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Najari Smith and Geovanni Levy work together at the Rich City Rides bike shop to properly measure and adjust a bike seat. (Photo by Brittany Kirstin)

Creating a stronger community through bicycling

on October 21, 2015

When you walk into Rich City Rides you’re immediately met with the sweet smell of bicycle oil and the satisfying click-click-click of shifting gears.  Najari Smith, the owner and founder of the nonprofit group that owns the shop, is working in the back along with mechanics Taye Roshni McGee and Rafael Fernandez.

Smith got his first set of wheels when he was 4 years old. That’s when his passion for bicycles started. But that’s not the only thing that drives him these days. He talks as much about reinvigorating the community as he does about making chains and gears work better.

“My intention with Richmond was to increase civic pride as well as get to meet people, and I use bicycles as my vehicle for doing that,” Smith said.

Rich City Rides offers two programs, called Earn-A-Bike for youth, and Commuter Cyclist for adults, giving community members a way to learn how to make repairs in in exchange for bicycle parts, and eventually a free bike.

For Smith, a bicycle is more than a means of transportation and exercise. It’s also a social tool, he said, explaining that Rich City Rides hosts group rides several times a month. On the second Saturday of each month, the shop organizes bicycle repair workshops and bicycle giveaways. More recently, Smith’s group has begun cleaning up the local bike paths.

“There’s currently a lot of glass on the bike paths, which is an easy way to tear your tires up, so we invite people to come out and clean it up.  We’re trying to get people out and in the mindset of ‘this is mine,’ taking responsibility for their community and their bike paths,” Smith said.

Smith said the community engagement deepens as people get to know each other.

“When you’re familiar with somebody you’re not scared of them,” he said. “You’re more inclined to have a conversation with them rather than second-guess.”

He paused during an interview to get back into the shop and prepare for his next workshop. He sat down next to an overturned lime-green BMX bike, surrounded by five kids, curious to know more about the way the bike worked. Smith quizzed them about the spokes, how to test if they’re too tight or loose, and how to repair any broken ones. After listening to each of their answers, he asked some students to pitch in if someone else got stuck, and sent them into the workshop to find the tools they would need to do the repair on the bike themselves.

Smith said he isn’t necessarily trying to produce new bicycle mechanics. By learning about the parts of  a bicycle, he figures youngsters will start to get some grounding in physics and math. He even hopes they may find a new way to see the world.

It may look like a lot of levers and pullies, but when kids start learning how it all works together to make something go, the lesson is “really deeper than bikes,” Smith said.

Giving these kids a basic knowledge in bicycle mechanics is a way for Smith to create something that he wished he’d had when he was little. Thinking back on his first bicycle, Smith describes it as though it were still sitting right in front of him.

“It was mostly black,” with red trim, he said. “I remember all the details.”

He went through the list of repairs that his first bike had needed: loose handlebars, broken pedals, wobbly seat. He said he always found a way to keep it functional. Even after the tires got flats and would need a daily dose of air, Smith would take his bike out with other neighborhood kids to jump off a homemade ramp, trading turns on his bicycle to see who could jump the highest.

Eventually, though, the damage became too severe to fix without expert knowledge and tools. His cherished bicycle soon became a red-and-black coat rack in the living room, and not long after that, an addition to the local garbage dump.

Losing his bike to the junkyard had a lasting effect on Smith. Creating Rich City Rides has been his way of keeping as many bikes as he can from meeting the same end that met his.

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