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UIX: Jay Niewiek and The Spoke Folks aim to keep the community rolling

Jay Niewiek

Notice the bike lanes on many streets in Grand Rapids, and there’s no question the city tries to accommodate cyclists. But notice the white truck containing The Spoke Folks mobile workshop, and you’ll see how some in town support and encourage bicycling full time. The Spoke Folks Executive Director and Co-Founder Jay Niewiek wants to see Grand Rapidians' butts on bikes and wants to help keep those bikes running smoothly. 
Notice the bike lanes on many streets in Grand Rapids, and there’s no question the city tries to accommodate cyclists. But notice the white truck containing The Spoke Folks mobile workshop, and you’ll see how some in town support and encourage bicycling full time.
The Spoke Folks is a cooperatively run bicycle shop and depository of biking knowledge staffed by Executive Director and co-founder Jay Niewiek, Director of Shop Operations Mariah Kennedy, dozens of volunteers and a board of other dedicated cyclists engaged in the community. Each handles tasks as varied as greeting people, helping with bike repairs, building marketing materials, or helping with administrative tasks. The mission of The Spoke Folks is to promote and support cyclists in Grand Rapids.
“We want all butts on bikes,” Niewiek says. “We do this by making sure people have safe and reliable bikes and feel empowered to ride them. Realistically, that means that we sell bikes, help people fix bikes, and teach people what’s going on so they have the knowledge to go out and ride in confidence.”
As The Spoke Folks observes, “Nobody enjoys riding a bike that doesn’t work.” It’s not only helping tune up that problem, but also encouraging those with functional bikes to start pedaling that form the impetus for The Spoke Folks. And the shop, located at 221 Logan, between Grandville Avenue and Century Avenue, is open to the community to help address those issues.  
“The organization was conceived through an interest from the existing cycling community for better support to cycling to properly maintain their bike,” Niewiek says. “From there, we realized we have a unique role in being a resource to communities that do not view our for-profit shops as a resource.”
Outside the shop, Niewiek and team take part in many different cycling-centered events. There are family style rides planned each month and special destination rides to local businesses, plus other events that raise funds and awareness for local issues. The Spoke Folks even donates its truck when needed; recently it helped move seedlings from the Downtown Market to Well House for its third annual plant sale.
In the past, The Spoke Folks had donated the resources to build a bike rack for Well House tenants and to educate them on bicycle maintenance. According to Audrey Chapman, Board Vice Chair at Well House, the partnership has proven very beneficial to both, and it will continue in this year’s Climate Ride. Teams from both organizations will seek sponsorship in the 4-day, 308 mile ride.
“Well House started participating in Climate Ride last year, and this year we've done a lot of training rides with The Spoke Folks. I've personally benefited a lot from our co-team rides with them,” Chapman says.  “Jay and the rest of The Spoke Folks team are very encouraging and generous with their knowledge and expertise on how to train, and how to become a better, stronger biker.”
Carolyn Schaut, Team Well House Climate Ride Captain and The Spoke Folks board member, has helped the rest of the Well House team with different Climate Ride trainings and The Spoke Folks fundraisers. Chapman sees both groups striving towards similar goals, which makes their teamwork even stronger.
“The Spoke Folks is a great fit as a Well House partner because, like us, they believe in accessibility,” Chapman says. “Well House is about accessibility of safe, permanent, affordable housing for the most vulnerable—the chronically homeless, in Grand Rapids. Spoke Folks is based on the idea that everyone should have access to bikes and knowledge about taking care of their bikes, and on using bikes as effective and safe transportation. Both organizations also seek to be good stewards of our natural resources. “
There are some events that bring money into the organization and others cost but allow The Spoke Folks access to people with bicycles that don’t have other resources to maintain their bike, Niewiek says. It takes a balance of both.
“These two lenses define for us which events we attend,” he says. “Too much of either and we’re either off mission or broke.”
Founded with only $6,000, The Spoke Folks has grown through generated revenue and individual and corporate donations. This year, with help from its first grant from the Dyer-Ives Foundation for $20,000, the mobile repair truck was built. It was incorporated in January 2012 as an LLC with the State of Michigan, and in July 2014 received Federal 501(c)3 non-profit status.
Bicycle co-ops, although new to Grand Rapids, aren’t new to Michigan or the country. Niewiek says major inspiration has come from Detroit’s Back Alley Bikes, founded in 2000, and its retail end, The Hub, founded in 2008. Much of The Spoke Folks operations, though, are based on those of The Bike Kitchen in San Francisco. The Bike Kitchen operates as a cooperative shop providing affordable ways to acquire and maintain bicycles, encourage re-use and recycling, and work with community groups to get more people on bicycles.
While bike co-ops are experiencing growth, the movement is part of a larger interest in the Do It Together ethic, Niewiek says.
“There has been a significant growth nationally for shared spaces, which is bringing a growth in cooperative businesses in lieu of more traditional business models,” he says.

No matter the reason, for The Spoke Folks it all comes down to cycling for life.

"We believe our lives are better with bikes and it’s an absolute joy to make this a reality to our neighbors all across Grand Rapids," Niewiek says. "What I love the most about this job is that I meet people from absolutely every walk of life and we have the opportunity to treat each one of them with dignity and respect and help them reach their life goals."

For more information on The Spoke Folks, visit http://thespokefolks.org/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
Photography by Steph Harding 
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