Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Richard Stodieck’s first job was flipping burgers at McDonald’s. But the 24-year-old likes to think of his first real job as the one he loved the most: Fixing bicycles as an apprentice at Full Cycle, a bike shop in Minneapolis.

“I was getting paid to do something so cool,” said Stodieck, who goes by the nickname Tank. 

Then COVID-19 struck three months into the four-month program. Just a few months later, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police three blocks from the shop, and Full Cycle pivoted to giving bikes to protestors. Stodieck descended back into a depression that had begun to lift during his apprenticeship. 

During a Full Cycle apprenticeship, which are open to youth without stable homes, mechanics on staff teach a group of about four youth per apprenticeship cycle how to true wheels and how to fix flat tires, adjust brakes, and clean derailleurs. They also help with general employment skills. 

“I got my resume on point,” Stodieck said of his apprenticeship. 

Stodieck grew up with his mom in Atlanta, Ga. He wasn’t allowed to go outside alone in his neighborhood–except when he taught himself how to ride a bike at age 12. He fell in love with the freedom of being outside. In high school, he moved to Minneapolis, where his dad lives, but mostly stayed with friends. 

After leaving South High School at age 17, Stodieck was “going through my own stuff” and didn’t work. One day at the age of 21, he was randomly stabbed in the arm while helping a friend in north Minneapolis. Physically, he suffered some nerve damage that makes it hard to move his thumb. Far worse, he said, was the depression he spiraled into. He’d lost his trust in people, and withdrew from family and friends.

That’s when his girlfriend told him about the apprenticeships.

He filled out an application, hoping “just to get out and do something.” Plus, working on bikes seemed fun even though he wasn’t a cycling expert. He couldn’t tell a fixed gear bike, or fixie, from a road bike. 

He spent the first week in a repair room learning how to fix a flat–and learning how to be around people again.

“After such a traumatic event, it helped me to remember people are people, and that not everyone is evil,” Stodieck said.  

Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Full Cycle is one of a few Twin Cities bike shops that offer apprenticeships or other hands-on learning experiences to young people. Express Bike Shop in St. Paul also offers apprenticeships, and Minneapolis Community and Technical College boasts a program to earn a Bicycle Assembly and Repair Technician certificate that prepares students for jobs at bike shops. (It’s one of two in the country.)

The need for trained bike mechanics is projected to increase because the demand for bikes is still outpacing the supply, and because interest in cycling of all types skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to Singletracks, a mountain bike publication.

“The best way to figure out what you want to do in the future is to get a part-time job and be part of a workplace culture and interact with coworkers, adults, teens, to understand what it takes to run a small enterprise,” said Chris Ohland, director of youth services for Keystone Community Services, which operates Express Bike Shop. “Experiences on the job help you see what your own particular strengths and weaknesses are that classroom instruction can’t reveal to you. It gives youth clarity for what they want to do in the future.” 

Youth outreach by bike

Matt Tennant was working at a youth shelter in St. Paul about 20 years ago. To kill downtime  during his overnight shifts, the avid cyclist worked on his bike. 

“So many kids would get sucked in, wanting to know what I was doing,” Tennant said. 

He was also doling out bus tokens to the youth who stayed at the shelter, so he started asking them: “If you had a bike, would you ride a bike?” So many said yes that he started scouting out old bikes and rescuing them from dumpsters.

“I started fixing them up and loaning them out, and then doing free bike appointments as part of my outreach,” he said.        

The whole experience turned out to be the perfect way to talk to teens while doing something productive, he said.

“Owning a bike shop wasn’t my passion; I was a youth worker first,” Tennant said. “This was a way to do youth work in an interesting way.”

In 2008, about six years after he informally began incorporating bikes into his work, he hired three interns and founded Full Cycle as a way to continue pairing outreach with bikes.

Tennant wasn’t the only one in the Twin Cities with the idea of connecting low-income youth, bikes, and jobs.

Express Bike Shop was started by a group of teenagers who couldn’t find employment. They decided to create their own jobs in 1995. They found low-rent space by working with the city of St. Paul and local banks, asked the police for donated bikes, and opened a bike shop. 

“They hired young people to work there and learn all aspects of the business operation, including bike repair,” Ohland said.

More than 400 youth, primarily between the ages of 14 and 18, have completed three- to six-month apprenticeships at Express Bike Shop. Most come from low-income households and communities of color. A majority of those who complete the program go on to graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education or training programs, Ohland said. 

“We’ve also been fortunate to have a small number of youth stay employed at the shop for years and assume management responsibilities,” he said.

At Full Cycle, now part of Pillsbury United Communities, more than 200 youth have completed apprenticeships since 2008. Last year, the shop, in conjunction with StreetWorks collaborative, added a year-long, 20-hour-a-week peer outreach apprenticeship that offers health benefits.

“Once they finish, they’re totally qualified to jump into any youth outreach work” or other  professional employment, Tennant said. 

When Full Cycle got back to business after the pandemic, Stodieck promptly signed up for another apprenticeship–this time, as an outreach worker. Again, the experience prompted deep shifts in his thinking. This time, it helped him understand the homeless, he said.

“I used to think everyone was out to steal your stuff, but I learned how wrong I was,” he said. 

As Stodieck wraps up his final days at the apprenticeship, he’s not quite sure what’s in store for him in the short term. But he knows what his long-range goals are: “I want to pursue outreach work.”

In the meantime, he’s confident he can find employment. “I could definitely work on bikes,” he said. 

HOW TO BUY A BIKE

Bike prices soared during the pandemic. Demand outpaced supply and supply-chain issues caused delays in getting bikes to new cyclists looking for a pandemic-friendly form of exercise and transportation. 

Things still haven’t returned to normal, but there is a glimmer of hope for people seeking used bikes this year. Some of those wannabe bikers have given up on the sport and are offloading their purchases, said Greg Neis, owner of Farmstead Bike Shop in Minneapolis.

If you’re new to cycling, buying a bike may seem overwhelming. Fortunately, many local bike shops offer a number of tips:

Depending on your age and living situation, you may be able to score a free bike. Full Cycle will set you up with a ride, lock, and lights if you’re 24 or under and don’t have stable housing. Appointments can also be used to repair bikes. Call 612-824-7581 to book an appointment. 

  • If you’re looking for a bike for a child, contact the child’s school or faith organization to see if they work with Free Bikes for Kids. 
  • Look for used bikes. Not only does buying used help the planet, bike shop owners said, it’s also much easier on your wallet. To find a good fit for you, check out local bike shops (Full Cycle, The Hub Bike Co-op, Express Bike Shop) that refurbish bikes and sell them as certified rebuilt bikes. Prices for bikes, even used ones, have jumped during the pandemic. Sometimes, the price of used bikes at local shops are lower than in online classifieds, Stodieck said. 
  • Tell the salesperson what you’re using the bike for. Stodieck had a fast blue road bike that he loved for its speed. But when he realized he needed a more practical ride, he traded it in for a refurbished mountain bike that rarely gets flat tires. 
  • Looking for used bikes on Craigslist can be a good option if you know what you’re looking for or can find an experienced cyclist to guide you through the process, said Greg Neis, owner of Farmstead Bike Shop. Differences that might seem minor–whether a bike is made from aluminum or carbon or the brand of the components–can make a big difference in price, but may not make a big difference in your riding experience depending on your needs.

BIKE APPRENTICESHIPS AND CLASSES

Youth are encouraged to apply, but it helps if you have a natural interest in hands-on work, whether or not it’s specifically about bikes, Ohland said.