When you peer in the floor-to-ceiling windows at Phoenix Bikes in Arlington, it looks just like other glitzy bike shops in the area. A polished display of high-end two-wheelers—Trek, Specialized, Bianchi, Surly, Serotta, Cannondale—beckons, and inside, the place is teeming with service technicians buzzing about from bench to rack while testing brakes, installing chains and gears, spinning wheels, and fine-tuning components.
This is a great place to buy or fix a bike, sure, but Phoenix has a secret. It’s actually a community nonprofit that combines teaching youth bike-repair skills with a full-service, professional retail store. The amazing byproduct is a program that matches free bicycles with people who need them, providing grateful recipients with a potentially life-changing means of transportation to jobs, school, and a world previously out of reach.
So how does it work? Phoenix looks for donations of high-quality used bikes, parts, and accessories. Then, professional service technicians, with the help of youth mechanics, expertly repair, refurbish, and sell those bikes and parts at competitive prices in the retail store.
Those youth are kids from sixth through 12th grade, many from underserved communities, who have signed up for the free Earn-a-Bike program. Teaming up with professional service technicians and trained adult volunteers, these students learn how to use serious shop tools as they master basic bike repair—fixing flats, truing wheels, and adjusting brakes—while gaining skills, building confidence, and making friends.
The first bike the student refurbishes is given directly to a person of need in the community, usually an adult who for various reasons cannot afford or drive a car, using referrals by community partners and agencies. Then, the student gets to select a second bike to repair and keep.
Phoenix also provides a full menu of bike service and repairs to cyclists by appointment and at reasonable cost. Given its location in a busy street-front space at 909 South Dinwiddie Street, below Arlington Mill Community Center and just a short pedal away from a network of major local bike trails, it’s well-positioned to serve those needs.
Executive Director Emily Gage says that since its launch in 2007, Phoenix has engaged more than 2,000 youth in its program, with more than 700 earning their own bikes so far. “That’s the real mission of Phoenix—to educate youth. We do educate adults, but it’s always geared toward having them volunteer with us in some capacity so that we can achieve that goal,” says Gage.
Phoenix, which relies entirely on donations and money earned through its retail operation, also reaches out to its neighbors with educational programs through local schools, Scouts, and community groups.
“This is a great place for kids of all backgrounds, whether from private, public, or home school, to make friends with students they otherwise might not have had a chance to meet,” says Gage.
Phoenix has become a social haven over the years for all walks of students, including those who struggle with academics, come from single-parent homes, or simply enjoy working with their hands more than being in front of a computer. “Kids are on screens a lot these days, and this kind of hands-on work really taps into a different kind of energy,” says Gage.
At 13 years old, Kenmore Middle School student Evelyn McCabe has an official title many a seventh-grader would envy: student bike mechanic. She joined the Earn-a-Bike program last July to fulfill a community service requirement for school.
“I’m really into technology, and I just needed eight hours to get my STEAM certificate at school,” says Evelyn. “But I really liked working at Phoenix Bikes and have done more than 50 hours already, and I plan to keep going.” When Evelyn signed up for the program, she envisioned mostly paperwork right off the bat, “not actually touching a bike,” she says. “But on my first day, we immediately got to work taking a bike apart, and that really made me happy.”
Evelyn’s first project was to repair a bike for a 7-year-old girl. “It was a little bike, with a loose chain and jacked-up gears, and it was a lot of work,” she recalls. “But I knew it was going to someone who would enjoy it, so that was great.” Her second project, the bike she could keep for herself, turned out to be a case of love at first sight. “They take you into a garage with a big pile of bikes and let you choose,” she explains. “I was looking for a specific type—a beach cruiser with gears—and lo and behold, the first bike I saw was that. It was an old-style Schwinn. There wasn’t much wrong with it, and it was my favorite color, too—an awesome kind of gray metallic blue, really cool for a bike—so pretty. I knew I’d found my bike.”
Evelyn also knew she didn’t have to go back to Phoenix after that, but she did anyway. “I am really excited to have someplace to come after school where I can just walk in and start working on a bike. It’s a stress-reliever for me. I’m a tinkerer, and my parents think it’s great that I like to come here,” says Evelyn. “I’m proud to have something I’ve learned that I will have for the rest of my life, and my parents like to brag about me. Bikes give me a chance to just mosey around the trails, just pedaling, listening to music. It’s calming.”
Some Phoenix youth come back as paid employees, such as shop manager Noe Cuadra, who first wandered into Phoenix in 2013 as a high school student looking for help with his bike’s flat tire. “They told me about their youth program, and I was riding a BMX. I wanted a faster bike so I could ride longer distances on all these trails,” he says with a smile.
Cuadra volunteered until 2014, when he landed a job there as a part-time bike mechanic while still at Wakefield High School. Today, with a couple of degrees and promotions under his belt, he runs the place. Cuadra’s ride of choice is a cherry-pink-purple-and-orange Gunnar, which he cleans every week. “I like bikes that are colorful and unique, like me,” he says with a laugh. “That’s the way it is at Phoenix. It’s a welcoming environment where we all feel free to reach our goals. The way I see it, we help our customers get educated on what they are buying, and together we are helping our community—there’s nothing better than that.”