How to Start a Chain Reaction

S's GT

Image credit Andrew Phillip Donald Shaw-Kitch

Editor’s note: the following post is not actually by me. It was written by Steve S., a recent graduate of Chain Reaction. I was recently interviewed on The Sprocket Podcast, where Aaron suggested I reach out to our graduates for testimonials. Thanks for the great idea! And thanks to Steve, who wrote the following:

If you sign-up for the Chain Reaction Bike Co-op volunteer program, you will learn everything you care to know about building and wrenching bicycles. I have to admit, after decades of wrenching cars and motorcycles I at first felt lost in bicycle nomenclature and other terminology, as well the right tool for the job. But, with able and methodical instruction by Matthew (and trusty assistant Andrew), I soon felt comfortable with some pretty advanced stuff, like wheel truing and headset adjustment. If those procedures sound like Greek to you, no worries, Chain Reaction will have you spinning an alloy rim in no time.

And, after a couple of months of Tuesday evenings, you will be taking your own bike, hand-picked and crafted by you, for a spin to the destination of your choice. It was with with a true sense of joy and accomplishment that I was able to ride my new commuter bike from the Estate Hotel where Chain Reaction refurbishes bikes and trains others to do the same. With an impressive shop of bike stands and tools, and scores of bikes in various states of disassembly, repair, or restoration, one is immersed in all things bicycle. Road bikes, mountain bikes, BMXs and cruisers, all beckon, each with its particular mission, personality, and charm.

The hard part starts with the disassembly of a bike destined for recycling, deemed beyond repair or restoration. Long forgotten stickers may give a clue where that bike was ridden and conjure images of people and places in its history as you watch its end. Next, you must select the bike for you, out of the small sea of available bikes. You have to consider how you will use the bike; touring, racing, trail riding, commuting, etc., as you carefully make your choice.

You will also start to study the repairs your project bike will require. These, along with the work you will be helping your co-op partners do on their own bikes, will be your Tuesday evening’s hobby for the next several weeks (cookies are provided). With a full stable of 10 or so other soon-to-be bike mechanics, you will also learn to work as a team with new friends and fellows in the downtown biking community. The social dynamics and camaraderie make the evenings a worthwhile experience on their own.

Did I mention, free cookies.

So this Central City Concern (with Bikes for Humanity PDX) program has multiple benefits, from recycling abandoned and donated bikes back into use, to building a downtown community of trained volunteers, and fostering a sense of ownership and accomplishment to program participants. The program covers bike registration and security, riding safety, and the methodology and practice of bike repair and service. And, once your basic volunteer commitment is complete, there is a fully-equipped bike shop for you to repair your new bike should any problems occur. But don’t expect many. By the time you have finished your bike, you will know what you’re doing.

Don’t let the Chain of Love end with you

Corn doggy dog title credit to Clay Walker

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The above slide show features the bikes completed by Chain Reaction graduates since the last time I wrote about this. Each of these bikes represents a person who joined us for four hours every Tuesday to lovingly restore these previously unwanted freedom machines until they were ready to roll. Each person has a unique story and personality and I’d like to share a few thoughts about them.

B’s Giant Suede

Truth be told, the clientele at Chain Reaction is not very diverse on gender lines, and B is our first female graduate since 2015. I wish that weren’t the case, but I’m proud of B for joining us through personal and mechanical setbacks and now she has a beautiful, crank-forward cruiser ~ WITH A BASKET ~ and she’s set for leisurely rides around the Portland waterfront with her kids.

D’s Schwinn Le Tour

D is among the 6 graduates who just finished this past Tuesday. He was basically done a week prior but, when he asked for my help with getting performance out of his vintage, inappropriately named “safety levers,” I informed him that they are never going to work very well and set him up with a pair of cross tops and some Shimano brifters that don’t shift so well anymore but still pull a brake cable as well as the day they came out of their bright blue box. It was a pretty big project for a first-time mechanic shortly before a deadline, but he brought it together beautifully and he has a safer, more practical bike for it.

J’s Diamond Back Sorrento

J was one of the more difficult clients for me to serve so far this year. He didn’t like me, did not mask his displeasure, and said several rude things to me. I can put on a resilient front, but I’m a person too and I’m hurt by hurtful things. He also had little patience for the actual work of the program, ignored my instruction, and quit after a frustrating cantilever brake adjustment and traumatic tube explosion. I stared at his bike hanging on the wall for damn near the 60-day forfeiture deadline and called him twice, making it clear that he’s very close to finished with the bike and we’d love to have him back. HE CAME BACK, finished the bike within the first hour, and helped others for the remainder of the class before taking his bike home. You never saw a rude dude smile so wide. I wish him well and hope it’s holding up.

