Free bicycling for UW students far from home in Madison

Always on the lookout for interesting stories related to bicycling, I wanted to know more when my son’s friend Chandani told us about borrowing a bicycle last summer on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, WI.

The bike loan was courtesy of a gentleman named Steve Nicks, whose reply to my email tells the story:

I started finding, fixing and loaning out bikes to foreign exchange students here at UW about 7 years ago. Chandani didn’t fit that mold, but since she was a transient for the summer, I was happy to give her a bike to use as well. This all started when my son was in Denmark on an exchange from the UW Business School and bought a crappy used bike for about $100 that he had to just leave behind. A bit of a waste. When his Danish friend Freddy came to UW the next year I gave him and his Italian roomie bikes because Madison is so much more accessible with one. The next year I found (garage sales, neighbors, St Vinnes,etc) 5 more and gave them out. My deal with the students is that everything is free, including a lock, and all I request is that if the bike has not been stolen or destroyed, it come back to me when they leave so someone else can use it.

Since those first years, I have learned to be a real bike mechanic by volunteering a couple times a week at a non-profit that takes donated kids’ bikes, repairs and overhauls them, and gives them to kids who earn them with community service or extra school work. I have given bikes to students from 31 different countries so far, and now at any one time can have 40 or 50 bikes in service. The students range from undergrads here for a semester to the 5 year PhD types. I favor old school bikes, mainly because that is what I can more easily acquire and fix—think chrome fender Schwinns, 3 speeds (from English to Japanese Skyways), to 30 year old department store bikes by Murray. As I remember, the bike Chandani used was a Schwinn Caliente (junior racer type with 24” wheels) that I put a straight handlebar on instead of road bars. A PhD guy in computer science from Pakistan now is using it.

Students now pretty much find me through a friend or colleague, but I also put up a sign in the Fall at the big apartment building on campus which is the place where many foreign students live each year. My early years’ sign was titled “The Freddy Bike Give Away Contest” after the first Danish student who got a bike. The test was that you would get a free bike to use if you could answer any one of the following 3 questions: I know Freddy; I have the chutzpah to say I know Freddy; or, I think George Bush is a moron. Needless to say, everyone got that last question right and it served as a nice ice breaker for those whose English was not perhaps polished yet.

As you might guess, I’m retired. In my previous life I was a lawyer.

Follow up if you wish. It would be my hope that others near various campuses would find that they could do something like this as well. It really serves a need and hopefully helps balance some students’ opinions of the US.

Nice idea. Near another campus? Think about it.

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1 Response to “Free bicycling for UW students far from home in Madison”



  1. 1 Jill and Eric Penne » Blog Archive » Free bicycling for UW students far from home in Madison Trackback on April 20, 2010 at 12:04 am
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