Reno Bike Project Empowers Northern Nevada Cyclists
By: Jim Scripps
Photos: Rick Gunn
For Charlotte Jo Lippolt, the bike ride from her Reno home to work each morning is more than a commute. It’s a chance for the 30-year-old mother of three girls to finally experience a rite of passage she missed as a child growing up in a chaotic home that swirled with addiction and abuse.
“I wanted to ride a bike, but I didn’t even know how it worked,” Lippolt recalls. Her childhood was stunted by the darkness of exploitation when she became a victim of human trafficking, experimented with heroin as a teenager and got addicted to cocaine. Lippolt lost those formative years, but she didn’t lose her spirit. Now, one year sober and helping other victims find their peace, a bike ride is a spark of joy, and a chance to finally exercise the childlike wonder that comes from flying on two wheels, carefree and lost in the wind.
“I grew up so fast, and had kids and just thought having a bike was for a child. Now I think of it as a way to escape reality, but escape in a healthy way,” she says.
Lippolt’s newfound connection with bicycles comes by way of the Reno Bike Project (RBP), a non-profit shop that serves as the city’s epicenter for bike education and advocacy. From its two locations, RBP deploys thousands of bikes onto Reno’s streets, most of them refurbished throwbacks from a not-so-distant bygone era of cycling. Lippolt rides an early-90s vintage steel Bridgestone Trail Blazer, made good as new by one of the organization’s resident mechanics, and given to Lippolt, along with a helmet, lock and some basic bike education, as part of the Biggest Little Commuter Program.
Noah Silverman co-founded the Reno Bike Project on a shoestring budget in 2006 after volunteering at a community bike shop during college in Bellingham, Washington. He estimates that RBP has repurposed as many as 20,000 bikes in its 14-year run. Most are either sold for a fraction of the cost of an entry-level new bike, or given away to children learning to ride for the first time and low-income adults who need cheap transportation. The shop even partners with organizations that help Nevadans coming out of rehab or prison. It’s a critical, budget-friendly alternative to traditional shops that earn most of their business from well-to-do weekend warriors.
“The core ideas behind the Reno Bike Project are really affordability and empowerment,” Silverman says. In addition to giving new life to older bikes, RBP is also ground zero for inexpensive bike maintenance and upkeep. For $5 an hour (or free if $5 is a financial burden) Reno’s cyclists can use professional shop resources, including bike stands and tools, at either of RBP’s locations. Nine expert employees, many of whom learned to wrench themselves through RBP’s educational programs, are there to help newbies like Lippolt keep their bikes rolling. Along with do-it-yourself mechanic station rentals, the shop sells lightly used shifters, derailleurs, brakes, pedals, tires and wheels from dozens of colorful bins and racks that line the expansive warehouse space.
“Teaching people that they can actually do this is the heart of what we do,” Silverman says. RBP’s programming gives novices skills in everything from maintenance and repair, to learning to ride. “We spend a couple thousand hours a year on it. It’s not profitable, but it’s our mission.”
The work RBP does curating the alternative transportation ecosystem in Northern Nevada comes at a cost … about $600,000 a year. There are plenty of generous Reno donors, and foundation and government grants, but revenue from the business side is imperative to keep the doors open. And a big chunk of change comes from Burning Man, says shop manager Kurstin Graham.
Each year, when tens of thousands of visitors from around the world descend on Northern Nevada the week before Labor Day for the counterculture festival, many stop by Reno Bike Project to purchase their two-wheel transportation for the Black Rock Desert playa. RBP spends the winter months maintaining, prepping and storing thousands of bikes in anticipation of the one-week windfall. With the event canceled this year due to COVID-19, RBP will be pinching pennies when the temperature, along with the volume of business, drops in the fall.
“This fall is going to be really tough,” Graham says. The shop is minimizing its spending ahead to avoid layoffs or service reductions. “That’s usually where we make our winter war chest.”
During the time RBP has grown into a pivotal institution in Reno, the city has undergone its own major changes, rebranding as an arts and culture destination with an economy realigning around logistics and technology. As the city ditches its reputation as a tired gambling outpost, bike culture is a fledgling force in redevelopment, with some notable successes. In recent years Reno’s transportation planners have restriped several key streets to reduce automobile congestion, make them safer for cyclists and encourage cycling as an alternative to driving. Reno City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus laments the power of the “roadbuilding lobby” in Reno, and says government should make greater strides toward becoming a bike-friendly city. She lauds RBP as a positive force toward an urban planning scheme that intelligently balances the priorities of all users, not just drivers.
“I was around when [RBP] started, and they were really part of this urban culture in Reno when Reno was without an urban culture,” she says. “And they stayed with it the whole time, through the recession. They were just a small group of people who all knew each other, and were all about bikes. As the recession turned, and urbanism became more of a thing in Reno, they were there at the right time.”
Brekhus also sees RBP as an organization that adds verve to city life while helping community members who have the greatest needs, using cycling as a conduit to serve disenfranchised residents. “They are really servicing the unsheltered, the working poor,” she says. “But if you ask me what’s unique to them, it’s the bike culture, which is a subpart of urban culture, with the integration of Burning Man and a focus on people who really need bikes the most.”
The bike-friendly ethos of Reno is palpable for 42-year-old Florida transplant and RBP customer Algier Williamson. He arrived in March 2020, right before the COVID-19 quarantine, but even with the restrictions, he says he was blown away by the feeling of freedom traversing the city by bike.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an adult or a kid, Reno is a playground for bikes,” Williamson says. He stopped by Reno Bike Project’s 4th Street shop to get a new cargo rack installed on his mountain bike.
“One thing I love about this place is that it’s all bikeable – you can go from one end to the other in one shot, and there are bikes everywhere.” He smiles. “I think I’ll stay for a while.”
Reno Bike Project is open with restrictions and by appointment during the COVID-19 crisis. Locations include: 216 E. Grove Street and 635 E. 4th Street. By phone: 775.323.4488.