J’s Univega Super Ten

J was the last of last Tuesday’s graduates to finish his bike. His stress was palpable throughout 3.5 heavy hours in our allotted 4. I believe his bike to be a Miyata Univega – based on it’s era and serial number – a truly solid thing that could easily outlive me if cared for, but it has steel wheels and center-pull caliper brakes and the adjustment just isn’t that easy. But he had help – Myself, Andrew, and another recent graduate who has been back to volunteer every single week – and we got him through. We all felt lighter. Teamwork. Dreamwork. It’s what I believe in now.

M’s Schwinn Le Tour III

This was a sentimental one for me. I bought a used blue Schwinn Le Tour III from Cycle Circle in Lancaster, PA, in 2007 and it changed my life. I rode the ever-loving heck out of it until 2015, when I bought a red Schwinn Le Tour II that was 5 cm smaller, my actual size, for $11 from my neighbor’s scrap trailer and transferred all the parts over. It’s still my main whip and it has the same shop badge as M’s Le Tour III! This was the second bike M started, but the first he finished. The other was a sweet Fuji with a stuck seat post, which I’ve used as a cautionary tale for other students since; “follow the order of the checklist,” I warn, “or waste a lot of time and realize you can’t adjust the bike to fit you.” I’ve never actually said that exact sentence, but that’s the idea. M was really nice guy and he volunteered with us outside of class. I haven’t seen him since, but I hope he’s doing great and racing around on that perfect dream bike.

M’s Silver Schwinn

I don’t remember the model name of this one and I can’t tell from the photo, but it’s a late 70’s or early 80’s Schwinn road bike, pretty much the same as the Le Tour II/III. M had a series of early frustrations, including an entire class lost to truing a wheel that we ultimately decided was too far gone. I worried he would quit, but he stuck to it, and has been really excellent at helping others finished their projects as well. I hope we see him again!

M’s Sherpa Trail

I spent the “reception” portion of the Chain Reaction Pedalpalooza ride helping M finish this bike so he could ride with us. He was the only graduate to hang in for the whole thing, and has since been a valuable volunteer; I think he’s been back every week since he graduated and has particularly taken to helping teach wheel truing. He’s great! He’s riding the hell out of his bike and has modified it considerably since this photo was taken. I like it in this configuration. I like how it is now. A bike is never done. It goes with you and grows with you until you give it to somebody else, and then it goes and grows with them. 🌽

M’s Versato Riviera

Chain Reaction clients are entitled to build a bike once a year. So far, M is only the second graduate to return and build a second bike. His first was stolen 😤. M is a really nice guy. He finished this one a while back and when I saw him more recently he was riding a different, less safe bicycle. He wanted to buy parts from us but we didn’t have them. Not sure how to deal with the fact that some of our clients want newer bikes (i.e. those with disc brakes) and the simultaneous fact that we don’t have the parts to support them, as our inventory comes from donations and we get what we get and it’s mostly old (i.e. rim brakes). Something to think on.

O’s Single Speed Triple Brake Nishiki

O is a character and, appropriately, he has a fairly unique bike, one with only one speed but 3 brakes, two rim-brake calipers and a coaster brake in the rear hub. He was the first to finish his bike among his cohort and was excellent about attending every week afterwards to help others. He showed a particular penchant for cleaning, and every bike he touched sparkles in a way my own neglected beasts of burden never quite do. He graduated last Tuesday and immediately went on a ride. I saw him coming back into the building as I was leaving about an hour later. I asked him how it it was. Joyously, he was practically shouting, “Dude, I LOVE IT!”

P’s Schwinn S-25

P is a calm, quiet, respectable man who graduated with our last cohort. I’m straining for a lot to say about this one, but it’s all good. He was a total pleasure to have in class, he was dutiful in servicing this bicycle as well as helping others, and it all went along smoothly. Full Suspension; No Drama.

S’s GT Outpost

Similar to the above, this was a pretty smooth project completed by an excellent student. In fact, S has written us a blog post that I’m going to put up shortly, so I’ll leave it at that and let him tell you all about it.

