At first glance, it appears there was no clear winner in the Twin Cities' first Battle of the Bike Shops competition for the World's Fastest Wrench trophy. But look around town, and you'll see 125 winners: needy children who got brand-new bikes for the holidays.

The contest was sponsored by Free Bikes 4 Kidz, which gives away 5,000 bicycles each December, thanks to its army of more than 1,000 volunteers. Although the organization is the largest of its kind in the country, it recently found itself needing a lot more help in a hurry, and it came up with a powerful incentive for recruiting it: bragging rights.

Most of the bikes that are given away are used ones that have been refurbished. But with just a few days remaining before the Dec. 1 deadline for distributing the cycles in time for the holidays, the organization got a donation of 125 new boxed bikes that needed to be assembled ASAP.

Founder Terry Esau's solution was to set up a contest in which teams of mechanics from local bike stores would scramble to see which shop could assemble the most bikes in the least amount of time.

"It's going to be chaotic," he predicted shortly before the competition began, making it clear that a little chaos was exactly what he was hoping for.

Five shops put together teams: Boehm's Cycle, Freewheel Bike, Maple Grove Cycling, Penn Cycle and Tonka Cycle & Ski. Many of the mechanics also volunteer to refurbish the used bikes, so they were familiar with the organization. And they were familiar with one another, which was what led to the competition in the first place.

"Some of the guys from Maple Grove have been bragging that they can fix bikes faster," Esau said. Now it was time to put up or shut up.

Todd Eckberg admitted that his teammates were guilty of a little good-natured trash talk, but he made no apologies for it. "If it got more shops in here, at least it's for the right reason: to help the kids," he said.

He also wasn't afraid to spell out his team's strategy: "cheating but not getting caught."

It quickly became evident that other teams shared that philosophy. The rules said that each team could consist of up to five mechanics. Some took that to mean five people, but others argued that they were able to bring along "helpers" as long as they had only five people working as mechanics.

"This is turning into NASCAR," Esau said in reference to the auto racing body whose rules are routinely bent to the max.

For the record, the Penn Cycle and Tonka teams ended up edging out the others, but each team protested that the other had broken the rules. Esau eventually gave up trying to serve as a referee and declared the whole thing a tie, announcing that the trophy -- a table lamp welded together from old bike parts -- would be a shared prize that will rotate among all the shops that competed.

More demand than bikes

Free Bikes 4 Kidz focuses on collecting the bicycles and preparing them for their new owners. The distribution is handled through 160 local nonprofit agencies, including churches, schools and homeless shelters, that select the recipients.

The organization was launched five years ago when Esau noticed that his garage had become home to several bikes that his kids had outgrown.

"I started thinking: Does everybody have bikes in their garage that they could give away?" he said. "They probably do. There are 25 million bikes sold in the United States every year, and one-third of them are 20-inch [wheels, youth-sized] or smaller. That means that after a year or two, they're outgrown and just gathering dust."

The organization gave away 250 bikes the first year and was up to 1,500 bikes annually when it picked up a sponsorship from Allina Health System (which also donates a helmet with each bike) two years ago.

"That's when we jumped to 5,000 [a year], which was huge," Esau said. But even that's not enough to meet demand. "We could give away 30,000 right in the Twin Cities. There's a high level of need."

Sweat equity

The chaos Esau was looking for started immediately. At the sound of the "starting gun" -- actually an old tire that was overinflated and then popped -- the mechanics raced across the Free Bikes 4 Kidz warehouse in Hopkins, grabbed boxes of bikes and dragged them back to their work stations.

"There's more to this than you might think," Esau said, a thought seconded by Mike Sandene, a mechanic at the Boehm's shops. "I'm all sweaty and gross," he said as perspiration dripped down his face.

Working furiously, the contestants started by unpacking the bikes. The back wheel was mounted on the frame, but the mechanics had to attach everything else. Then they had to prove the bike was functional by riding it 250 feet, no easy task when straddling a bike designed for someone half their size.

Esau briefly had second thoughts about the test drive after a couple of the competitors almost wiped out on the slick concrete floor, but they got through the night with only one casualty: Mara Saltzman from the Tonka team. She wasn't hurt, but the bike's hand brake needed triage.

The new bikes were donated by financial supporters Jeff Parell, former president of National Car Rental, and Greg Kurowski, CEO of the Periscope ad agency.

"I came [to Free Bikes 4 Kidz] to work as a volunteer, but I don't know enough about things like repacking bearings," Parell said. "So I figured if I can't help that way, I can help this way."

As much fun as the competition was to watch, he was looking forward to the day the bikes would be given to the kids.

"I love to watch the recipients," he said. "You see the joy of the kids getting something they thought they'd never get. And it's always the same: There are the kids, pushing the bikes, with their huge smiles. And then a few steps behind come their mothers, tears running down their faces. It's a wonderful image that really touches you."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392