05/27/2014 12:00AM ● Published by Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Alexis Leclair
When Fred Avila sends out A refurbished bike into the community, he likes to make sure it has a nice, polished shine. Saved from the dump with a lot of patience and elbow grease, he knows it has potential to really impact the life of its new owner. So it better shine.
Affectionately known as Fred the Bike Guy, the Red Bluff native has taken his own course of twists and turns, not unlike the cyclo-cross courses on which he loves to compete, to wind his way into the heart of the community through a new career at Tehama County Probation working with juveniles and AB 109 alternative custody offenders.
A former juvenile hall building, Tehama County’s Day Reporting Center is the hub of activity for those in alternative custody. In a back cell, Avila has set up a bike shop where he trains offenders in bike repair and helps them build their own transportation.
“It eliminates an excuse,” he says of the program that provides offenders refurbished bikes donated from the community. With a bike, offenders can get to and from work and their responsibilities under alternative custody.
It also provides job skills and a new life for bikes sitting in garages and destined for the landfill.
With kind eyes that dance as he speaks, Avila says his favorite story is of an offender released from Folsom Prison who had been through a bike program there. He connected with Avila to refurbish 35 bikes at Christmas to give away to children in need. The project kept two mechanics busy and two people fervently polishing each bike to a shine.
The project was so rewarding that the offender came back after his custody ended to voluntarily assist Avila with bike repairs at Project Homeless Connect. The two spent an entire day making free repairs to the bikes of the homeless and deeply impoverished.
“The success story is that I haven’t seen him again,” he says. “He hasn’t come back.”
Conversely, there’s joy in seeing a different offender who reports each day after a six-mile ride on a bicycle Avila helped rebuild. The bike had been donated when it was 30 years old and came in with the original tires, clearly having been stored in a garage and not getting any use. Now it shows signs of wear, the kind that indicates it’s being used. “It’s getting more use now than it ever has,” he says.
Avila discovered the freedom and joy of cycling at an early age. The eighth child in a family of farm workers, he had a loving yet humble upbringing. When computer classes were offered one summer during his middle school years, he found himself in need of transportation. Sensing his excitement to participate, his older brothers built him a bike and sent him on his way.
It wasn’t just the computers that captured his imagination that summer, but the experience of pedaling to his destination. “There’s something about being on wheels and spinning,” he says. “And there’s something about being by yourself and suffering.”
At 14, he handed his neighbor $15 for a bike “that was outdated even then” and entered his first road race, 76 miles around Eagle Lake. He beat every other competitor save one.
He found himself spending weekends riding from his home in Red Bluff up to Mineral, a 100-mile round trip trek. He laughs now at his gumption being a teen on the road “with no pump, no patch kit, no worry about someone running me over.”
By 18, he was working in the local bike shop, Fast Wheels, which he would eventually buy after a seven-year stint in the Bay Area as a utility worker.
Life at Fast Wheels was good, and ownership served him well. Eventually it turned a profit, but the true reward always seemed to be in the community he developed at the shop. Cycling enthusiasts of all stripes found their way to his doorsteps, but so too did young people seeking mentorship and a few homeless people in search of a kind ear and a bite of food, which Avila always seemed to have available.
As the economy crashed, however, so too did his profit margin. Closing the store was a painful decision, and one that will still stab him in the heart when he sees an old customer in town.
Despite the hardship, “I’ve never been one to say ‘I’m going to get out of this town’,” he says. “I’ve always loved being here.”
And so it’s just happened to work out that the closing of the doors to Fast Wheels opened a new door for Avila’s talents, combining his desire to work with kids, skill with bikes, and desire to create community with a wide variety of people. Under his guidance, people as well as bikes are starting to shine.