The numbers: These 11, plus the 3 I posted before, brings us to 14 completed student bikes so far this year. We’re well on our way towards the goal of at least 24 (last year’s number, plus 1). We’ve also sold at least this many bikes, some fully refurbished, some not. Those might not carry the same weight, but they’re abandoned bikes we put back into the world, and that’s worth something if you care about reducing the waste stream and facilitating bike life, as I do. I saw one of our customers, on his bike, at WinCo yesterday. He said he’s been taking it all over the place, riding it every day. We’re living the dream. Keep striving✌️

This summer hurts. Come to my bike ride!

Title credit to Laura Stevenson. Two bicycles in my life have been victims of theft recently:

The purple bike, pictured left, was donated to Chain Reaction awhile back. It’s an old, logo-free Cannondale with a 1-1/4″ threaded headset, a fairly rare historical anomaly for which few modern parts exist. I had finished it with a bunch of new parts, all in the cockpit, and sold it to my next door neighbor. These new parts were inadvertently donated to a needy person with an eye for opportunity when the bike was left parked in a public place overnight 😣. I have replacements on order and my neighbor will ride this bike again soon. Rage, rage against the stealing of the bike.

The second photo is more troubling. That’s a cut lock in our bike port at my home. Somebody stole my housemate’s bike. It was a Specialized something or other, purchased new circa 2010. It was the first customer bike Give Them Bikes! ever serviced. Somebody walked right up to our house, a few feet from my open bedroom window, cut the lock, and took it. Odds are they had cased the house previously and knew there was a newer bike with a paltry cable lock sitting outside. Our house has no appropriate indoor space for bike storage and while the bikes are locked, they’re still accessible to anybody who wanders down our quiet little dead-end street. I want to file a police report, but it wasn’t my thing that was taken and my housemate doesn’t really care. I’m not sure what to do, but I have not let that stop me from planning a bike ride:


This is going to be great. Brink your chimes!

On a Chain Reaction note, the Pedalpalooza Chain Reaction ride was a mild success and our Earn-a-Bike class has turned out 4 more client bikes since I last wrote you, bringing our running 2017 total to 7, with a mere 17 to go if we want to top last year’s 23. We have 10 in process currently and several months of programming left. We’ll get there. Stay strong together. 👫 👭 👬

There is no reason not to

For me choosing bikes is easy, and choosing to help others choose bikes is even easier. I could go into all the reasons why, and hone my argument based on my audience. I could describe the livability and safety of streets where bikes hold dominion over cars for folks interested in building stronger, healthier communities. For the economically inclined, I could talk about how bike culture and infrastructure keeps money local, empowers neighborhood business, and doesn’t waste resources, citing a bazillion fun facts from Elly Blue’s Bikenomics. For folks that don’t deny the existence of climate change the argument kind of makes itself, as it does for folks that want to see activity more ingrained in day-to-day life. There is a synergy between what bikes do for the individuals that ride them, and what that riding does for the community–and we will only ultimately understand that when everyone who wants a bike gets one.

Until then we can only postulate what our communities will look like, cite studies done in the Netherlands, and gather the stories of folks who choose bikes. For me though, it’s much simpler than all the complex theory a bike advocate could dive into–I just need to remember what it was like to get a bike for the first time, have it be mine, and ride it whenever I wanted to. I just have to remember wanting to go to school for the first time in my life in 6th grade because I knew I could ride my bike there. I only need to remember the day I forgot my lock–or did I even have a lock?–and just left my bike at the racks by the gym because I had to go to class and didn’t know what else to do, and my red single-speed Mongoose being gone at the end of the day. And then remember the day I bought a red Motiv at age 16 with the money I made at the movie theater at the mall. And the day I found a Miyata at age 26 for $15 at a silent auction, and the week that I learned to refurbish it, and the half decade I’ve ridden it to places I didn’t realize I could reach on a bike.

These are all powerful feelings, and they make the choice to help others find their own life-changing bikes, and create their own powerful experiences with them, these feelings make the choice incredibly easy. The list of humans who want and need bikes but can’t advocate for those needs goes on and on, and it gives me great pleasure to see how far it goes. Whether I’m helping a busy friend buy a bike or fix their own because the whole experience baffles them, or working with Bikes for Humanity, sharing mechanical knowledge or granting bikes to 4th and 5th graders, or working for Give Them Bikes! to connect Central City Concern clients or Portlanders at large with their freedom machines, the choice to advocate for bikes gets easier and easier.


