Kim Szarmach

In August 2012, Sterling Stone found himself on a bike somewhere along the Mount Vernon Trail, miles away from home. It was his first ride since childhood and he was using a bike several sizes too small for him, clad in jean shorts and a black button down.

“I was not prepared in any way shape or form for what I had gotten myself into,” he said.

Stone became so exhausted that he was stopping every mile or so to drink water and take short naps. He knew that as a visibly-struggling, large, Black man without any of the proper equipment for a 20-mile bike ride, he didn’t look like the other bikers on the trail. But Stone said he didn’t feel left out.

“All these middle-aged White men with their beards and fancy bikes, instead of … judging me … they were encouraging me,” Stone said.

Four years later, he is the executive director of the youth-run bike shop in Northeast D.C., Gearin’ Up Bicycles. Teaching kids in underserved communities to repair bikes, Gearin’ Up instills in its volunteers the skills they need to join the workforce.

The decision to use bicycles as a platform to learn these skills wasn’t an arbitrary one. As Stone observed on that fateful ride in 2012, bikes are an equalizer in a city divided by race and level of income.

“Once you’re on two wheels, the color of your skin, what you look like or who you’re voting for kind of melts away,” he said.

As in the larger D.C. biking community, Gearin’ Up’s volunteers and staff treat each other with kindness and support.

“You get here and everyone treats you like you’re best friends,” said Pedro Perez, 17, a volunteer in the bike shop.

Perez is one of many volunteers who has, in Stone’s opinion, moved on to better things since he started at Gearin’ Up. He recently graduated high school, has a paying job at a bike shop in D.C. and is taking a college course. Perez still chooses to spend his free time at Gearin’ Up.

Gearin’ Up volunteers keep coming back not only for the shop’s sense of community, but for the satisfaction they get out of the work they do. Theo Marshal, 16, has a paid position working at the shop’s front desk. He recalled working with one young customer in particular.

“It’s not even just for the money,” Marshal said. “To see [the customer] smile, he’s happy now because we cleaned his bike. It made me feel good.”

Though the goal of the shop is primarily to empower the youth who work there, those who come in to buy bikes or get one fixed are imperative to the mission.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for the customers who come through the door,” Stone said.

He calls Gearin’ Up a teaching bike shop as they offer lower rates for bike repairs because the work is done by mechanics in training. The shop has received a lot of business since it opened in 2014 and Stone envisions opening one or two more retail spaces in the next 5 years.

As Gearin’ Up continues to expand, they are always looking for more volunteers, used bikes, parts and monetary donations.