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Training Wheels

They each saw something different in the old shop.


Chatman tells him he has a few for $30 to $50, and the man's eyes light up. "Pick me a nice one. A 10-speed," he says, and promises to come back Monday, when he gets his check.

Lately, a lot of passers-by have begun to look at 312 N. Second St. They watch it with a mix of curiosity and hope, wondering if this spot on a faded avenue north of Broad Street will someday offer salvation for their feet and sweet speed for their kids.

The dusty windows veil a cavernous space littered with wrenches and sprockets and air tubes, and filled with shining Schwinns and magenta Huffys and fat-tired Treks. It's a place where you can run your hands over greased gears and supple chains and cool chrome. It's a place to learn to fix bikes or buy one, or even get one free.

This, for Chatman, is a mixed blessing. "The word is starting to circulate that we have a bike shop on Second Street," he says. "Even though we don't."

Chatman, 52, has no interest in running a bike shop. Doesn't have time for it. He's the manager of Crossroads restaurant and various political campaigns, a father, a coach and mentor for young men. Not the owner of a bike shop. No.

Well, maybe.

It all began in May, when the Richmond Police were searching for a nonprofit that could take 300 bicycles — all lost, stolen or impounded — off their hands and put them to good use. The chosen organization was the Minority Health Consortium, a small group that runs STD-prevention programs in urban Richmond.

Chatman, a member of the consortium's board of directors, volunteered to help unload the truckload of bicycles and distribute them to children in North Side communities. Word spread faster than a 10-speed zooming downhill: free bikes!

"I think we had every kind of bike there is," Chatman says — BMX, racing, mountain, cruisers. In two days, they gave away 90 percent of them, mostly to children and teenagers. Most would've cost $250 to $1,500 new, Chatman says, but he didn't know that when he handed them out.

"Next morning I went for a ride around the neighborhood and everyone was riding bikes. It was like Christmas in May," he says.

Surveying the few broken two-wheelers still sitting in the storefront on Second Street (the space donated for the operation by attorney John Mann), Chatman thought his job was done. Just had to fix up a few more, give them away, and that was it.

But bicycles, even stripped-down and rusty-chained, possess a certain allure. People began poking their heads into the dusty storefront. Cars would slow down as they passed, and drivers would ask him, "Is that a new bike shop?"

No, Chatman told them, over and over. But then he had an idea.

He thought back to his childhood in Philadelphia, where he moved at age 4 from Gilpin Court. His first bike was cobbled together from scratch. "Because we were kids, we couldn't afford to go out and buy all these things. So we made 'em," Chatman explains. "So we might find a frame, next thing you know we'd get a wheel from somewhere, a brake from somewhere else."

Older boys taught younger ones how to build and repair bicycles. "It was kid teaching kid," Chatman says. He reasoned, why not renew the tradition?

As director of the MAN mentoring program, soon to become part of the Minority Health Consortium, he was already taking adolescent boys on summer outings and teaching them how to play chess ("a nice quiet game that stimulates the mind," he calls it). Chatman knew they would be fascinated by bike mechanics. And with a shop right in the neighborhood, people wouldn't have to wait another year to get a bike.

But Chatman realized he couldn't teach everything. "I have to go all the way back to remember how to fix them," he says. "I've probably forgotten more than a lot of people know."

But, as it turned out, other people began taking an interest in his project. A man with a keen gaze and a boisterous laugh, Chatman knows everyone from Broad Street to Jackson Ward: the sweating waiters at Tropical Soul next door, the men who play chess and dominoes out on the sidewalk, the women who wave as they saunter toward the Broad Street bus stop. Some of the people he met while sitting outside 312 turned out to be just what he needed.

The first was artist and illustrator John "Bilal" W. Lincoln Jr., who had known Chatman for years before running into him by chance on Second Street. He offered his expertise in teaching kids how to spruce up rusted bikes with airbrushing and detailing. That way, "they can build a bike out of their own heads," he says. "In a way, that's art."

Then in June, Chatman met Alonso Bolden-El. A welder of custom-made bikes, Bolden-El saw the piles of parts in the storefront one day and stopped to ask if any were for sale. Chatman told him no. But then the men began to talk, reminiscing about the days when everyone rode their bikes around Byrd Park on Sundays instead of cruising in cars. "When we was children we used to think we was on the drag-strip," Bolden-El says.

