Abandoned on campus, these now-refurbished bicycles are set to ride again

About 150 bicycles were abandoned. VCU RamBikes is repurposing them for international students and local nonprofits.

A person removing an abandoned bike from a bike rack.
Sera Erickson, bicycle program coordinator with VCU Sustainability, uses a power saw to remove an abandoned bicycle from a bike rack. The bike will likely be repurposed as a rental or donated to a Richmond nonprofit. (Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Sparks are flying as Sera Erickson, bicycle program coordinator with the VCU Office of Sustainability, uses a power saw to liberate a GMC Denali Road Bike from a Virginia Commonwealth University bike rack, where it has sat abandoned for months.

“Well, it definitely needs a chain. Probably needs a little air in the tires. Like a lot of abandoned bikes, it probably needs cables, but that’s why we buy cables in bulk,” Erickson said. “Everything else about it looks fine. It’ll definitely get somebody around.”

The bike was one of about 150 across the Monroe Park Campus that had been identified and tagged by VCU Police as abandoned. It will be taken back to VCU Sustainability’s facilities where it will be refurbished and either donated to a Richmond-area bicycle nonprofit or added to VCU RamBikes’ fleet of rental bikes for VCU students.

Last year, RamBikes repurposed around 30 abandoned bicycles to be rented to international students for extended periods and donated roughly 50 to nonprofits, with half going to Rag & Bones Bicycle Cooperative and half going to Groundwork RVA. Another 70 or so were recycled.

“If it’s just a frame and I don’t think it’s really worth putting that much time and effort into, I’ll just recycle it and take whatever parts off of it I can,” Erickson said. “But a lot of them, if they’re full bikes and they haven’t been out there for like a whole year, they’re usually OK. And we also stock pretty much everything you would need to refurbish bikes. We’ll redo bearing sets, we’ll take apart wheels, changing cables, you name it.

“It’s usually not too bad,” she said. “Sometimes it might just be that they have a flat and that’s why the owner stopped riding the bike.”

Rag & Bones offers the bikes to adults through its earn-a-bike program in which participants work in the shop for 15 hours in exchange for $150 in credit toward a bicycle, along with lights, a lock and proof of ownership.

Groundwork RVA offers the bikes to youths through its Bellemeade Enterprise Center, which teaches participants bike maintenance skills, landscaping, sustainability and project management.

“[Erickson’s] helped with shipments of bikes to our shop to be repaired and pushed back into our community,” said Arsaiah Robinson, manager of the Bellemeade Enterprise Center. “If I had to take a guess at the amount, it’s around 80 to 100 bikes they have donated to our program so far.”

Erickson also works with Robinson and Groundwork RVA to lead an after-school program at Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School focused on bike safety, as well as organize several community bike donation events.

“We help lead the kids on rides and do some other stuff with them,” Erickson said. “So we’ll give bikes to that program, which is great because we know the kids who will get them.”

A child removes the tread of a bicycle tier with the help of a technician while another child looks on.
Two girls work on an abandoned bike with the help of RamBikes technician Alexa Santisteban at a recent Build-A-Bike class for children of incarcerated parents. (Contributed photo)

Erickson and RamBikes also recently partnered with the nonprofit A Better Day Than Yesterday, with the help of VCU service-learning students, to launch a program in which children of incarcerated parents took a seven-week-long Build-A-Bike class, using abandoned bikes collected from VCU’s campus.

RamBikes’ long-term rental program is aimed at international students, particularly those who might only be at VCU for a semester or two.

“Instead of them buying a bike that they’re going to have to leave [in Richmond], I’d rather just give them a bike for the time that they’re here,” Erickson said.

RamBikes has a separate program that offers 48-hour rentals to VCU students, faculty and staff.

VCU Police typically sweeps the campus for abandoned bicycles once a year, tagging them to give the owners notice and ensure that it is truly abandoned. Then over several months, RamBikes staff remove the tagged bikes.

Erickson keeps a rigorous inventory of each bike, where it was taken and on what day.

“If someone says, ‘Hey, I’m missing a bike. It was red, I don’t know what kind of bike it was, but it was on this rack and I didn’t see it after x date,’ I can at least say, ‘Oh, OK, this is the last time I removed bikes from this rack.’ So I know exactly where I got everything.”

Abandoned bikes are held at VCU Sustainability’s facilities for 120 days, giving the owner plenty of time to reclaim it in case it wasn’t truly abandoned. RamBikes staff also keep the cut bike lock, allowing the owner to prove ownership by unlocking it with their key.

Each Thursday, RamBikes holds a volunteer night from 5:30 to 7 p.m. that is open to everyone.

“People come in and help us take apart bikes and then refurbish them,” Erickson said.

Many of the volunteer night participants are service-learning VCU students in a School of Social Work class, “Building a Just Society,” taught by Allison K. Ryals, associate professor in teaching.

“I continue to be in awe of the creative and community-centered programming of RamBikes,” Ryals said. “Their commitment to empowerment and sustainability is clearly present in the work they do.”

Ryals’ students have been working with RamBikes for three semesters so far, and it has been a great experience, she said.

“Partnering with RamBikes has created a unique opportunity for my students to serve, engage with, and learn from the Richmond community,” Ryals said. “Collaboration — which is at the heart of social work practice — is central to RamBike's work.”

The idea to repurpose VCU’s abandoned bicycles came about when Erickson joined VCU.

“When I started here, the bikes were being cut and then held outdoors at a [VCU] Facilities warehouse. They were getting kind of trashed after 120 days of being stored outside after being abandoned. So I kind of wanted to get away from that model.”

The idea, she said, was that with a little bit of elbow grease, the abandoned bikes could ride again.

“I wanted to start really trying to divert as much stuff from the waste stream as possible,” she said. “So much stuff can be reused, but people don’t always have the time or knowledge. But we do — especially with the help of the service-learning students — and we can take stuff apart, break it down, and fix it back up.”

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