Eco Ridin'

As of 2009, there is only one Bicycle Friendly Business (BFB) in the state of Iowa, and it is located in our very own Iowa City.

The League of American Bicyclists named the Broken Spoke as a bronze level BFB last March. According to the League, which has 300,000 members, only 47 total businesses in the United States have been designated as Bicycle Friendly Businesses, and only 17 have been given the bronze award.

Pete Hartley at the Broken Spoke“I guess I felt as though [having a cycling friendly business philosophy] was just a part of my overall philosophy towards bicycles in general,” said Broken Spoke owner Michael Chamberlain during a recent interview with the Savvy Cyclist. “It was a way to put bicycles in the spotlight as transportation.”

The League defines a BFB as one that promotes bicycling as well as “practices social responsibility by weaving bicycling into the business culture and gives employees the opportunity to be active stewards of their personal and environmental health through bicycling.”

Though this definition may sound vague, according to Meghan Cahill, director of communications for the League, the selection process is quite clear.

“A committee of specialists reviews and scores each Bicycle Friendly Business application and considers feedback from cyclists in the workplace in order to determine an organization’s level of recognition,” she said. The applications focus on what the League calls the four E’s: engineering, education, encouragement and evaluation. Depending on what score a business receives, it receives a platinum, gold, silver or bronze status or an honorable mention.

Cahill said that award winners can submit a renewal form ever two years. At this time, business owners can supplement their original applications, note progress, move up to a higher award level and set new goals.

To give some perspective on how steep the competition is for BFB awards, the Broken Spoke beat out the Redmond, Washington, branch of REI (an outdoor gear retail giant), ProCycling (an online warehouse of bike products), which both received honorable mentions. The Iowa City store tied with World Bank Group (yes, that’s the World Bank), the US Open Cycling Foundation, and the National Park Service’s Midwest Region.

What makes the designation notable is that there are only two workers at the Broken Spoke (four if you count the cats!), Chamberlain and his employee Pete.

Chamberlain said that one of the reasons his store was designated as a BFB was the amount of respect he has for cyclists, “we focus on bicycles as a lifestyle choice and they are promoted as a credible means of transportation. Employees of past and present have always ridden to work and common everyday tasks are completed using our bicycles.”

But it seems safe to speculate that most owners of small bike shops in Iowa might say that he or she respects bicycles and promotes their use. To better understand what makes the Broken Spoke stand out, a close inspection is needed, as the details are what make the shop’s case.

For example, Chamberlain has taken special pains to operate the Broken Spoke in an environmentally conscious way.

“One thing that immediately comes to mind is my lack of air conditioning,” said Chamberlain. Instead, they use ceiling fans to keep the shop cool. The verdant grape vines growing on the shop’s porch also provide some protection from the sunlight (as well as a pleasing frame for the store’s front door). All lighting in the store uses energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, and the employees regularly use their bikes to haul cardboard (lots of bikes come in giant cardboard boxes, without recycling, waste adds up fast) to City Carton.

Chamberlain and Pete also recycle bikes – though not at City Carton. The store sells used bicycles, mostly acquired from trade-ins and visitors to the store. Each bicycle is fixed up by one of the two mechanics, photographed and advertised on the Broken Spoke’s blog.

“A good used bike is a great way to save money over a new bike,” said Chamberlain. “Plus, it keeps the used bike around longer instead of going to the landfill or scrap yard.”

Recently listed on the blog were used bikes available ranged from a Kona Unit 2-9 to a Columbia Commuter II “folding” bicycle to a pink and white Schwinn 1950s era cruiser. The used bikes Chamberlain accepts are generally high quality (sturdier frames, more durable parts) new (a 2009 Kona Unit 2-9 costs over $1,000) and thus make fairly high quality used bikes. They also cost slightly more than other used bikes that can be found in Iowa City, making them a better choice for a serious commuter, frequent rider or one interested in specialty cycles.

Broken Spoke also sells variety of brands of new bikes, including mountain bikes, commuters, retro cruisers, cyclocross, trikes and recumbents, folding bikes and kids bikes. Information about the specific brands is available at the store’s blog.

Chamberlain also makes custom “snowflake” wheels, for which he bends, twists and crisscrosses spokes to create unique designs. Since he got the idea after seeing a photograph of such a wheel, he learned the process through trial and error. It took him about four years to figure out the exact formula for calculating spoke lengths. Though the process was long, it was not unpleasant.

“I always get a great sense of satisfaction from building a good wheel, since it is certainly a mixture of skill and art,” said Chamberlain. “Plus, the end result is something very tangible that you can hold in your hands and spin!”

A pair of three-cross wheels (the spoke pattern found on most modern bikes) takes him about two-and-a-half hours to finish, to lace a pair of snowflake wheels takes twice that.

Each time Chamberlain builds a pair of snowflake wheels, a bike frame, or any other particularly notable bike part, he posts a photo of said object on his blog. He also often posts information about bicycle activism and politics that are happening (or are about to happen) in Iowa. One topic he focuses on frequently is Johnson County Council of Government’s (JCCOG’s) development of the Metro Area Bicycle Plan.

In 2007, Iowa City officials applied for Bicycle Friendly Community status from the League. The city’s status was denied because it did not meet a few basic requirements – even today there is only one bike lane in Iowa City (it is on Melrose Avenue, near The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics). The Metro Area Bike Plan was created with the purpose of rectifying such problems, through the use of educational programs, new road lanes and markings (such as sharrows and route markers).

“I don’t think sharrows and other traffic markings will keep downtown safer for bicyclists from motorists by themselves,” said Chamberlain. “I hope that sharrows and signs will get more bicycles on the streets. That will make things safer for all bicyclists – once more bicycles are on the roads, cars will get used to dealing with them and learn better how to interact with them.”

The Broken Spoke qualifies as a Bicycle Friendly Business for all the formal requirements; Chamberlain practices social responsibility through recycling, conservation and community activism, encourages his employees (past and present) to use cycling as a primary form of transportation and so on. But the thing that truly differentiates this store from its competitors is something less tangible: a thoughtful compassion for and dedication to bicycles and bicycling.

“Owning a bike shop is basically choosing to do something for a living that I love,” said Chamberlain. “I feel as though the cycling industry is a fairly good one in the way that it is for the most part “good.” Especially when the focus is placed on using bicycles as viable alternatives to transportation. No vehicle is cleaner & quieter than the bicycle.”