Photo assistance by H. Michael Karshis
Article by Kelsey Ronan

Flint City Bicycles was born when J.J. Shaver dropped his bike and broke his handlebars. Realizing there was nowhere in a reasonable distance to have it fixed, Shaver got on the internet and began teaching himself how to repair bikes.

Flint City Bicycles is a full-service repair shop and a community advocate for cycling. The company offers professional bike fitting and cycling tips to turn people from recreational cyclists to commuters “enjoying the environmental and social benefits that cycling brings to the community,” Shaver said.

Flint City Bicycles is partnered with the Free Bike Program currently being piloted at UM-Flint. The university collects donated bicycles, and Shaver and his company take them apart, paint them maize and put them back together, restoring them and returning them to the university. The maize bikes are then available to students for a quick grab, whether to get around campus or to extend the range into the city. Flint City Bicycles regularly maintains the bikes. Donations of gently used bikes should be taken to the front counter of the UM-Flint Recreation Center. Contact Gary Parr at 810.762.3441 for further information about the program.

Shaver’s company also organizes themed bimonthly rides, highlighting good places to ride in the city. “We ride through Flint’s best neighborhoods, Flint’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, the places that make this city the jewel it is. We take mostly neighborhood roads and go at a slower pace,” Shaver said. The rides are organized through Flint City Bicycles’ Facebook page.

Shaver is currently planning the second annual Tour de Flint route. The tour started in 2010 as a leisurely group ride with friends. “We wanted to bike past everything we felt was important in our personal histories in Flint: places we’d lived, places we loved. It was also a test of endurance—30 miles in the August heat.” This year Shaver is planning a 90 mile route to take place over three days.

Bicycle advocacy and social advocacy are an essential part of the Flint City Bicycles mission, and Shaver hopes to add a youth mentorship component and summer programs. Shaver explains that he thought long and hard about registering his organization as a non-profit but ultimately decided the three year funding cycles wouldn’t allow a long term focus. “We want to be running 30 years from now, with a shop, workers and committed programs for kids. I think we can be for-profit and have the same social impact and ethics that non-profits have,” he said.

Asked how Flint is for cycling, Shaver concedes it‘s both good and bad. “It’s interesting. Being the Vehicle City, you’d think it’d be horrible, but it’s a curse and a blessing. We have a lot of empty roads and thus lots of options. There are no congested thoroughfares that make biking impossible in other cities of Flint‘s size.”

The bikes Shaver has encountered in Flint are as varied as their riders. “I’ve seen everything, from the cheapest bullshit Wal-Mart Huffy to high-end vintage Schwinns still being used on the roads. I’ve done all kinds of repairs.”

An advocate for bicycle commuting, Shaver draws from his studies in Geographic Information Systems and his personal history living and working in Flint to create custom commuter routes. “I know this city street by street, block by block,” he said.

“You may start riding around the block, but if you have the right bike, a bike shop and infrastructure, you might start riding to the store or to work. They’re small steps toward becoming more conscience of transportation choices and having a healthier life and becoming closer to your community. You realize you don’t need the extra car, that you can live closer to work. You get to know a lot more about your city at 12 miles per hour than 40.”

The bike scene in Flint continues to improve, and Shaver credits the bike lanes put in downtown last May as well as the expanding trail system. Still he says he’d like to see more education on cyclists’ rights and safety.

Shaver says he‘s excited about the rail to trail conversions happening, citing specifically the Genesee Valley trail which will go from Chevy in the Hole to Genesee Valley Mall at Linden and Lennon, following a disused railway line.

“Rail trails are really good at getting people to think about biking as a viable means of transportation. The lack of traffic helps make people feel safe. And when trails expand, almost organically you get the niche growth the city needs—cafes, restaurants, shops. Property values rise. Trails are a lot of bang for their buck—certainly more than building another expressway,” Shaver said.

Shaver became a cyclist as a student at UM-Flint. “It began as a hobby, just taking the Flint River Trail recreationally, riding with groups. The next step was commuting now and again to work. Then I bought a bunch of spandex,” Shaver said, laughing. These days he’s riding a Specialized Expedition when he needs to stop at the Farmers’ Market for veggies and a Specialized S-Works E-5 when he’s seeing how fast he can go through Chevy in the Hole.

Call 810.845.0712 or email flintcitybicycles[at]gmail.com. And remember to friend Flint City Bicycles on Facebook for more information and invites to rides and events. The next ride, the Forget the Potato Salad bike ride, is scheduled for 2:30, May 28th, leaving from the Saginaw Street flat lot.

© Kelsey Ronan, 2011