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Photos by Wales Hunter
It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday night when they pull into the parking lot in Crestwood. Four men spill out of vehicles and get right down to business.
After they unload the bikes, they tackle the buckets of spare parts: pedals, seats, chains, training wheels. They make short work of getting organized. They have only three hours tonight, and they’re not quite sure what’s in store for them.
Mark Doll takes the lead. Bikes without kickstands lean against those that do. He sorts as he goes. There are only two categories: fixable and not fixable. He’s been doing this long enough to be quick about it.
Jim Duggins wheels a bike by without a word. He’s already set up his blue bike stand. It’s a tubular contraption that secures the bike in mid-air, tall enough so a man doesn’t have to break his back with the work. His first choice is an older model Huffy—chocolate brown with a thin tan racing stripe.
Joe Gahlinger takes on the tools first. He is twice retired—once from the U.S. Air Force, and then again from the University of Louisville. His last job involved numbers. This job involves more of a generous spirit. He joined the group because his wife thought it was a good idea. It turns out she was right. Gahlinger is considered to be the master mechanic of the group.
The fourth man is the new guy. Saurabh Kumar is Indian by birth. He is small in stature and thin, with a dazzling smile. Kumar and Doll both work in research at UofL. Tonight, by the strength of their hands and the size of their hearts, they work toward a different kind of good.
A Different Kind of Good
Doll heaves a bike onto the stand and purses his lips. He’s checked the tires, the frame, the seat, and now he moves on to the brakes. When he squeezes the silver bar, he sucks the air between his teeth and shakes his head.
Bad brakes make for an unsafe bike. This is fixable, he thinks, and collects his tools from the nearby table.
Doll, Duggins and Gahlinger form the nucleus of a group called Trikes for Tikes, with other volunteers joining them from time to time. Doll has been at this for more than a decade. He started going to Northeast Christian Church in Louisville about 15 years ago. That’s where he found the opportunity to really get his hands dirty for the Lord.
“I didn’t know much about bikes, but I liked to fix stuff around the house. I grew up on a farm, and you had to learn how to fix stuff,” Doll says. He spins the rear tire and pulls the silver brake bar until it touches the handle. The wheel continues to spin and Doll shakes his head again.
He fiddles with cables and wires as he explains how the mantle of responsibility fell upon his shoulders.
“The guy who was leading it didn’t have the time anymore. I really didn’t want to lead it, but somebody had to do it,” he says. “I didn’t feel qualified, but I decided, what the heck? What did I have left to lose? Nothing.”
He lets that sink in a moment, then pulls at a brake wire. It slips from his hands.
“Hey, I can’t get this wire here. Anybody have delicate hands?” Doll calls out, then looks at the new guy. “Saurabh, you’ve got delicate hands like a baby. Come help me with this.”
Kumar grins. He has just hoisted and secured his first bike onto his own stand, but he is eager to help, eager to learn. Doll points at the correct wire and guides Kumar’s hands through the right motions.
Together, they find victory.
Behind them, Duggins finishes with the chocolate brown Huffy. He wheels the vintage vehicle toward the back of the room, where at least a hundred bikes are lined up—fixed, rideable and waiting for new owners.
Duggins has worked with Trikes for Tikes for a decade. A retiree from Ashland Chemical, he is no stranger to volunteer work. Four years ago, he received the Bell Award, an honor bestowed on a handful of extraordinary volunteers every year. Duggins spends three to four nights a week giving to others—sometimes at the Franciscan Soup Kitchen, sometimes at the Home of the Innocents, sometimes with LG&E’s Project Warm.
Duggins was introduced to repairing bicycles when he volunteered at the Home of the Innocents. They asked him to take care of their bikes, but he didn’t know anything about them. He could have walked away. Instead, he drove nearly four hours south to visit a man named Frank Riddick. Riddick had worked on bikes for years, refurbishing what he could and giving away thousands of bicycles to needy children.
Duggins gleaned what he could from Riddick and returned to Louisville to put his mechanical education to work.
Duggins can’t remember exactly when or how he became connected with the group from Northeast Christian Church. He only knows that Thursday nights will find him here, facing the challenge of the next bike with men who don’t balk at meeting the needs of others.
The air fills with friendly banter. Wrenches clang against aluminum bike frames. Every now and then, the blue bullet compressor kicks on, builds air pressure inside the canister, and then falls silent again.