Bike for Humanity Free Tune Up Clinic circa 2015, Miyata with milk crate featured in background


The author (left) and Matthew (right) after riding bikes to Centralia to join the Vancouver to Vancouver relay, July 2016


22 bikes granted to 4th and 5th graders in the Cully Community, May 2017

💪Teamwork makes the dream work💪

Students finished 3 bikes last Tuesday at Chain Reaction. Check Them Out!

C's Red Motiv D's Black Raleigh
L's White Raleigh

Photo Credit: Andrew Shaw-Kitch via iphone via gmail

These three bikes are super righteous radical movement machines built by students in the Tuesday night Earn-a-bike program. These individuals performed repairs ranging from more or less a standard tune-up on the Red Motiv, to a total overhaul on the Black Raleigh – I believe this bike has been to Burning Man; it was coated in white dust and rusty; now it sparkles and pops with bright red accents – to a build from a largely parted-out frame in the case of the White Raleigh. Looking at each of these bikes makes me think of the unique, kind, patient individuals who put in 4 hours more or less every Tuesday for 8 weeks. It makes me feel great. These are happy pictures 😊

Even happier still! Last Thursday, 2 of those individuals, along with 3 more who haven’t even gotten their bikes yet, came to Chain Reaction just to volunteer with me on working through some of the piles and disorder that accumulates in a place like a free bike program. We didn’t completely eliminate the piles, but we made considerable dents in the mountain of dead bikes, the river of dead wheels, and the unsorted sloppy jungle of tubes. It was the first time I organized a concentrated volunteer effort in this particular venture; previously I would have spent a day like this by myself and gotten less done and had less fun. It was a great day and it carries the lesson I’m trying to learn and demonstrate: Ask for a hand and people will offer it! So far it’s proving true🤞

Straddling the arterial

Getting into bikes–especially in a town like Portland with such an established culture around them–is an exciting combination of learning the language of a subculture and feeling as though you are part of a movement to reshape mainstream culture, and creating a new language around that.

I struggled for a moment whether to start with this abstract thesis statement or to describe my run in with Norm this afternoon. I obviously went with the former to make the run in seem more meaningful.

Anyway, I spotted my fellow member of the Bikes for Humanity board coming to the 33rd and Powell intersection where I already was from the southeast. The light had just turned red, meaning this long light would have Norm and me sharing this space for close to a full minute, him pointed north and myself on the other side of the ODOT-controlled river of flying automotive metal pointed south.

This has happened to me several times, crossing Powell or Division or other major arterials in the city. Bikes can trickle to the front of the line of cars, often granted green-painted bike boxes to hang out in, so a cyclist is much more likely to see a friend or acquaintance on the other side of the light than a driver might. Likely there’s no sense in stopping to chat because either of you would have to wait for the light to cycle all the way back, and what would be the protocol for who would make such a gesture? Everybody’s time is valuable after all.

I thought about texting Norm, but dismissed it. We smiled and waved as we straddled the arterial waiting for the light to change. Another time I shouted across Division with a friend of mine about whether we were going to the same wedding. I made a shivering gesture to comment on the whether. Then the light changed and we smiled and waved, just as Norm and I did today.

I think it has something to do with faith in friendship and movement at the same time and might have something to do with this gif I just made from pics I took at the Ladd’s 500:



Well I’m going, I’m going


Photo credit Josh Roppo via Facebook

That’s a photo of *me* 😬  at last Saturday’s Second First Annual Ladd’s 500 with a lyric from Soul Coughing’s “Circles”. I just wanted to have a photo for my blog post because I think a blog post is improved by a photograph and this is a recent picture of me and it shows me in motion and that’s important and that’s what this blog post is going to be about: the value of staying in motion, of having something to do and doing it.

Give Them Bikes! is a name I thought once while daydreaming in a UBI class in 2014. As of 2017, our main activity is Chain Reaction, an Earn-a-Bike Cooperative housed in the basement of a Central City Concern residential building. We have a staff of two – myself and Andrew – and a meager but growing number of program participants, beneficiaries, and contributors. It is currently the space where I most consistently give to my community, and I am realizing recently how important it has become to me, how much I personally benefit through my work there.