Chatman liked his vision of a bicycle parade, like an antique car show, with legions of children pedaling old banana-seat Schwinns down Broad. Bolden-El said he'd like to teach Chatman's students how to weld so they could make custom cruisers, like the recumbent 12-speed he built with a round, chrome steering wheel. And he has a few tricks to teach, like using blue Brillo pads and vinegar to shine up the chrome on a scruffy-looking Schwinn. "Pull out the rust buckets," Bolden-El says, "and I'll bring 'em back."

Janice Thompson, the third volunteer to appear, doesn't mess with rust buckets. Chatman first saw her riding down the street on a 2000 red Cannondale. "I said, 'Nice bike!' She said, 'Well, hey, this is what I do.'"

Thompson, a night-shift nurse who also works at Wendy's, spends her free time taking long cycling trips and is an expert at repairing racing bikes. After meeting Chatman, she called and said she'd teach the kids how to fix chains and brakes. He was thrilled and says he hopes she can get girls interested, too. Thompson, in turn, enjoys sharing her knowledge with eager students. "It's fun because they have so many questions," she says. "They want to know so many things."

The boys' energy is boundless. As Thompson stands outside the shop one sweltering July day, swiping at beads of sweat with a towel, Africa Israel-Taylor and Eric "Bud" Seay, both 13, appear down the street, pushing an old American Eagle bike and a grocery cart, filled with five wheels and a rusted frame. The boys tell Chatman they salvaged them from an alley junk heap.

After unloading the parts, Chatman tells them to go return their vehicle: "We don't collect carts," he says. The boys argue. "We got to go about nine alleys down to put that back," Bud says. But Chatman is firm, and Africa heads back up Second Street.

When he returns, Bud gets to work on the Eagle, oiling the gears and taking off the chain. "I just learned by looking at people," he says. "Then I try it on my bike and it works."

Bud pauses. "Africa, pass that rag," he says, and continues, "You got to know what you're doing, because you could get your fingers caught in something."

Chatman is pleased with his boys' progress. "When you come from the environment that they come from, it's usually a little chaotic around the house," he says. "Concentration comes hard."

But the rowdy adolescents who no one thought could change … have. Chatman remembers the first time he took them to the MAN program headquarters, when they ran in through the door and grabbed whatever they wanted to play with. Now, when Chatman says it's chess time, they jump to get the board and pieces. People gather around to watch as Marcus Seay, 11, and Gabriel Israel-Taylor, 12, wage war with plastic pieces on a table set up outside.

Chatman watches with pride, urging them to concentrate when the game gets tight. When Marcus puts Gabriel into check, Chatman says, "Boy, I thought you could play!"

"Oh, I can get out of it easy," Gabriel says, and soon decimates Marcus's bishops and knights. Chatman groans. "No, you didn't give it up like that."

After a prolonged battle, Marcus wins. He stands, hikes up his pants and grins shyly at the onlookers. The boys set up the board for the rematch, and Chatman reminds them, "Black always moves first."

"White moves first," retorts Gabriel. Chatman laughs: "What'd I tell you? When it's my game, it's my rules."

Chatman's rules are simple: no trash talk, no cheating and no "playing for blood." The boys are learning fast, he says — both chess and fixing bicycles. "Before you know it, they're better than you," he says. "Eventually, I'll have it to the point where they can just shut their eyes, take a bike apart and put it back together."

Chatman has more in mind, however. He wants to teach young people not only to repair bicycles and paint them, but also to custom-craft and sell them. The profit would be theirs. The skills, the pride, would persist for a lifetime.

"You get interested in doing things like this, you never know what you'll end up doing," Chatman says. If a boy can fix a bike, he can open a bike shop, he reasons. If he can run a bike shop, he can run a car shop. But it has to begin somewhere, he says. "Someone's got to inspire you to build."

Chatman knows it'll take a long time to turn the storefront crammed with bike parts into a working business. "In a minute, we're gonna run out of bikes," he says. He needs more helmets, parts and funds.

But the sign on the storefront window declares, "Yes, We're Open." And Chatman doesn't mind when people call him "the Bike Man."

"I just decided, 'God wants you to have a bicycle shop here.' So I have a bicycle shop," Chatman says, resigned but smiling. "I have to do it now." S

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