Need Budget-Friendly Bike Repairs? Pedal Over to the Local Bike Co-Op

the St. Pete Bike Co op building with bikes lined up in front
The St. Pete Bike Co-op is a non-profit organization that provides people of all ages and backgrounds with assistance and instructions on how to repair and maintain bicycles. Heather Comparetto/The Penny

There’s nothing quite like having a shiny new bike.

That is, until something goes awry.

Shifting gears just feels a little bit off, you know? Or a tire goes flat without warning.

Leaving the bike in the garage and wishing it would fix itself is easy. Sitting in front of YouTube and trying to make sense of DIY fix-it tutorials is harder.

Bike professionals can do wonders to fix your once-trusty steed, but their prices can be prohibitive. A regular tune-up can range from $50 to $150. Private mechanic instruction can help you figure out how to do repairs yourself later on, but it can run you $65 or more per hour.

The St. Petersburg Bike Co-Op offers cycling education and affordable bike-maintenance options in St. Petersburg, Florida. The nonprofit, which is housed in an old storage building owned by the City of St. Petersburg, is run by volunteers who open up shop two evenings per week.

Members pay $40 to $100 per year on a pay-what-you-can scale system, but anyone can drop in once and pay a fee of between $5 and $10 to access the shop and its tools.

Similarly structured co-ops exist around the country, in urban and suburban areas, as well as in college towns.

While one of the major perks is access to experienced bike mechanics who will answer questions and guide you through repairs, the real perk for yearlong members is access to the right tools. You use them, clean up after yourself and ride into the sunset. If you need a part, there’s probably a used spare stashed somewhere that you can buy at a deep discount.

We paid a visit to find out what happens on co-op night.

Co-op volunteer Sal Blanquet investigates used parts to find the best fit to install on a donated bicycle. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

No one shakes hands in greeting at the St. Petersburg Bike Co-op. There’s too much grease, too much sweat. And everyone’s holding something, whether it be an oily rag, a wrench or an entire bicycle wheel. The co-op is only open five hours each week. The night passes quickly.

The co-op hosted a fundraiser to kick off operations in 2013 and raised $1,000 to buy its initial set of tools. Local bike shops send over used parts that might have a second life. Sometimes, people show up with boxes of bike parts.

“A lot of these bikes would end up in a dumpster or the landfill,” founder and president Carrie Waite says, overlooking a motley crew of vintage and modern bikes that have been wheeled out of the shed for co-op night. “It’s neat to be able to repurpose them and give them a new life.”

Christy Foust, who lives in St. Petersburg, commutes around town on her bike but plans to take it on a trip across Canada in a few months. She’s been visiting the co-op over the spring and summer to prepare, tuning up her nearly 40-year-old bike with the help of volunteer mechanics like Daniel Mrgan, vice president and another founder of the co-op.

Daniel Mrgan, left, helps Christy Foust tune up her vintage bicycle. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Mrgan says stories like Foust’s are common at the co-op. “People decide they want to get in shape or they want to go on a special ride,” he says.

He recalled two young women who had commandeered their fathers’ old bikes and planned to take a cross-country bike trip together before they moved away from one another to take new jobs. “When they told me this,” Mrgan smiles but shakes his head, “I thought they were beyond help.” But in a couple of months, they were on their way.

Leader and volunteer mechanic Chris Sheppard beams as he recalls a father and daughter team who visited before the daughter went off to college. Her bike needed a safety check; his bike needed a flat tire repaired.

Sheppard walked her through the repair steps, quizzing her on various tools and prepping her for the types of repairs she might need to do while she was at school.

“They both left smiling,” Sheppard said. “She left way more confident” and with one less thing to stress about as she left for college.

“The kids are the best. They get so invested,” Waite says as she watches Sebastian Blanquet, son of longtime volunteer Sal, help volunteer Jessica Jacobs install a set of bike pedals. “The idea of do-it-yourself really resonates with them.”

Jessica Jacobs, left, installs a set of bike pedals with help from Sebastian Blanquet. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Sheppard chats with Gregory Nista, talking him through the process of truing, or straightening, the wheel of his bike.

“Getting the wheels straight can be a game,” Sheppard says as he slowly spins the wheel toward him, stooping just slightly and squinting to spot imperfections in the alignment.

Meanwhile, Nista anticipates the next task, darting around the shed to grab tools and a tube to insert into his tire.

Sheppard says that wheels and tires usually need the most work, as they bear the weight of the rider and the hazards of the road. But working on a bike is satisfying, he says. “It makes your brain work,” Sheppard nods. “It makes you self-sufficient.”

Chris Sheppard straightens a bike wheel for Gregory Nista. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Nista knows the value of self-sufficiency. He describes himself as “upper homeless,” a transient who relies on his bike to get to temporary jobs from the PeopleReady staffing office a few miles away.

“My bike is my life,” Nista says. “I ride it all over.” He’s cycled to Tallahassee and back several times, taking a 350-mile route that passes through several Florida cities. “I can save some money and hit the road,” he says — as long as he has his bike.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

Heather Comparetto (IG: heatheretto) is a photographer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s exhibited her photographs internationally, loves the ocean, and enjoys coffee and tacos (but not together).