Brendan Pierce and Nahiyan Khan sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at a handful of oily ball bearings with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

The two Macalester College students, who had never done anything more extensive on a bicycle than change a flat tire, had just torn down a bike wheel to its most basic elements, an exercise of discovery that they found fascinating. The trepidation came from the fact that not only were they expected to put it back together, but it was supposed to end up in better working condition than when they started.

Half an hour later, mission accomplished. And that meant they were one step closer to getting free bikes.

They were participating in the Earn-a-Bike Program offered by Cycles for Change, a nonprofit St. Paul bike shop that combines donated bicycles with classes on bike mechanics. Participants pick a repairable bike from the donation room and get hands-on training in fixing it. Once the work is done, they spend six volunteer hours in the shop. At the end of the program, they get the bike they have repaired.

"I haven't had a bike since I was in middle school," said Mary Beth Kehrwald, 25. "This is great."

The bike comes with a helmet and lock donated by one of the shop's supporters. In Kehrwald's case, it also comes with bragging rights. "My boyfriend is a bike commuter, but he doesn't fix his own bike," she said.

On a recent Saturday, the budding mechanics in the class ranged in age from 14 to 62. None had started with anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge of bike repair, but what they lacked in experience, they made up for in inspiration. Kat Aymeloglu led the charge in that regard, tackling a single-speed bike that she intends to rebuild with 18 speeds, a project that involves refitting almost everything.

"The only thing I'm going to end up with [from the original] is the frame," Aymeloglu, 27, said as she tried to figure out how big of a gear hub she could squeeze onto the rear axle. "I knew nothing when I came here. I knew how to ride a bike, but that was about it."

The class worked under the patient tutelage of Angie Karr, the program's director. She'll do just about anything except actually work on one of the bikes herself; it's the participants who need to get their hands dirty.

"Doing it yourself is one of the best ways to learn," she said. "We want people to know how to keep their bikes working. This isn't just about bike mechanics. It's about choosing a bike lifestyle, about using bikes as a form of transportation, and that includes having the skills to maintain the bikes."

Keeping it positive

As Karr moved around the class, she mixed advice about which wrench to use with pep talks about how great people were doing, especially those who didn't think they were doing so great.

"Everyone learns at their own pace," she assured them. The class lasts four sessions, but after that participants can go to the bike store's "open shop" where she or another staff member is on hand to offer help. "You can take as long as you need," she promised.

Alisha Roopchand, 18, appreciated that approach.

"We get to figure things out for ourselves, but that takes time," she said. "You get the tools and the know-how and a chance to play around with them."

Abdullahi Gaafaa, 14, represented the other end of the timing spectrum. He was intent on wheeling his bike out of the store as soon as possible, and his focus was paying off. He asked Karr a question that caught her off guard.

"I wasn't planning to get to that until next week, but OK," she said before showing him the necessary steps.

Each class focuses on a different part of the bike. For this session, it was wheels, including maintaining and repairing axles and "truing" wheels by adjusting or replacing spokes. Karr started with a lecture that included a demonstration and an explanatory handout covered with diagrams, then turned the wannabe mechanics loose at their workstations.

The parts necessary for the repairs come from donated bikes that are deemed irreparable. That keeps costs down while also fulfilling the store's mandate to foster a greener lifestyle.

"We never turn down a donation [of a bike], no matter how bad of shape it's in,'' Karr said. "Everything that we can keep out of a landfill helps."

Some people take the class as much for the knowledge they get as for the bike. Mike Garry, 62, was one of them.

"When I was 8, I was taking 40-mile bike rides with my older brothers," he said. "I've been riding bikes for a while. I figured that it was time I learned how to fix one."

By the end of the class, Macalester students Pierce and Khan had managed to refurbish the wheels on two bikes, one for each of them. They've moved into an apartment off campus and are counting on the bikes to further their education.

"This is how we're going to get to class," Khan said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392