A Pitzer College student fixes a flat outside the Green Bike Program’s shop.
Claremont, Calif. — Truth is, I’ve been a little worried about Pitzer College. With one group of sleek new residence halls complete—they wrap around a swimming pool attached to a new student center—and another set now under construction on the scrub land known for years as “the outback,” can Pitzer hold on to its old reputation as the coolest, funkiest, friendliest, most eclectic, most-likely-to-be-vegan of the five undergraduate institutions in the Claremont Colleges consortium?
Sure, there are still chickens scratching in the dirt behind Grove House, the Arts-and-Crafts era cottage that was Pitzer’s first student center. And a series of hexagonal cinderblock buildings from the 60s survive right in the middle of the campus. But those new residence halls are awfully slick—I mentioned the swimming pool, didn’t I? Now every time I hear about Pitzer making any kind of change I worry that it will become just another college.
So it was reassuring to see a student practicing tightrope-walking on a low rope stretched between two trees as I headed across the Pitzer campus the other afternoon, and even more reassuring to find that the Green Bike Program’s great little space right by the sleek new residence halls was, as you might say, a hub of activity.
Inside, two guys with great beards were repairing a couple of bikes, an earnest-looking local 14-year-old was searching through the racks for unwanted frames, and a handsome fixed-gear bike whose frame had been papier-mâchéed with German newspaper headlines leaned against a wall. Outside, fixes were underway for a couple of flat tires, a pizza was being consumed on a battered old couch, and a lively conversation was going on beside the iconic hammock woven of bike tubes. And dozens and dozens of bikes were locked up in a hillocks of wheels, seats, and chains, all waiting for Saturday’s big bike raffle.
The Green Bike Program is, in the best Pitzer tradition, an ever-evolving student collective that got its start in a residence-hall basement a few years back. The idea—not unique to Pitzer—was to recondition bikes that had been abandoned on the campus. Not only would the bikes be kept out of landfills, but they’d available for students.
Matt Goldbach, a senior majoring in environmental science, was one of the bearded guys fixing bikes in the back when I stopped by—in fact, he was way ahead in the Bike Fixin’ Contest, in which Green Bike Program members compete to get bikes in the program’s fleet in shape to be lent out for the semester. He told me that in Saturday’s raffle, Pitzer students who want bikes will put their names in a hat beginning at 8 a.m., and the drawing will start at 10. “When your name is called, you pick a bike and get it sized up for you,” he said. The rules are skewed in favor of students who live off campus, because they presumably need bikes more than those who live in the residence halls.
Mr. Goldbach said the Green Bikes Program operated like a bike shop for a while, letting students drop off bikes for repair. But now the emphasis is on teaching people how to make repairs themselves—”We’ll do it with you and teach you,” he said. About 10 people a day bring their bikes by, and usually seven of the 10 need help with flat tires. The Green Bikes Program also has a day-use fleet of about 10 bikes, plus eight bikes that are reserved for Friday afternoon bike-polo matches.
Sylvie Froncek is, as she put is, “the quote-unquote head” of the collective, which she told me usually has between 12 and 20 active members. She’s a senior who got involved with the bike program in 2007, when she showed up at Pitzer with a bike that needed assembling. Green Bike Program people helped her out, and she was hooked.
“People come and you teach them to fix one thing and they’re so happy and they want to join,” Ms. Froncek said. Plus there’s usually music playing, and a few years ago Pitzer built the bike program a great new shop right beside the new residence halls. “It’s a cool social space on campus,” Ms. Froncek said.
Two of the other Claremont colleges, Pomona and Claremont McKenna, also have green-bike programs, she told me, though the Pitzer students don’t hear much from their counterparts on the other campuses. Harvey Mudd, just up the hill, has a unicycling club whose members sometimes come by for help.
The Green Bike Program’s members, Ms. Froncek said, would like to be able to do more for students from the other colleges here—if more bikes and more bodies were available. “If we had twice as many bikes,” she said, “we’d have twice as much demand.” Which—in a cool, funky, friendly, eclectic, most-likely-to-be-vegan kind of way—I found very reassuring.