In an old building nestled in the shuffleboard complex across from Mirror Lake, the St. Petersburg Bicycle Cooperative opened its doors Saturday to a diverse crowd of cyclists.
Modeled after cooperatives in cities across the country, including one that opened in Tampa last year, the co-op aims to put bicycle upkeep in the hands of riders, who often can’t afford some of the normal costs of bike maintenance.
The shop opens as a growing number of people and government leaders in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are warming up to alternative means of transportation. More bike lanes are being added to Pinellas’ busy roads; a bike-sharing program is starting downtown, and Pinellas voters will decide next fall whether to approve an extra penny of sales tax to pay for a light rail system and other transit upgrades.
The profusion of bicycle lanes and multiple extensions of the Pinellas Trail are proof of that for bicycle mechanic Richie Ely, who will be volunteering time at the Mirror Lake shop.
“I think St. Pete is one of the greatest places to be on a bicycle,” Ely said.
Ely said he first heard about the co-op from a friend two months ago and jumped at the opportunity to donate his time. He teaches bike maintenance at ABC Bicycles in west St. Petersburg, where he works as a bike mechanic. He plans on conducting weekly workshops to teach participants how to overhaul a wheel hub, adjust brakes and change a flat tire tube.
“Getting people on bicycles is really my main goal,” he said.
Unlike the classes you find at a retail store, people who come to the co-op don’t simply pay an entry fee. Through paying a one-time fee or volunteering some time, participants become members. They are then free to attend workshops, use some of the spare parts donated to the shop to maintain their bikes and get help from an on-site volunteer bike mechanic. There will even be a build-your-own-bike program using donated parts.
Leading up to Saturday’s grand opening, organizers were already seeing broad interest.
“It seems to be a bit of everybody now from the inquiries that we’ve gotten,” said Carrie Waite, an organizer of the co-op. “There are commuters. There are fitness cyclists. Fixed gear cyclists. Cruisers. It’s a very diverse demographic.”
Waite got involved earlier this year through her work on the board of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. Another board member had been talking about starting one up for years, she said.
“I never knew how to change a flat tire on my own bike,” she said.
After a couple of years of going back and forth with city officials, the city finally granted access this year to an old storage shed on the Shuffleboard Club property.
The concept fits well with the culture already at the shuffleboard club, fostered by special events such as the free Friday-night shuffleboard games and the annual Tweed Ride, where people don vintage attire for a group ride.
The co-op’s location also fits with the city’s plan to improve adjacent Mirror Lake Park into a safer, more pedestrian-friendly area, Waite said.
Of course, here, it’s all about the bicycle – a classic mode of transportation that more people are embracing as an economical alternative to driving.
“We hope to show the value of cycling as a form of transportation,” Waite said.