Riding on the shoulder: The marginalized cyclists of the Twin Cities [via Daily Planet]

November 08, 2011
Mike “Gizmo” Johnson and his partner, Christina, were riding their bikes along the Mississippi River in St. Paul last spring after heavy rains caused the river to flood its banks. On Harriet Island they came upon the dilapidated frame of a blue 10-speed Motobecane road bike, seemingly plucked from the river by the rising waters.“It was wedged between two thick tree logs,” Johnson says. “I took some parts that my friend gave me and put them on there.” He restored the bike back to working condition and added it to his fleet, which also includes a Peugeot and a Schwinn that he is steadily improving through DIY repair and restoration. He and Christina have gone on bike trips all over the Twin Cities, including one ride all the way from downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America.
Johnson’s bikes are not new. He doesn’t buy high-end parts for them or compete in road races. Thin and wiry, he prefers jeans and a tank-top over the stereotypical spandex racing gear that “serious” cyclists don. In 2008, he was living in the Dorothy Day homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul when he needed the wheels realigned on his 20-inch Gitane. A friend at the center pointed him to the Sibley Bike Depot, a shop on University Avenue that caters to low-income individuals who can rent bikes, learn bike maintenance, and earn points toward bike ownership by volunteering their services as bike mechanics.
Aside from his athletic physique, Johnson doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes that contemporary culture—with generous assistance from national and local media—has perpetuated about urban bicyclists. He doesn’t dress or act like a hipster (whatever that is); he carries no messenger bag; he’s never bought a brand-new fixed-gear from a high-end bike retailer. He and Christina have a 3-month-old son, Michael, and a bike trailer for him. They are on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and ride bikes not because it’s cool or healthy, but because it’s the most efficient, cost-effective option when cars and public transit are off the table.