Last month I went into Bearings Bike Works to donate a bike and some lightly used gear, and I ended up leaving with a new, old gravel bike. I also left impressed with the non-profit group’s mission, which is “to put the right tools in the hands of youth enabling them to advance their skills to build productive lives.”
What is old is new again: From XC to gravel
It was love at first sight. The Scott Fun XC, with its brilliant purple, pink, and lavender paint job jumped out from the row of used bike for sale in the basement-level bike shop located on the Bearings mini campus straddling Atlanta’s Adair Park and West End neighborhoods. Andrew Kobayashi is the lead bicycle mechanic at the shop, and he tells me this early-90s-era, cross-country mountain bike frame is just one of many that is donated each year.
“Generally bikes seem to get donated from all over — plenty of folks who are moving, cleaning out their garages and basements, and kids who have outgrown their bikes,” he says. “Sometimes churches or community groups hold bike drives and then show up with a quantity.”
It’s been said that today’s gravel bikes are basically 1990s mountain bikes, and this build is a literal interpretation. The Scott Sports brand got its start in Sun Valley, Idaho in the late 1950s when Ed Scott invented an aluminum ski pole. The company eventually branched out into bicycles, though you can clearly make out the two skis that once made up the Scott logo on this bike’s head badge. As best I can tell, this Fun XC bike is from 1992 and originally rolled on 26-inch wheels and tires. However, the lack of chain stay bracing allowed Kobayashi to fit a 700c wheel and 38mm tires with a hair of side clearance to spare. Presto: a bike that was once XC, is now gravel.
Kobayashi and his team essentially triage each donation that comes in to determine what it will take to restore the bike, and whether the end result will be worthwhile. “We keep an eye out for things we think our customers would respond to,” he says. Some bikes are in good shape and need minimal work to get them ready for sale, while others may need more work but are otherwise straightforward to diagnose and fix. If a bike isn’t worth fixing, participants in the youth program often work to strip the parts, with the frame and any unusable components left for neighborhood scrappers. “I like to think of this as another part of the ecosystem.”
This Scott Fun XC bike was one of those bikes that needed a lot of work. Kobayashi explains the process that he and shop co-workers Jarvis and Rashid — full-time employees who started in Bearings’ youth and internship programs — use for a build like this one.
“We all have our own sense of aesthetics and preferences, but [Jarvis and Rashid] check in with me about compatibility and style choices, and I’m always bouncing ideas back on them. While there is certainly a degree of whimsy involved in how a particular bike gets built up, I think my two goals are one, to let the bike guide the process a bit. Some are asking to be very straightforward, minimally creative ordeals driven by thrift and practicality, others have something about them that makes them unique or special, or one of us has a notion of something we want to try.
“And two, as much as possible I want to cover a lot of ground, doing as many different kinds of builds as we can so that the guys are exposed to as wide a range as possible and hopefully can learn to think about the projects creatively and ultimately inject their own personalities into the build. That also goes hand-in-hand with the desire to do cool stuff and have it on offer to our customers. Fortunately the feedback we’ve gotten has been great and we can keep going with it!”
This Scott Fun XC build is the perfect example of the cool stuff being done at Bearings. From the selection of the curly Origin8 Gary Bar to the bar-end-mounted shifter, everything is intentionally selected and meticulously installed. Even the color of the bar tape, the bottle cage, and the flat pedals work to ensure that a future buyer can feel proud to own a Bearings bike build. Perhaps my favorite touch is the Hite Rite proto-dropper device Kobayashi managed to source and include with the bike. Virtually everything, from the drivetrain to the wheels and saddle on this build is new and ready to roll. In fact, I literally rode the bike out the door and onto the adjacent Atlanta Beltline for a glorious 10-mile out-and-back.
Of course working on old bikes is not without challenges. In fact, in a lot of ways that’s sort of the point.
“I can’t tell you the number of times one of us has gotten into a build and put some time in only to discover a hairline crack in the frame, a spot softened by rust, an incurably seized bottom bracket, or the like. I think a charitable way to look at these things would be to say they’re all opportunities for growth and learning,” says Kobayashi. “Sometimes these problems can be solved in pretty prescribed ways. Sometimes it takes some critical thinking and creativity. And sometimes it’s really the subtle art of saying ‘enough: this rabbit hole is not worth going down.'”
High-end bike builds might end up in a charity auction or a raffle benefitting Bearings. More affordable bikes are put up for sale in the shop at reasonable prices for local customers. When we spoke at the shop Kobayashi recounted a story of a gentleman from the neighborhood who had never been able to buy a large enough bike to fit his tall stature, until he happened to find one for sale at Bearings. Now he’s able to ride more comfortably, and more often.
When we first entered the shop, my wife and Singletracks cofounder Leah remarked, “Wow, you actually have bikes for sale!” While riders are having a tough time finding bikes in stock in the usual places, Bearings Bike Shop draws from a seemingly endless supply. A friend told me he always refers new riders looking for a first bike to take a look at Bearings. It’s not uncommon to find solid, unique builds priced at just a couple hundred dollars or less, perfect for those starting out or just looking to get around town.
How it all started
The Bearings seed was planted back in 2008 when Tim and Becky O’Mara saw some of the challenges facing the kids in their Adair Park neighborhood. What started as an opportunity for one child to earn a bike turned into a sprawling non-profit enterprise that includes life skills and job training, a newly formed scholastic mountain bike team, and of course the Bearings Bike shop which sells and services all kinds of bikes.
Over the past ten years the organization’s impact is clear. Youth program participants have earned more than 900 bikes and in 2019, area teachers noted 60% of their students in the program improved their soft skills at school and 70% improved their sense of self-identity. This year, sixty percent of program participants met their $250 emergency fund savings goal. The skills gained at Bearings truly go beyond just learning to work on bikes.
Kobayashi says sales of bikes like my Scott Fun XC connect to the Bearings mission in multiple ways. “[Fixing and building bikes] provides jobs and training in a great field for the young people who come down to work in the shop with me. It’s [also] a service to the broader cycling community, as we have bikes ranging from super affordable — even relative to Wal-mart, a place where many of our customers would otherwise go — to custom cool, quirky projects. And it’s a revenue stream that helps to fund the whole deal.”
Clearly, Bearings reaches the community in many different ways, and there are just as many opportunities for supporters to come alongside and further the mission. Volunteers guide and mentor students in the drop-in program, help out with bike repairs, and staff events during the year. Bike donations feed the shop and repair programs, and various fundraising events provide an opportunity for individuals to contribute financially. Bearings Bike Works also boasts an impressive list of Atlanta-based corporate sponsors including Mercedes Benz, Wahoo Fitness, and Trees Atlanta.
I’m incredibly proud to own such a fun gravel bike that’s been lovingly and professionally restored. More importantly, this unique build will be a conversation-starter for years to come, and a way to share the good work Bearings is doing in the West End of Atlanta. It’s even inspired me to donate my carbon road bike that’s been collecting dust in the garage for years, now that I have this beautiful all-road ripper to take its place. And in that way, the positive cycle Bearings started rolling more than a decade ago will continue on.
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