Wrenching for a Ride

Detroit nonprofit Back Alley Bikes offers opportunities for youth (and adults) to build, repair, and ride bikes … and have fun in the process


Heather Nugen

Photographs by Justin Maconochie

When Omari Norman was 15 years old, he needed a new bike. His old one was mangled after a car accident, and his bike was his ride to school.

His mother took him to Back Alley Bikes — the nonprofit bicycle shop and community center in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. She’d heard of the organization’s Youth Earn-A-Bike program where, over four weeks, kids ages 10-17 could get a used bike for free. All they had to do was learn to build it themselves (with a little help from an instructor).

Four weeks later, Norman had his new bike — one he’d stripped and put together himself — and with it came a new set of mechanical skills, a new network of fellow riders, and a new hobby.

“It really opened my eyes to biking culture,” Norman says. “I would use my bike to get to school, but I didn’t go on rides or go to conventions or stuff like that.”

In the two years since his first visit to Back Alley Bikes (BAB), bikes have evolved into a steady hobby for Norman. He’s become a regular at Slow Roll, a volunteer at Tour de Troit, and twice he landed a spot in BAB’s Mechanics-in-Training program — a paid summer internship for high schoolers in which students learn in-depth mechanics, become peer-to-peer instructors, and eventually repair bikes in BAB’s retail space, the Hub of Detroit. 

“It was my first job, so that was cool,” Norman says. “But it also taught me how to be a teacher of sorts. I didn’t really think I was a teacher type of person before I started working there. But when I did, I really got in tune with the kids.”

In addition to Mechanics-in-Training and Youth Earn-A-Bike, BAB offers adult mechanics classes, volunteer programs, and a youth riding club — all to support its mission to promote cycling education, sustainable practices, and community access.

Heather Nugen, executive director at Back Alley Bikes, has overseen the shop’s programs for three years. And since 2011, she says youth participation has grown steadily. At least 300 kids came in for services last year — and that’s not including a lot of return customers.

“We’ve seen a real big uptick in how many kids come back after their initial Earn-A-Bike session,” Nugen says. “They come back to volunteer, they come back to repair their bikes, they come back to help their friends, neighbors, and other kids.”

The increase in participation is also a plus for the youth’s parents.

“In urban environments, it can be such a pain for parents to drive [kids] to events or get them different places,” Nugen says. “When you put a kid on a bike, they can take responsibility for their own transportation, and in Detroit specifically, the bus system is really unreliable. Because of that, parents are pretty hesitant to let their kids take the bus, since you don’t know how long your kid is going to be at the bus stop waiting.”

Independence has always been part of the bike’s lure for any kid old enough to ride one. And while the staff at Back Alley Bikes knows this as well as anyone, they also know that programs like Youth Earn-A-Bike offer something extra for anyone willing to get her hands dirty.

“Every kid needs a bike,” Nugen says. “And there’s nothing cooler than riding a bike you built yourself. There’s just nothing cooler.”

For more information on Back Alley Bikes visit thehubofdetroit.org/back-alley-bikes.

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