Rachael Spiewak teaches Sopo volunteers and the next generation of bike advocates.

Rachael Spiewak teaches Sopo volunteers and the next generation of bike advocates.

Community Thrives Around Free Bike Shop

Sopo Bikes is a free bike shop in East Atlanta where anyone can learn how to fix their bike and donate money or volunteer hours in exchange for parts. BRO talked with Rachael Spiewak, co-founder and director of the shop about Sopo’s humble beginnings, how bikes can save the world, and the joys of biking around Atlanta.

What made you decide to open a free bike shop?
Bikes address some key issues that plague this city, like race relations and environmental degradation. I can’t think of anything outside of a bike that can address environmental and class issues as well. And it’s immediate. You don’t have to take a lot of time, or money, or political lobbying to make a difference. You can get to work today and turn out new bike mechanics and cyclists immediately.

Free Wheelin'Why not do a loaner bike program like Yellow Bikes?
The Yellow Bikes program doesn’t work in cities. People just steal them. A free bike shop sounds crazy, but when people own something and they learn how to fix it, they’re more likely to use it. We’re about demystifying bike repair. It can be intimidating, but we’re trying to bring back a culture that can fix things. Fixing things has been bred out of Americans. When you learn how to fix a bike, then teach someone else how to fix a bike, it just feels good.

Tell us about Sopo’s neighborhood.
It’s two miles east of downtown. According to the census, it’s a low-income neighborhood, but there’s actually a thriving retail district. You’ve got fixed income housing, but also an organic farmer’s market, so it’s a hodgepodge of people that make up a laid-back neighborhood. We have one of the most diverse scenes you’ll find at any non-profit. It’s an amazing cross section of class, age, income, and race. When we’re open, we’ve got a crowd of people working on bikes, helping each other out.

Free Wheelin'By all standards, Sopo is overwhelmingly successful.
We started running the organization out of our house. We immediately had kids knocking on the door wanting to borrow a wrench. It wasn’t the easiest thing to maintain, so we scored some shop space. Now, we’ve spilled out into the parking lot because there isn’t enough room for all the people inside the shop.

Free Wheelin'Atlanta is not known as a bike friendly town.
That’s a bit of a misconception. Our shop is next to I-20, which is a gigantic interstate that really screwed up Atlanta by cutting off neighborhoods from each other. In Atlanta, transportation can disconnect people from their community, but we’re about reconnecting people. A lot of people think of Atlanta as being a car city. They think it’s a sprawling behemoth, but I think it’s actually a series of little villages and neighborhoods. On the ground, Atlanta is like several small towns. Atlanta’s street layout doesn’t make a lot of sense, so there are these carved-out bike routes that cyclists know and use. Once you learn them, it’s not that hard to get around the city on a bike.