March 20, 2009
Cycling enthusiasts turn their hobby into a vocation by training as bike mechanics
Ashland Daily Tidings
ASHLAND, Ore. — After he lost his job last July as a commercial printer in New Haven, Conn., Jack Foley thought he might like to become a bicycle mechanic, a dream that brought him all the way to Ashland and the United Bicycle Institute — one of the few well-known trade schools in the country offering bike-mechanic certification.
Foley, 53, had been a bicycle commuter for 20 years and started talking to his local bike shop about turning his hobby into a vocation. The shop hires only UBI graduates, so Foley, who had never traveled farther than Philadelphia, headed west.
In just two weeks at UBI, beginning mechanics earn enough certification to qualify for entry-level professional bike-shop jobs, a turnaround that attracts bike enthusiasts from all walks of life and has kept enrollment strong as the economy crumbles, said Ron Sutphin, who owns the school with his wife, Denise.
The Sutphins purchased the school in 1986, five years after it opened.
"I thought the school would be something that would be challenging to grow," said Ron Sutphin, who has taught at the school since 1982. "It just never stopped growing, and the potential never stopped increasing."
Instead of selling the school a few years later as he planned, he started adding courses, including an advanced mechanics class that is often taken in sequence with the first two-week course, a weeklong introductory class to teach hobbyists how to fix their own bikes and several classes in building custom frames, a particular passion of Sutphin's.
Tuition and fees for the two-week professional class are $1,750, and the one-week classes cost $850. Students pay between $2,500 and $3,100 for frame-building classes, which include a custom-built bicycle by the end of the class. The school is considered a licensed private career school and overseen by the state of Oregon to ensure a quality program.
"I think it's great training for everything they offer here," Foley said in the midst of his professional repair class.
The school has grown from about 60 students per year, when Sutphin bought it, to more than 500, with significant waiting lists for several courses. A few students come from Southern Oregon or Portland, but most travel from out of state. About 10 percent of the students are international.
The school can accommodate up to 25 students at one time. Adding any more students or classes would require a larger building, but the school has no current plans for expansion, Ron Sutphin said.
"We have a lot of options, and we're fortunate that they're all pretty good options," he said.
The school's alumni base has continued to grow, however, and includes nearly 10,000 graduates with demand as high as ever for professional repair classes, said John Baxter, the school administrator.
While the recession has been bad for the bicycle industry as a whole — with materials costs fluctuating wildly and exchange rates increasing costs of imported parts — it has been good for the school, Baxter said. Interest in issues such as climate change and peak oil has spurred interest in using bicycles.
"We've benefited from that because there are a lot more people who want to know everything they can about their bicycle," Baxter said.
The school attracts everyone from hobbyists to career-changers and students right out of high school who know college isn't for them but still want valuable skills. Classes are not easy, however.
"The training is pretty intense," Baxter said. "These classes are very physical; you're working with your hands a lot."
If a student took all classes offered at the school back-to-back, he or she would finish in just over two months, Baxter said, not that he recommends it.
"To be in school eight hours a day — Monday through Friday — for two-and-a-half months, by the end of that, you're pretty fried," he said. "It's much more common to take a break after three weeks."
Ren Barger, 25, came for four weeks to take both professional mechanics classes and a welding seminar. Barger directs a bicycle cooperative in Tulsa, Okla., that provides reconditioned bikes to the homeless. She wanted to do reconditioning work herself and teach volunteers how to do repairs, as well.
"This has been the greatest experience of my life and the most pleasurable experience I have had in my career in organized education," said Barger, who in the past has attended two different universities.
She received a small scholarship to attend the classes, but paid most of the cost on her own.
"It's not a cheap experience but what you take away is a lifetime of knowledge and joy," she said.
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