, Jelani Bertoni has been a guiding force behind The Bicycle Works. Bertoni’s connection with bicycles was cemented while attending college at the University of Santa Cruz. UC Santa Cruz sits atop a large hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean and one day standing in line for the bus that would take him to the top of the hill he noticed a bicyclist ride by, up towards campus. Standing in line to get off the bus the very same bicyclist rode by.
“Immediately after, I went to the Bargain Barn and bought a bike for $5,” said Bertoni. “Then I went to the Bike Church and learned how to fix and maintain it. From that time on, I rode to class every day. Over the course of the next two and half years I put about $400 and hours and hours of work into it. I learned to do all the work myself, and it was so much better than owning a car.”
Most volunteer-run community bicycle programs rely on the combination of a core of dedicated and passionate founders, a regiment of super-volunteers, access to borrowed, inexpensive, or free space, sales of donated bikes and support from the community in order to keep the doors open. The Bicycle Works is taking things a step further by not only adding a retail component to the organization where new cargo bikes are sold, but also creating a new program where members and the public can rent electric cargo bikes, perhaps the first rental program of its kind in the United States.
“My strategy is to fund The Bicycle Works by generating our own revenue, performing services, and selling bikes so that we don’t have to keep applying for grants or asking for handouts,” said Bertoni. “If we can be selling bikes to generate revenue that’s what we want. Also, electric cargo bikes fit into our grander vision of getting people out of their cars. This is the kind of bike that can really do that on a local scale. These are bikes that can function on a daily basis, that are powerful, can get people through traffic, and can carry a refrigerator—that’s pretty darn cool. There’s no other place where people can try out a huge variety of cargo bikes. As a matter of fact, I often try to carry things on my bike just so that people get used to seeing that it can be done.”
I asked Jelani about how sustainable The Bicycle Works is after three years of being open. He paused, thinking about how to answer the question. I could see that he was replaying the past three years in his head before answering.
“At first, it was really, really hand-to-mouth. A lot