"How many people does it take to get the chain back on?" Andy Mueller asked sarcastically, shaking his hand in pain.
Mueller, a graduate student in forestry and first-time visitor to the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative, had pinched his fingers helping to repair an ailing bicycle named "Free Spirit." Moments later, Ritchie Vaughan finagled the links into place, her light-pink tank top speckled with grease.
Vaughan, a graduate student in forestry, is president of the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative. The cooperative is a donation-based, student-run outfit offering free bicycle construction and maintenance. The group exists to advocate bicycling as central transportation over extraneous vehicle use.
And unlike other passive bicycle shop experiences, the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative encourages customers to be hands-on. They can apply their new knowledge on subsequent visits and help other bicycle novices.
"I find it very meaningful to teach other people how to work on bikes and to get people on bikes," Vaughan said.
The group formed three years ago, influenced by a student's senior capstone project.
Tom McDaniel, Virginia Tech alumnus, constructed a Web site in the spring of 2006 for tracking bicycle usage. After creating a username and password, the Web site members could post their per-day bicycling mileages by utilizing resources such as Google Maps Pedometer to calculate distances. The data was then displayed for universal viewing. The Web site generated enough word-of-mouth interest to start "Bike Challenge," a competition among individuals and teams to record the biggest numbers.
Tech alumnus Yusef Messallam recognized the enthusiasm for "Bike Challenge" as a catalyst for a bicycle cooperative.
"I saw that there was interest in cycling as a lifestyle," Messallam said, "not just competing or racing and such, but as something that you do as part of your daily routine."
Prior to attending Tech, Messallam was a member of a bicycle cooperative in his hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif. He worked alongside fellow Tech alumnus Aaron Barr to establish a Blacksburg version in the fall of 2006.
Barr afforded his house on Turner Street for the first Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative location. The YMCA donated bicycles, community members contributed bicycle components, and Messallam bought the first set of tools.
After a stint on Toms Creek Road, the cooperative now operates out of Vaughan's Glade Road backyard where Messallam's tools are still in the mix.
Alongside Vaughan, Graham Snyder, junior geosciences major, and Jon Wyatt, a graduate student in forestry, comprise the principal cooperative mechanics.
Under the brick house's two-story wooden deck, approximately 30 bicycle frames are haphazardly stacked, and others dot the concrete patio where "Free Spirit" was revived. A sliding screen door at the slab's edge leads into the cooperative "shop," a basement room littered with bicycle paraphernalia.
Covering much of the walls are rows of bicycle wheels varying in diameter, and nearby are countless tires of different treads and thicknesses. Along the baseboards, boxes overflow with parts such as handlebars and brake calipers. Deflated tire tubes reside in a Blue Moon beer case (although the cooperative prefers Pabst Blue Ribbon). A countertop supports plastic drawers labeled with contents, including handlebar plugs, brake pads and spoke nipples.
Despite all the equipment, the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative only manages to use a fraction of the gear, partially because of slim operating hours since the staff makes academics a priority. Messallam, now general manager of Bike Barn in Blacksburg, acknowledged the cooperative's limitations but underscored the success of its mission.
"It's a small space," Messallam said. "It doesn't handle a lot of volume, but the fact is it gets people talking. It gets people thinking and talking about bikes."
And Vaughan has sensed a shift in Blacksburg bicycle culture.
"I think the size of the community is definitely expanding," Vaughan said, "and I would attribute that both to economic conditions - gas prices - to awareness of sort of green environmental endeavors."
Cooperative attendee Andy Mueller hopes the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative can help him realize his unique take on alternative transportation. A two-wheeled bicycle is not on his agenda - he could never quite leave the assurance of training wheels.
Mueller proclaimed: "I'm interested in building a trike."