Table of Contents


Introduction & Recycle-A-Bicycle: The New York Model

Laying the foundation

Project Definition

Organizational Structure


Nuts and Bolts

The Bicycle Collection Network

Curriculum Content

Public Relations

Finding the Funds

Safety, Quality Control, and Liability

Last Words

Resource Directory & Bibliography

Appendix I - Financial and administrative information

Appendix II - Forms and Materials used by RAB [1 MB]

The Authors

Thank yous

Tools for Life: 
A Start-Up Guide for Youth Recycling & Bicycling Programs



It isn't hard to get kids to have fun. Set up a game of tag, give them a ball, or sit them in front of a computer game. You'll see the reputed "short attention spans" of children lengthen far beyond the limits of any adult's patience. No, fun is definitely easy. The tough part is finding an activity that will both entertain and educate kids. In addition to being fun, a good program should:

  • Impart new knowledge
  • Reinforce lessons learned in school
  • Develop social skills
  • Set a clearly defined standard of quality
  • Provide a solid work ethic and a sense of personal accomplish- ment
  • Foster skills that will be of use in the "real" world as well as in school

RAB is one of those rare programs that fulfill all of these requirements, especially the fun part. On any given day at one of our shops, the visitor can walk in and find dozens of boys and girls completely absorbed in their activities. They're happily getting their hands dirty, but they're also solving complex problems, developing their motor skills, learning how tools and machines work, and, last but not least, making a concrete impact on behalf of the environment.

For us, the items listed above more than justify the existence of RAB in an educational setting, but we take our concept a bit farther. Throughout our classes, we relate the lessons we're teaching to other areas of study. For example, we tie bicycle development to modem history by pointing out that the Wright brothers couldn't have developed the airplane without the background in lightweight engineering that they acquired as bicycle mechanics. We also point out that advances in bi- cycle technology paved the way for automobiles and other machinery.

Reading, writing, and artistic skills find a place in RAB, too. As we are writing this, an I.S. 218 group is developing a campaign to transform an unused strip of land along the Hudson River into a footpath and bikeway. They're creating logos, posters, and brochures to promote the scheme.

Of course, our main objective is always to teach children the art and science of bike repair. Just how far do we go with them? Pretty far.

Structuring Your Courses

In the late 1970's, Charlie McCorkell and Hal Ruzal began offering a seven-week repair course for adults at Bicycle Habitat, their Manhattan bike shop. When George Babiak worked at Habitat, he took over as the teacher. That same course, expanded to eight sessions, became the model for RAB's classes.

Each session is unique, but some features are consistent throughout the course. Approximately half the session (or less) is spent on a lecture/ demonstration. A suitably generic "demo bike" is selected by the instructor beforehand. As the students watch, the instructor goes through the procedure and completes it. Usage of correct terminology is emphasized throughout the demo. The students are then split into teams, put on their aprons, and are assigned to workstands (each with a pre-selected bicycle already on it). They then do the "hands-on." If volunteers are available they, too, are assigned to teams. As the kids work, the instructor roves from stand to stand, making sure the assignments are proceeding well. When they are done, the instructor checks the work, makes any necessary final adjustments, puts a final "oomph" on all the nuts and bolts, and delivers high praise for a job well done. The class ends with clean-up.

Curriculum Breakdown

1. Rules and Tools/Fixing a Flat- Check back to Nuts and Bolts ("Atmosphere") for a description of Rules and Tools. Fixing a Flat covers removing a rear wheel, using tire levers to pull out the tube, finding and properly patching the hole, and putting everything back in place. We start with a tire that's already flat. If we don't have a flat tire on hand, we'll use a thumbtack to create one. We don't let the kids see us doing this (they might get ideas).

2. The Brakes- After defining the various types of brakes (caliper, coaster, and cantilever), a standard caliper cable is removed and replaced. The brake is then adjusted with the "third hand" (a name every kid remembers), lubricated, and checked. The difference between the adjusting nuts (which hold the caliper arms together) and the "main" nut (which holds the brake onto the frame) is clarified. If any bikes on the stands need new pads, we cover that, too.

3. The Front Hub- The initiation into ball-bearings and grease begins with the simplest of the b.b. assemblies. The hub is taken apart, totally cleaned and repacked, then re-assembled. Some time is devoted to the concept of friction and the reason for using bearings.

4. The Rear Hub- Same procedure as the front, but with the added challenge of removing the freewheel. The bench vise is introduced.

5. The Bottom Bracket- Quality bikes come with 3-piece cotterless cranks, but our introduction to the heart of the bicycle always starts with the Ashtabula, or 1 -piece, crankset. It's the most common in the shop and is the easiest for kids to work with.

6. The Headset- The last of the overhauls. Headsets may not seem as important as the other classes because they're "only" for steering, but it should be noted that this class also includes stems and handlebars, which are areas of potential danger if not maintained properly. For this reason, stem expander bolts are explained in detail. We favor single-speed, coaster-brake bikes for this class because there are no cables to complicate the job.

7. Derailleurs and chains- Many kids don't have the foggiest notion of what goes on when a shift lever is pulled (that goes for adults, too). We always start this class with a demonstration of how to shift gears on an elevated bike. There's usually a "wow" or two when they see the chain jump from one cog to another. We then remove and replace a cable and perform the various adjustments. If there's time, we demonstrate the proper way to use a chain-link tool.

8. Final Exam- RAB's 3-page test is a mix of multiple-choice questions, a pictorial matching column, and one big, scary essay question that tests the imagination more than anything else. Some kids find the test extremely difficult, others think it ridiculously simple. You'll find a sample exam in the appendix.

If there's an area that RAB is deficient in, it's in riding technique. Our inner-city locations make it difficult to organize group rides for our students. We do know that they'll ride anyway, so we cover safety practices throughout the course. At some point during the first four weeks, we also show the kids "Bicycle Safety Camp," a videotape on safe cy- cling produced by a cough medicine company. It's a bit hokey, but it's the best video we've seen on the subject.

Advanced work

RAB's course is quite thorough, but it still only scratches the surface of bike repair. The kids who really start learning are the ones who come to Earn-A-Bike or Fix-Your-Own-Bike sessions and put their knowledge into practice. They also happen to be the kids most ready for more knowledge, so it is in these less-structured sessions where more difficult procedures are covered.

As the need for advanced work arises in the shop, an instructor or skilled volunteer will take on the job and have one or two kids act as assistants. Advanced work can include the following:

  • Coaster brake hub overhauls
  • Cantilever brake adjustments
  • 3-piece cranksets
  • 3-speed adjustments
  • Freewheel overhauls
  • Wheel truing/building
  • Fork and frame alignment

Wheelbuilding is the most arcane of bicycle skills and only one teen volunteer, Omar Guzman of I.S. 218, has actually completed the job of lacing a rim to a hub and properly tensioning it. Many kids have trued wheels, however, with varying degrees of success. Fork and frame alignment is even more problematic for kids because it requires both dexterity and brute strength. Traffic accidents (a common cause of bike damage in the Big Apple) tend to be so catastrophic that very few bikes damaged thusly can be aligned, anyway.

Evaluating the Work

Although we take our exam results seriously, they are not always the best indicator of a child's progress, particularly in a school like I.S. 218, which has a heavy immigrant population (many students there don't know English). We believe the best way to evaluate a child as a student of bicycle mechanics is by direct observation.

Mechanics are like musicians. It's very easy to tell who in the classes are the "good" ones. These are the kids who work cleanly and efficiently, adjust bearings to roll smoothly, and ask all the right questions. Others have genuine difficulty in grasping the basic concepts. When grading students, we try not to weight our scores too heavily toward "natural talent." Instead, we gauge the level of effort and the amount of concentration devoted to the task. In our estimation, the kids who try hard and show up regularly are the ones who perform the best.

Class size and Time-frame

Bike repair takes time. Make sure your instructor has plenty of it. There should be time allotted for set-up before the class and for clean-up and check-over afterward. We found that the class itself should usually be 11/2 to 2 hours long. Remember: you'll need to show students how to do a process, they'll then need to do it themselves, and then you will all have to put the shop back in order. Nothing is worse than having one class come in on the heels of another and work in the same mess.

The most effective classes happen when the students start and finish a job in the same session. Don't hold any jobs until "next week." In a busy bike shop, it's too hard to keep a bunch of loose parts together with the bike they came from.

RAB started small with a test group of 12 students that were handpicked by the faculty of I.S. 218. In June, July, and August of 1994, we expanded rapidly by taking on 4 groups of 15 students each from the Children's Aid Society Summer program. These early classes were structured around what we believed was the ideal format: each group met with us for two hours, twice a week, for a total of 8 sessions.

Our real test came in the Fall of 1994, when we integrated RAB into the school schedule. We still held all our classes on Wednesday and Friday, but now we crammed 4 groups into each of our teaching days: two 45-minute morning groups, an afternoon session of two hours, and a 90-minute after-school class.

At the time of this expansion, NYC's school system was undergoing tremendous upheavals. I.S. 218 had several hundred extra students unexpectedly dumped onto them, forcing the faculty to create a new "Town Meeting" format. The Town Meetings were basically large assembly classes held in the auditorium for a hundred or more students. Our 45-minute classes were drawn from these Town Meetings, and we found ourselves with 25 students in each of these short classes. We feared there would be too many students and too little time.

We were right. The most successful classes were the 2-hour afternoon sessions, which did not exceed 15 students. For the short classes, we broke up our 8-session plan into 16 segments, with a demonstration one week followed by a hands-on the next. It fit into the school day, but with a full week between demo and actual practice, the learning process suffered greatly.

Tricks and Gimmicks

As we taught, we discovered certain techniques that kids responded to. Here's a small sampling of them:

Clever demonstrations- Kids always wonder what those little steel "balbarians" (a frequent NYC kid's corruption of "ball bearings") do inside the bicycle anyway. We talked about the reduction of friction a lot, but the best way to illustrate the principle is with a heavy toolbox. If the box is sitting directly on a table, it is very hard to slide around, but if a number of ball bearings are placed underneath it, it can be spun around with an index finger.

Brilliant Analogies- To underscore the importance of correct nomenclature, George sometimes delivered this lecture to the kids: "Going into a bike shop is like going into a restaurant. You can't just walk in and say 'Uh, can I have some of that stuff you put in your mouth when your stomach hurts and you swallow and it makes you feel good?' You've got to ask for 'food!' And if you can ask for a burger and fries, you'll get even better results."

Unforgettable Metaphors- "Okay, when the hub is all nice and clean, put in a nice bed of grease... Gently ease the bearings into the bed.... Now, tuck them in with a blanket of grease." After giving this description, we'll often hear kids in the hands-on part scold each other for forgetting "the blanket."

Awesome Displays of Superior Strength and/or Knowledge- Winning the respect of students is half the battle of teaching. Instructors can easily gain status with students by undoing a nut that no kid can budge. Showing that you know more than they do works, too. Every now and then a kid shows up who's seen and done everything. He'll usually say something like, "Oh, bikes. I know all about bikes. I take 'em apart, I put 'em back together. I do everything!" Our stock response to this is "Terrific! I need someone like you! While I teach these guys, could you take this wheel over to the truing stand and straighten it out?" It doesn't take long for the kid to realize that he's in way over his head. Depending on your own abilities, you can choose to dramatically true the wheel in front of the class, but it won't be necessary. Your point will have been made.

Inspirational/Informational posters- Early on in RAB, George posted a sign that read "Remember: You are the Doctor, the Bicycle is your Patient!" Karen thought it might be considered "corny," but it often struck a chord in kids. Once, a boy named Luis Felipe knocked over a bike while arguing with another student. When his attention was brought to the sign, he shrugged his shoulders and said "Well, I'm the Dr. Kevorkian of bikes."

We'd suggest decorating the walls of your shop with as many instructive posters and displays as you can. Some can be obtained from bicycle manufacturers, others can be created by your staff or even the kids themselves.


It would be easy enough to start a project that just gives bikes away to kids, but there's a basic problem with unconditional gifts: they're just not valued as highly as the things we work hard to acquire. How many bright and shiny Christmas toys have you seen turn into February's sad, broken junk? The possessions we remember most fondly from child- hood, however, are the ones for which we saved up over excruciatingly long weeks or months. Earn-A-Bike goes not one, but two steps beyond the old process of saving pennies from one's allowance: it gives kids a job that pays the way toward their bicycle and teaches them how to care for it at the same time.

We've found that this program, in one form or another, is the main reason for the existence of quite a few projects. Chances are it'll probably be a component of your project, too. It would be too cruel to dangle bikes in front of kids and not offer them the chance to earn one.

Through trial and error, we've established the following guidelines for operating our Earn-A-Bike system.