I’m from Pennsylvania and I feel like that makes me an expert on cynical people and I know there is a suspicion of those of us who devote ourselves to projects of charity, that we are inherently dishonest by proposing to serve to others, as we get something out of it – perhaps a paycheck or a smug sense of superiority – and that makes our cause somehow less righteous. I hear those criticisms in the back of my head when explaining my dream public benefit business to a bicycle cynicist I may know or meet or imagine, but I need to get over that. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about the fact that I have actively looked for meaningful work in my life, or that I have had some success in this search and get to do a super cool bikey feel good thing, or that I am someone who needs reasons to live.

All things considered, I’ve had a fairly cozy experience of being a human being, but that hasn’t stopped me from being scattered and crazy, from feeling intense sadness at the knowledge that everyone will die, or just sometimes being a motionless depression slug binge-eating sour brite crawlers in bed through a long, gray winter while I wonder if there’s any value to this life I chose.

I don’t know if I have diagnosable seasonal affective disorder, or what that really means, but I know that it’s easier to feel good being outside when the weather is nice, and the weather was real nice for that super silly bike race on Saturday where the picture above was taken and I got to go as fast as I could and after the race a really nice man named Mike who never met me but read my email on the Shift list lent me a trailer and I was able to accept a large donation that will go a long way towards improving the quality of both the bikes we sell and the bikes we provide for our students. True facts: bikes make the world a better place and better bikes make it more better.

This past Tuesday, I woke up in a bad mood and spent the morning’s ride complaining about how I work too much – more or less 7 days a week in some capacity – and it feels like a drag, but then I got to Chain Reaction and a light fixture that’s been burnt out all year in our humble basement bike shop was finally repaired and in the new light our tool bench shone and it felt better to be there then than it had before and I was pleased find myself again moving from this darkness, back to the light, back to feeling joy at the privilege of serving others, back to the value of activity and community.

Next week will be our 8th class of the season and I expect us to finish 4 bicycles, more or less right on schedule. I love the day when people take bikes home. There are always last minute setbacks and much fretting, human drama, and wringing of hands, and then we get it all sorted out and bikes go out the door and everyone smiles. I have that to look forward to very shortly.

Today I met Tom of Rosewood Bikes, a place I’d been hearing about for a long time but had yet to visit. They’re still on hiatus for renovation – like my forever friends at B4H – but the renovations are well on their way and I feel completely inspired by our visit, by a sense that things are happening, that other people are also working to get bikes to people just because they too think it’s a thing worth doing.

Sometimes, all I see are the obstacles, or I look at a thing that is good and bemoan that it is not better, and when I think about Chain Reaction I tend to think about how much there is to do and how I can’t do it myself, but what I’m realizing or remembering is that I don’t have to. There is a whole community of engaged, hardworking people in this city, and if I stop hiding and just keep myself in motion, we can push this thing forward together, because it’s just good and I’m not the only one who wants to get right with what’s good. ✌️



Let me give them bikes

I work for Give Them Bikes! because doing so has allowed me to pursue my dreams.

In my dreams I ride bikes, not professionally, never in a hurry, but happily, with joy, and usually with a friend, for that is when riding bikes is the most fun. In my dream last night we abandoned our bikes at the top of a dock, that carefree dismount associated with the front lawns and driveways of suburban kids not worried about bike theft, and we ran down the dock and jumped in the water. We swam to a boat and they invited us aboard. It began to sail away, accidentally arriving in my hometown where by magic our bikes awaited us. We got back on them and I showed you the salt-sprayed road that winds around the outer edge of the peninsula, the scenic boulevard that separates the waves crashing against the rocks to our right from the interior upward sloping land to our left.

Riding bikes is an expression of freedom, this is an accepted and nearly stale trope. Freedom is meaningless in dreams, anyhow. You follow along as your fate unfolds before you, and you coast through feelings of purpose. It is movement and meaning synthesized.

Likewise riding with a friend is something deeper than freedom.  It’s where freedom meets collaboration. It holds within it the truth that nobody is free when others do not have bikes. The bicycle community refers to the value of self-sufficiency, and the freedom that a bicycle affords, to use your energy and momentum to go anywhere. This is true and important but just part of the way there.

I am interested in mutual support, where vulnerability and preparation meet. I choose to make myself available to the community and be honest about what I need and what I can provide. Just like riding bikes with friends, there’s an understanding that when one cannot go on for whatever reason, we all stop, check in, and regroup. Give Them Bikes! has let me pursue the dream that we are all friends, and that nobody gets left behind. The real ride won’t begin until everyone who wants to join gets to. Period.