CONCORD, CA — If the abundance of ethnic restaurants was the yardstick for a community’s vitality in the 1980s, Smitty Ardrey believes bicycle riding is the barometer today.
Concord’s relatively flat topography adds to its appeal among the two-wheeling persuasion, whether it’s for recreation or transportation.
To ensure folks keep rolling along, Ardrey offers repair services and education through the Bike Tent and Bike Kitchen backed by Bike Concord. Because of his efforts, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other local agencies crowned him this year’s Bike Champion for Contra Costa County.
As the 2021 honoree, Ardrey received a Tailgator brake light and water bottle from Mike’s Bikes, a bicycle-only membership for 24/7 roadside assistance from Better World Club, a laminated set of San Francisco map cards from the Association of Bay Area Governments and a cycling jersey from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Variety of two-wheeled pursuits
Ardrey caught the bug for riding early. Like most youths armed with a Schwinn Stingray and its iconic banana seat and high handlebars, he had a desire to do jumps in his driveway.
When his family moved to Travis Air Force Base and he enjoyed many a ride around the Solano County countryside on a classic 10 speed. This, in turn, sparked an interest in mountain biking.
As an adult, he found his bike useful not just as a means of escape – but as essential transportation.
When a two-hour commute to his job in San Francisco became just too dreary, he opted to ride BART and continue on to his office on his bike. “(Cycling would) allow me to recoup some of the time for exercise,” Ardrey said.
Making biking a priority
“Concord has a lot going for riders,” he said, noting the geography, accessibility to Mt. Diablo and even the benefits of riding over the Carquinez and Benicia bridges.
But for all these bright spots, Ardrey laments the city’s lack of full follow-through on Bike Concord’s efforts to make the needs and safety of bicyclists a greater priority.
“(The city) does the talk, but when it comes to the walk, it does not happen,” he said.
For the record, the city is on track to finalize a Monument Boulevard corridor infrastructure upgrade in early 2022 that will enhance the safety of pedestrians and cyclists alike.
Kenji Yamada, who is on Bike Concord’s Advocacy Committee, says Ardrey has been “the core” of Bike Concord from the beginning.
“His persistence and constructive work have increased the prominence of bicycling in Concord and helped move the city to take bicycling more seriously in its street design decisions,” Yamada said.
“His kindness and dedication have drawn innumerable Concord residents into our bicycling community and have sustained Bike Concord through many challenges,” Yamada continued.
Finding a permanent home
Ardrey has been continually engaged in Bike Concord’s Bike Tent program since its introduction at the weekly evening Farmers Markets in Todos Santos Plaza seven years ago. Despite that location going dark in 2020 due to COVID-19, his commitment has not wavered for those who need a quick chain tightening, flat repair or bicycling education.
But for Ardrey, the Bike Tent lacked the permanency of a community bike shop, or a Bike Kitchen as he dubbed it, such as is commonplace in other Bay Area communities. In such a shop, someone could begin the process of picking up a frame and the necessary parts and proceed to building their own human-powered machine from the ground up.
Using a holiday tamale sale to kick off fundraising, Bike Concord worked to fund a shop in Concord. In 2018, the Bike Kitchen launched at Olympic Continuation High School – providing students an invaluable hands-on experience.
Principal Lynsie Castellano called Ardrey “a super energetic, dynamic person who belongs in schools.”
Ardrey’s concept reminded Castellano of her grandfather, who fixed up bikes and loaded them up to take to children on Indian reservations in New Mexico, where he was living.
She says Ardrey is regarded as an honorary staff member. “He is very self-sufficient and does what he needs to do.”
Motivating students one bike at a time
Ardrey estimates 75 students have taken part in the after-school drop-in program that he calls “Wrench Time,” which offers “a different perspective and outlook of how things are.”
“Our goal is to teach mechanical skills and give each of them another perspective than what they get in the classroom,” he said.
Five core volunteers interact with the students in the Bike Kitchen. For example, one student wanted to be an accountant so she was partnered up with a CPA. In the course of those encounters, bikes are refurbished so they can be sent back to the community so someone can benefit from the free transportation.
“With a bike and a BART pass, you can get anywhere in the Bay Area,” Ardrey said.
The experience also led to some students helping out at the Bike Tent, where Ardrey says they learn tabling and people skills.
As a result of the Bike Kitchen and the good works Ardrey has spearheaded with the students, a new message about Olympic is going out to the Concord community.
“We have awesome kids, and it’s a good way to see them connect with the community in a positive light,’’ Castellano said. “This is not only good for kids, but for the community.”