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G-Sync: The Spoke Folks Roll Out

Jay Niewiek, Executive Director The Spoke Folks.

Typically this time of the year, people begin to put away their toys of summer – toys that encouraged activity under the warmth of the sun.

For one emerging nonprofit in our community, The Spoke Folks (TSF), if all goes as planned, the popular summer occurrence of riding your bike in the city will soon become a year-round activity.

Unlike some organizations that must have a mission statement that is complex due to the serious nature of the work to be accomplished, TSF takes inspiration from the form of a frame, wheels, brakes and a seat. TSF engages our community by promoting -- as well as supporting -- the Grand Rapids cyclist through education and hands-on training of bike maintenance. 

They believe it is truly that simple to transform a region based on these areas of focus, and they are accomplishing their goals one spoke at a time.

Inspired by the role that bike shops and co-ops around the country play in our communities, The Spoke Folks with Executive Director Jay Niewiek (also a board member of the Greater Grand Rapids Bike Coalition, an advocacy group for the benefits of cycling for health, recreation, and the environment,) launched in 2012.

In a very short period of time, they would go on to deliver an exciting and rich new approach to the education of our market, but would also open a space where the delivery of hands-on instruction, often one-on-one, could commence in a relaxed environment.

The TSF Westside location in the warehouse district, just south of The Rapid, provides a place where not only can classes take place, but people who are curious about bike culture can drop in and converse in a relaxed atmosphere, building up community within TSF’s three-walled space with its disappearing fourth wall door that swings open. (This fourth door when open creates a clever outdoor showroom for the bikes that they have repaired or built and are now for sale on the sidewalk.)

This inventive use of repurposed space, like their bike parts, provides a new life for an old warehouse space and is curbside rich thus enabling folks who are passing by to satisfy their curiosity by stopping in – a fact that happens hourly as people slow to gaze out their window at the inventive and open space.

“Bikes are great! But when we started thinking about what was missing, and once it was identified, we knew that education and maintenance would fill that void,” says Niewiek, whose organization provides access via a day fee or membership to the co-op.

Many have already seen TSF’s bench, a well-stocked, pseudo portable repair station that has popped up at bike-themed events like Active Commute Week and re:State. The bench has also been seen at healthy neighborhood building activities like LINC’s Rock The Block, where neighbors are encouraged to bring their bikes in for a tune-up and get connected to resources in the community that help them roll down the street. TSF also aims to use these pop-up events to get the word out that their facility has the necessary tools of the trade to allow riders to do the repairs themselves.

Stopping by this fall, it is evident by the calendar (accessible on line as well) that TSF is in full swing. Classes are filling up the calendar almost as fast as their space has been filled with newly minted members – a real growth sector.

Community members are able this fall to sign up for educational programming, from how to ride in the city to preparing for winter, with suggestions on apparel as well as ways to protect bikes from the harmful elements like salt.  

“We even have programming devoted to the female cyclist that is quite popular,” says TSF’s education coordinator Mariah Kennedy. “For our ladies’ night programming, we have even brought in a self-defense expert to instruct women on safety and how to respond if ever attacked.”

They even organize city rides that originate in different parts of our city to ensure it is truly an inclusive venture where all members have access to being a part of a. These rides are fun but also educational on so many levels with one added bonus for those not riding. By riding throughout the city, TSF rides are (along with other bike groups hosting rides in our city) simply encouraging individuals and families on the fence through increased visibility to have the confidence to take those critical first steps according to Niewiek.

As I listen to their stories of the road, seated on the big comfy couch in their converted loading dock space that is crammed full of pieces and parts that will become repurposed for bikes, it is clear that they all agree that one theme is at the core of their mission: the need to teach people not only how to operate on the road, but also how to build a community that will understand from both the cyclist’s perspective and the automobile driver’s point of view, and the importance of cultivating a safe relationship on our streets.

The shop is one way that they are changing our community, according to Niewiek, who says, “Our vision is that anyone in Grand Rapids who wants to ride their bike, regardless of why they are riding, would be able to do so. By keeping our prices low for the parts we stock or reusing often from donated, salvaged or discarded bikes, TSF provides a space for people to work on their bikes with our volunteers’ assistance.”

The addition of educational classes and community outreach only strengthens their importance in our city as we move forward, opening more lanes of opportunity for the urban cyclist who rides for a host of reasons ranging from work to pleasure.  

They are even creating adventurous new paths within our region by partnering with organizations like The Source,  a local nonprofit committed to shortening the distance to a solution for employers and employee members. In the coming months TSF will start to work more closely with the neighborhood associations of our city, providing access to communities who are often overlooked.

It is truly an inspiring place to visit as well as get involved, as people come and go during the couple hours I spend with them.

As our city grows, studies show that more and more people will elect to look to other forms of transportation. The Rapid has responded with bike racks and the city has added more and more bike lanes, in part because of the work from the GGRBC.  

The next wave of this culture’s evolution is the education of our community, and TSF is already well on its way to solving that need. TSF provides the space for the community to grow in knowledge.

“If you have a reason you aren't enjoying a bike, we want to help get rid of that reason. Please stop by and talk to us,” says Niewiek. “The Spoke Folks are here to provide space to work, but also to empower diverse populations with our portable repair stations and hands-on education classes. We are not here to create a hand-out or do the work for you, but to create opportunity and instill the confidence to embark on that journey with others.”

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Visit G-Sync Events for a weekly curated list of events that promise much enjoyment but also help create a city worth celebrating as truly Grand. Let's Do This.

Editor’s note: The Spoke Folks are in the process of forming their board of directors. Please contact Neiwiek to inquire about the roles they are hoping to fill for the new board.
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