Up a small flight of stairs, the smell of bicycle grease and sweat hangs in the air. Hand-painted wooden signs point into a labyrinthine office space, with rooms full of bicycle parts. It looks like a tornado came through. Or a pack of young people, which is precisely the case.
"Saturdays can get a little crazy," says a grinning Sam Swenson. A lanky young man in scruffy clothes, he looks a bit exhausted as he wipes the thick grease off his hands, standing up from the bicycle he's working on.
Swenson, 21, is a volunteer at FreeWheel Bicycle Collective on Park Street, which holds "Open Shop" on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons. During these times, anyone in the community can use the shop to build or maintain bicycles.
Housed in the second story of the city-owned Villager Mall, close to the Badger Road and Allied Drive neighborhoods, the collective is a free service run by a core group of about a dozen volunteers, funded through city grants and personal donations. There is no official hierarchy; decisions are made by consensus at weekly meetings, open to all.
Most of the bikes and bike parts are salvaged off the streets, taken from Dumpsters or donated by individuals. On this particular Saturday, a main hallway is clogged with children's bikes - a recent gift from the Mount Horeb Police Department.
The shop has six workstations, each staffed by a volunteer mechanic. Swenson points out a stack of books on bicycle repair.
"Anything we don't know, we look up," he says. "For kids, it's an opportunity to learn at their own pace, to build something they're proud of." People can use whatever parts they want, but each bike built at FreeWheel must meet safety standards before it leaves the shop.
"In general," says Swenson, "Madison is seen as a bike-friendly city. But for many people, the cost behind bike maintenance and parts is really limiting." Those who use the collective's services are urged to "give what you feel you owe."
FreeWheel volunteer and UW-Madison graduate student Sarah Rogers, 23, has worked in the collective since she came to Madison in August 2006. Like Swenson, she stresses the importance of having a free space for youth.
"The space is so much more than just bikes," she says. "It promotes community as a whole. It provides a safe space for the kids. A place where people can gather, where there are no drugs or alcohol or violence, and they can share their skills and their knowledge."
The shop attracts a diverse group of users in terms of age and income bracket, but local neighborhood kids make up the majority. They use the space as both a bike shop and a place to hang out. Rogers says about 15 teens typically turn out when the collective has Open Shop.
Sarah Weiss, 24, has volunteered for FreeWheel since January 2004, when it operated out of a warehouse. She has stayed with the collective through the years, as it moved to a bus at the South Side Farmers' Market, then to its current home in the Villager Mall. At first, she knew little about bikes. Most of what she now knows, she learned from working at the shop.
"It's an awesome resource for myself and for others," says Weiss. "There's really no other thing like it in the city."
But Weiss is nervous about the future. She believes being in the Villager Mall - next to Dane County Transition School, where FreeWheel teaches classes on occasion - is vital to the collective's success. The city has plans to redevelop the mall, and it's unclear whether a free bicycle shop will fit into its plans.
"It would be nice for us to get more volunteers and be open more hours," Weiss says, adding that a Spanish-language day, and a women's-only shop day, would be exciting as well. "But it's frustrating to do outreach and not to know if we are going to have to close down in a couple of weeks."
Back at the shop, the sun is setting as Swenson puts a few errant bike parts away. He reflects about his time working at FreeWheel.
"This kind of outreach work is really important," he says. "I can really connect with kids this way and provide a positive, structured activity for their week."
Swenson lifts his bike onto his shoulder and carries it down the stairs and out to the parking lot. "Plus, where would I go to work on my own bike?"