Sarasota resident Tom Ott leads a group of friends in repairing bicycles every week.
Tom Ott wasn’t sure how to spend his retirement in Sarasota.
The UPS manager had options, but a knee surgery that resulted in infection — followed by two additional surgeries to fix the first — had Ott resting for more than a year.
Flipping through the newspaper while he healed, though, gave him ideas. He came across one particular notice asking for volunteers to repair bicycles and give them out to people in need. What would be the harm in checking it out?
Eight years later and Ott now leads a small team of fellow retirees in retrieving, repairing and distributing bicycles to people in Sarasota and beyond.
Each member has their own reasons for joining — some already had repair skills, others joke they were roped in by being friends with Ott — but all diligently meet each Friday at The Salvation Army’s Center of Hope shelter to fix up bikes and send them out.
They don’t even have an official group name, though the Bike Boys has been the closest they’ve come to an agreed-upon title.
It’s a steady but friendly routine where each member is focused on their work but still manages to find time to chat and shoot the breeze. One of the best things, they all agree, is they’re working for a good cause.
“I get a great feeling of satisfaction from this,” Ott said. “My garage is full of six to seven bikes I’m always working on.”
Ott like many group members didn’t have much experience working on bikes in the beginning. But he learned the typical way.
“We tear apart a lot of bikes to salvage the things that could be used,” Ott said. “Like with a lot of things, you just learned by mistake and by watching somebody else that’s done it.”
He’s gotten faster in recent years and now with his friends can fix up bikes in a little over an hour. The most common problems they find are flat tires, faulty brakes and shifters and rust from sitting out in the elements for too long.
Their supply mainly comes from bike shops in Sarasota and Venice that take in used bikes and donate the damaged ones to Ott and his friends. The crew also receives calls from apartment complexes and condo high-rises with supplies of abandoned bikes that have been collecting dust over time.
A couple members pick up the bikes, drive them back over to the Center of Hope shelter, and get to work. Some are practically good as new from while others are so broken down there’s nothing else to do but salvage parts.
On a good pre-pandemic year, the group is able to fix up and give out more than 300 bikes. Ott feels that demand has only increased since the pandemic — they've freelanced and helped assemble new bikes for local stores that had too much product to put together on their own.
“The pandemic is certainly bad but it’s been good to people looking for bikes,” Ott said.
Many of the fixed-up bikes go to clients with The Salvation Army looking to get back onto their feet.
“We have programs helping people be self sufficient,” said The Salvation Army Director of Development Glenda Leonard. “A bicycle helps them in that process, they can ride it to work downtown.”
Others are donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto counties or foster parents.
Ott was picked to be the informal leader when deciding how to distribute parts and spend money on repairs, though he notes he can always be overruled by fellow members when making decisions.
Many of the crew have joined over the years and Ott jokes he’s recruited them by catching them at a weak moment.
Larry Zimmerman, a seasonal Florida resident, was one such member who ended up joining the group after hearing about their work. Zimmerman also volunteers fixing up bikes for people when he’s living in Denver.
“I grew up on a farm and we repaired everything,” he said. “(Repairing bikes) came natural … it’s fun and it’s for a good cause.”
Mike Miller, a member of the Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Club, has moved around a lot in his life and has always been looking for a charitable outlet to fix up bikes.
Business is about to pick up with Ott and a handful of members starting to volunteer on Mondays as well as Fridays. The work will continue, and nothing makes them happier.
“Of all the places I’ve lived, I never found a place like this,” Mike Miller said.
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