The seven-year-old “UAA Bike Club” stickers haven’t lost their green and gold shine just yet. The vivid stickers pop out from the chipped workbenches and tattered manuals throughout the workspace at Off the Chain, a bicycle cooperative based in Anchorage. Although not affiliated with the university, this growing city resource owes much of its early momentum (and all of those stickers) to the now-defunct group at UAA.
UAA Bike Club may have been short-lived, but it laid the groundwork for today’s Off the Chain. Started in spring 2006 by a crew of like-minded students, the club adapted annually as each school year brought another fleet of graduations. Most of the original members earned degrees from UAA in the late 2000s, but none were ready to give up on their student club. So they adapted again.
Setting up shop
Off the Chain is a volunteer-staffed non-profit that operates an open-access bicycle workshop at least twice a week (four days a week this summer). The core group of founders—largely UAA alumni from the former student bike club—moved into their midtown space in 2009 and have since established a strong presence in the city. At their weekly open shop hours, anyone can stop by to work on their bike, purchase a tuned-up used bike or just mess around with tools until they learn a few things. Volunteers are quick to answer questions, but encourage visitors to get involved in the process and get their hands dirty (which is easy enough, given the ample supply of bike grease lying around). It’s less of a bike shop, and more like a functional Do-It-Yourself learning lab with every supply needed to repair, improve or customize your two-wheeled transportation. Or, as volunteer Michael Galginaitis succinctly stated, “It’s not a place to have your bike fixed, it’s a place to fix your bike.”
Visitors can borrow tools and receive sage mechanical advice from shop managers, all for an incredibly generous suggested donation of $5 per hour. Then again, you can always volunteer your time in exchange for parts as well. The operation is entirely fueled by donated time and money, and a large part of their revenue comes from fixing old bikes and selling them at low-cost (if you’re looking to clean out your garage, bike donations are tax-deductible). The group also has a wall of tuned-up child-sized bikes that are completely free for kids.
Off the Chain has gained significant support, supplies and visibility in Anchorage since separating from the UAA Bike Club. Open shop hours are always full and they’re turning a profit, which members put right back into the organization. It’s an impressive operation that, a few short years ago, was just a grand idea shared by a critical mass of dedicated UAA students.
UAA Bike Club, Class of 2008
Off the Chain still maintains the title “bicycle cooperative,” and the original club at UAA was a cooperative in the truest sense. “The initial supplies were all our personal stuff, so it was a really paltry set,” explained Chris Turner, who helped found the UAA Bike Club and currently serves as president of Off the Chain. “One person had a nice pump they would cart around, one person had a bike stand and we would all bring out travel kits and do what we could.”
The group originally met in a nearby member’s garage, and upgraded to the building at Goose Lake by the end of the school year. The new location, a quick ride from campus yet visibly positioned in the bike community, started the shift away from UAA. “At that point it was a student club [but] it was in a public park and open to the public,” Chris explained. “People would come in from the trail and we would work on their bikes and it was already growing beyond the university focus.”
As members graduated, they kept coming back to volunteer in the shop. “For a while there it was going on really strong until we noticed it was time to make that leap and pull community resources rather than make it a student club,” UAA grad Dan Flores said. “It got to the point where there were more alumni than students and it wasn’t sustainable as a university club.”
With fewer students still involved, the original founders decided to cut ties with the university. By fall 2008, they registered as a state non-profit. By fall 2009, they moved into their current space in the old Mat-Maid building on Northern Lights Blvd. They soon had enough business records to register as a federal non-profit—“Back then we never made any money at all, so it was easy to keep records,” Chris joked.
Off the Chain may not have official ties to UAA, but it has effectively assumed the role of the former UAA Bike Club. Current UAA students are active members of the group, as are several alumni. Off the Chain’s treasurer is even employed in UAA’s accounting department (and she’d like you to know the group is registered with Pick.Click.Give.).
Anchorage wheel estate
Tucked between two of the city’s busiest one-way thoroughfares, Off the Chain occupies a surprisingly quiet space in an old dairy building now segmented into storage units. The shop is both crowded and expansive at the same time; the room appears narrow and constricting on first glance, as every last inch of available space is in use. Tidy rows of wheels wrap around the ceiling from dozens of hooks. Grease-stained file cabinets overflow with well-sorted parts and pieces. Five color-coordinated workstations (with tool sets delineated by multi-colored duct tape) stand around the room amid buckets of handlebars and barrels of bike seats. A wind chime made from the multicolored remains of old bike frames sways above the sign-in book.
But as the room begins to fill on open shop nights, its impressive how many people can take advantage of the space at once. Volunteers slide past each other as they rifle for the right ball bearing or multi-tool. The fenced entryway quickly becomes a rotating door as military families looking for kids bikes, empty nesters dropping off donations and bike commuters with quick fix requests stop by. The sounds of Top 40 radio mix with the ratchet and clank of bikes being stripped for parts or built back up.
On biweekly meeting nights, volunteers gather around a massive whiteboard to plan ahead for the shop’s next steps. Members place bowls of hummus and guacamole on the workbench between cans of WD-40 and listen attentively. Folks raise their hand to bring up issues and ideas, and the whole place has the respectful open nature of a group that can get things done.
The collective is an inviting space, open for all levels of ideas and interest. Off the Chain is entirely dependent on volunteers, and members warmly welcome anyone with an interest. Not sure how to even pump up a tire? That’s A-Okay, says Chris. “Not knowing about bikes shouldn’t be a barrier to being as involved as you want to be,” he explained. “Most of us learned most of what we know by playing with bikes here and messing things up and figuring out how to fix it.”
There is, though, a deep and dedicated crew of core volunteers. Some members come direct from day jobs, donning a stained apron over their 9-to-5 office clothes and getting to work. Several members recently left town for jobs on road crews or fishing boats, but the reduced crew in Anchorage doubled their summer hours anyways.
A few members even flew to New Orleans last August to attend Bike!Bike!, an annual international conference for community bike programs. “It was a really amazing, inspiring event,” Chris said of the Louisiana trip. “It’s really easy to get burned out at the end of summer because you just spend so much time here and its so busy, but we all learned a lot about how to run a shop better and organize things.
“It also just got us rejuvenated about doing what we do.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement.