For a Thursday afternoon, Phoenix Bikes right next to Columbia Pike is busy.
The school is closed due to the Diwali holidays, so there are a number of teenagers here in the S. Dinwiddie Street store spending their time learning how to build and repair bikes.
“I learned how to fix a flat tire,” says 12-year-old Evelyn McCabe, holding a wrench in one hand, noting that she will one day become an engineer. “I was actually riding a bike and I had a flat tire, but I knew how to fix it… it makes me feel good because I’m able to do that stuff.
Phoenix Bikes is an Arlington nonprofit, founded in 2007, that teaches kids how to repair bikes. Of course, their mission goes far beyond. As their website explains, “Phoenix Bikes harnesses the power of bikes to help young people develop their passion, purpose and a place in the community. “
“They learn social skills, they build their self-confidence, they learn to problem-solve, to keep themselves from frustration,” Phoenix Bikes executive director Emily Gage told ARLnow as startup echoes and clicks echoed in the background. “It’s so much more than bike mechanics.”
All students in grades 6 to 12 are eligible to take the Phoenix Bikes programs.
There is no application or filtering process, only registration, said Gage. While the vast majority come from Arlington or Alexandria, students come from across the region to work in the workshop.
The main program is “win-a-bikeWhere students repair a bicycle and then donate it to a community member in need. Phoenix Bikes is working with a number of other local nonprofits to provide these bikes to those experiencing homelessness, emerging from incarceration., or simply need a reliable means of transport. After building a bicycle for a member of the community, the students get their own bicycle.
“All the skills they’ve learned, they can use on their own bikes,” notes Gage.
Overall, it typically takes students 12 weeks and around 20 to 25 hours to complete the program, Gage says, although they are able to do it at their own pace.
Phoenix Bikes relies on donations, both financial and bikes. The store receives about 1,000 donated bicycles per year, Gage says, all intended to help students learn how to repair, build and maintain a bicycle.
It is also a full service bicycle shop for the community, where everything from tune-ups and repairs to custom builds is done, with the proceeds also going to programs. The older students are store managers and sales representatives, helping customers solve their problems and find the bike that’s right for them.
Phoenix Bikes also brings its unique method of teaching life skills to several schools in Arlington County and Alexandria each semester, following the earn a bike program to meet students where they are.
In addition, it has a racing team and more advanced mechanics courses.
In a typical year, Gage says Phoenix works with around 400 students in total. Last year, however, that number was intentionally cut in half, to just around 200 students, to keep groups smaller due to Covid protocols. It is hoped that next year the program will return to its previous capacity.
Tofik Beshir, 14, goes out with his bike that he has just repaired. He is a star student and a recent winner of the GRIT Prize, awarded to students who demonstrate perseverance, discipline and enthusiasm. He has been with Phoenix Bikes for about two years. When he started there, he saw the bicycle as just a form of transportation. Now he sees it as so much more.
“It completely changed my world,” he says. “It allows me to be myself.”
Beshir really got into mountain biking – something that can be a challenge in Arlington – and racing. Despite his age, he says his life is “all mapped out”. He imagines himself becoming a professional racer, opening his own bike shop and traveling the world on his bike.
Right now, however, he’s going to school, biking a lot, and spending the rest of the time tinkering at Phoenix Bikes. He also says, laughing, that his friends ask him to fix their bikes all the time.
With the skills he has learned, Beshir feels free. He can go anywhere, and if his bike falls flat or a chain breaks, he can usually fix it.
“Sometimes I roll and roll,” he says.