This workshop is a former retail space in a strip mall off State Highway 329 near Louisville. People pass by on their way to the Mexican restaurant a few doors down.
The men are oblivious to the passersby and to the tempting smells of seasoned beef and refried beans. They have bikes to fix and lives to change in the mending.
Blessed Are the Bike Menders
Pressurized air hisses out before the compressor hose fully connects with the tire inner tube. The men are an hour and a half into their intense three-hour session. The pile of bikes they first wheeled in has dwindled to half its original size.
No one notices anything is wrong until the small space fills with the sound of the explosion.
“Whoa!” Doll says.
Silence reigns for a few moments more as the men check their hearing. Kumar stands in shock by the compressor. He holds the blue compressor tube in one hand and the bicycle tire in the other hand. Beside him, a slow smile creeps across Duggins’ face.
Gahlinger looks at the newbie and says, “Well, I think you found a hole.”
The entire group erupts into a burst of laughter, then return to their individual projects. Kumar shrugs and walks back to the large plastic tote to retrieve another inner tube and try again.
He has now been fully initiated.
Kumar successfully inflates the tube on his second try. He returns to the bike and secures the tire with a bolt.
Kumar knows the importance of diligence and determination. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 17. Now 32 with multiple degrees, including a Ph.D., Kumar strives to find a cure for what took his mother’s life.
“I am always looking for more ways to learn about cancer,” Kumar explains as he watches Gahlinger adjust the bike’s front brakes. “Mark always talks about these things, and it makes me a little excited, and so I also want to come and join him. I don’t know too much, but I came because this is another way for me to help.”
Gahlinger nods in encouragement and agreement. He offers a mini-lesson to the new guy regarding the effects of pinches and wrinkles in inner tubes. It’s a lesson they have all learned at some point.
Gahlinger turns his attention to the caliper. He can remember his first bike.
“I was about 9 years old. One of my older neighbor kids got a new bike, and I got his old bike. I had to fix it to make it work,” he says. His dad was a mechanic, and Gahlinger picked up the skills as a hobby. He turned that hobby into a useful gift in 2012 when he joined the Trikes for Tikes group. “It’s a way of giving back. When I retired, I decided I wasn’t going to sit around all the time. Working with these guys, there’s very much a social aspect of helping folks, and I’m doing some sort of good. Get a kid and give them a bike, and it’s their very first one… That makes you feel good.”
Doll sprays Liquid Wrench on a rusted chain, and it still won’t budge. He calls out for help, and the others move in. Doll grasps the pedals and leans in, using his body for torque. The chain’s not budging. It doesn’t take him long to make the decision to cut the chain and toss it into a bucket. He then fishes through another bucket of newer salvaged chains. He’ll have to modify the chain he finds, adding links to make up the difference.
Gahlinger leans over and explains that not every bike will be 100 percent, but the bikes will be rideable, they will be free to people who really need them, and they will be safe.
“State law says that when you donate anything, it is in an as-is condition, with no liabilities and no guarantee,” he says. “On the other hand, we try to fix these to make sure they are safe. We don’t want someone getting out there and getting hurt. The fact that [the bike] doesn’t have all the gears—that’s not a safety factor. If it didn’t have brakes or if the handlebars were loose—those are safety factors. But if you have a 10-speed and you can only get five of the 10, that’s pretty good.”
The three hours are up. The best-restored bikes are held out. They will be photographed and put on Craigslist. Doll hopes to get half the retail price. The money will go toward inner tubes, brake pads and parts that can’t be scavenged off other bikes.
This Saturday, some of the men, along with other volunteers, will load up many of the remaining bikes into a trailer. They will visit low-income neighborhoods and watch the kids smile as they receive their first bicycles. The men will take a few bikes to St. Vincent de Paul and Centro Latino. The men have been known to pack up bikes and head far away, such as to Charlestown, Indiana, where they restored joy to the people with bikes after a devastating tornado.
“Whenever and wherever we feel the need, we just do what needs to be done. That’s what we are doing with these bikes,” Doll says. “I think I’ve met some really great people. You know, I know some people who sit around in their house and wonder why they are miserable. They have to go to a psychiatrist. But I think it’s mostly about getting out and meeting people. I never would have met these great guys were it not for this, and that’s really the best. It’s the relationships. It just makes your life more full.”
He gives the pedals one last push, and the chain moves freely, spinning the tire. It’s a good night to bring new life to old bikes.
“I’m just one guy trying to do what I think God wants me to do.”