Purple bikes on a roll

The surest sign of spring’s arrival at Cornell is not winged and red breasted. Here, the fresh season bursts forth purple, with circular pops of red.

The technicolor harbinger of seasonal change is courtesy of Cornell’s Purple Bikes program. Now in its third year, with a fleet of 35 bikes, the program has a large fan base among students, keeping business brisk, demand high, and cycling a thriving hobby on this bike-friendly campus.

Purple Bike Shop
The Bike Doctor, Jack Bethel, at work in the Purple Bike Shop.

The one-speed road bikes, frames painted purple and rims cherry red, are free for the taking. Just check one out from the Thomas Commons and zip across campus, roll into town, or explore points beyond.

“If we had 40 more bikes they would be used—people are always looking for a bike,” said Jack Bethel, Student Senate vice president and chief mechanic at the Purple Bikes Bike Shop, open weekday afternoons during the spring and fall from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.

The bike doctor

Student Senate initiated and funded the program, with help from the college’s Campus Safety Department. So lusty was the campus appetite for these wheels that 10 more bikes were added to the fleet in 2011.

And the Cornell community’s passion for bikes in general prompted the college to help the bike shop morph from a fix-it bay for the school-owned fleet to a free repair shop for any student-owned bike. Free winter bike storage followed. And organized group rides have flourished, with Bethel leading the charge.

“He is the bike doctor,” one student declared, after coming to the shop with brakes that “felt funny.” With a tweak from Bethel the brakes were cured, and the bike doctor turned to the next cyclist in line.

You’ll find the Purple Bike Shop in a walk-out basement nook in Bowman Carter. There, in a Spartan but freshly painted space, Bethel and other mechanically-inclined student workers offer their expertise freely to students who come wheeling in with thirsty chains, popped spokes, or slipping gears.

From Rocky Mountains to rolling Iowa hills

The bike shop gig is a natural fit for Bethel, a lanky cyclist who grew up spinning through mountains in his home state of Colorado and learned bike repair skills from his cycling friends. Bethel now rides happily along with the Hilltop population, content in a town surrounded by scenic and undulating roads that are a popular draw for cyclists from all over the area.

Bethel logs 30 to 100 miles a week on these roads. And with the help of the Purple Bikes, he ignites the joy in others. The moment snow melted this spring, Bethel was leading the season’s first group ride, a Friday, after-dark affair that attracted eight riders for a 10-mile moonlit ride. “I call them “The Late-Night Lobos,” Bethel said.

“Just the act of riding a bike is very soothing. There’s the freedom, wind in my hair. It makes you forget about everything but the moment,” Bethel said.

Getting to and from class or escaping the world is just what the “bike doctor” would order. The Purple Bikes makes the escape easy, and their playful attitude invites everyone along for the ride.