The Unit of Currency- simply The Hour. To earn a bike, a kid must put in 24 hours of shop time. The "price" is the same for any bike in the shop (except "baby" models, which are lower). Some projects adjust the number of hours depending on the style and quality of the bike. We've heard of some models going for as much as 120 hours in Indianapolis' Bicycle Action Project. One reason we haven't set different prices is that we have too many kids. Extending their stays would crowd the shop even further.

The challenge of Earn-A-Bike is to keep careful records with precise running totals. Expect kids to ask "How many hours I got?" roughly every 8 minutes.

We Decide on the Work- Most kids expect to come in, pick a bike, and start working on it. We don't let them. The first 18 hours of the 24 have to be spent on the jobs we give them. This rule holds firmly for all kids. The work we hand out can include repairs, bike cannibalization, tube reclamation, shop organization, cleaning, or anything else the project needs done.

Picking the Bike- After Hour 18, students are allowed to designate shop bikes as their own. A tag is placed on the handlebars that marks the bike as "taken." Yes, some models are certainly nicer than others, but they are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The bikes must remain in the shop, but the kids can spend the next 6 hours of their obligatory time fixing up their designated bike. Once they hit Hour 24, it's theirs.

Class Time Doesn't Count- RAB is unusual because our classes are part of the school's curriculum. If a kid is assigned to us, he or she is obliged to come. It would be too easy for kids to rack up time this way. For this reason, Earn-A-Bike hours can only be earned after school or on weekends. If we are charged with unfairness, we quietly inform them that we're already giving them something during class: the skills of a professional bike mechanic. If further disgruntlement is voiced, we add that adults are happy to pay George $140 to take a course in bicycle repair that they're getting for free. We don't get too many complaints after the first class.

Your project may not be housed in a school and your teaching system may not be as formalized as our own, so feel free to modify these rules to fit your own situation. The important thing is to establish them before the kids start clocking in. Be firm in enforcing the rules of Earn-A-Bike and make sure they remain consistent from kid to kid (no one is more sensitive to inequity than children).

At I.S. 218, there are two weekly sessions for Earn-A-Bike: Wednesdays, from 3:30 to 5:00, and Saturdays from 11:00 to 5:00. Sometimes there are 20 kids or more in the room during these hours. If you can arrange or afford it, we suggest having more sessions with less kids in each. The time will be a lot more productive. Adult volunteers are very useful in these sessions, too.

When kids first come to us, they often declare that they'll spend "the whole 6 hours" every Saturday and earn their bikes in double-quick time. Some kids are capable of this, and some bum out after an hour or two. You may want to set a time limit at the beginning.

Not all kids are Earn-A-Bike types. Some will come in once, start a time card, and never show up again. Don't blame yourself for a high attrition rate. It's just a fact of life. The positive side of having drop-outs is that it only makes it that much more special when someone reaches the "magic 24."

Is there a life after Earn-A-Bike? Yes, there is. If your project is like ours, kids will keep coming to your shop long after they've taken their bike home. Many of them will be content just to earn more hours and boast about them to their friends, but you may institute some follow-up goals for the long-termers.

Items of Wonder

When donations start rolling in, you'll get more than bikes. At RAB, people have donated tons of bike accessories, tools, parts, books, helmets, and even clothing. Take everything you can get, because if you can't use the stuff in the shop, it can always be "sold" to kids for Earn-A-Bike hours. Kids love being able to spend their hours on things, and it has the added benefit of providing them with valuable experience in budgeting an income. We've often heard kids thinking aloud along these lines: "Gee, I could get a water bottle today, but maybe I should add my hours to the bike."

One of RAB's most popular rituals began when George decided to minimize the inevitable chaos unleashed by a fresh batch of donations. He did this by having all the kids remain on one side of a table while all the goodies remained hidden on the other side. Then, he slowly presented samples of each product one at a time and extolled their virtues, a la the Home Shopping Network. Before an object was placed on the table, it was always introduced with the phrase "And the next Item of Wonder is..." The suspense of the process thrilled the kids and the name, silly as it was, stuck. It's not unusual for a kid to come into the workshop and say "Can we do the Items of Wonder?"


An ongoing surplus of "baby bikes" led to one of the most charming customs at I.S. 218. At their own request, kids started earning bikes for their little brothers and sisters. The bikes are so small and simple, and the thought so generous, that we make an exception in our 24 hour rule. Baby bikes can be had for a mere 12 hours of service. Some kids have also earned bikes for members of their family older than themselves. Selfless projects like these should always be encouraged.

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