Traverse City bike shop Brick Wheels, looks pretty much like other quality cycle shops in Northern Michigan, but hang out a while, look a bit closer and a little known piece of Tim Brick’s business is revealed, a piece that’s all about giving back. Find this story in the April 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Tim Brick and his brothers Bob and John used to ride their Western Flyer bicycles past the Traverse City State Hospital because the huge manicured grounds and twisty, interlaced roads were a joy to ride, plus the boys had fun messing a bit with the patients. Some of the residents would be out on the barred-up porches, and the boys would taunt them, and in turn the patients would yell back to the boys as they sped away … misguided mischief to be sure, but a typical childhood prank in mid-century Traverse City. The hospital also worked its way into the vernacular of local kids. The boys used to tease friends when they did something stupid and say, “What’s wrong? Are you from Eleventh Street College or something?”— a reference to the hospital entrance on Eleventh Street.
What the boys did not know at the time is that the hospital would soon come to mean something much more serious to them. It turned out that brother John did not get adequate oxygen when he was born. During childhood, he seemed a tad slow, but back in the 50s there was not the technology to measure and test the effects of oxygen deprivation or begin early intervention. Besides, overall, he seemed fine. But when puberty hit, John suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized—in the same place that had been the brunt of Brick-brother jokes for years. “We always thought it was funny but when your brother is a patient there it wasn’t funny anymore,” Tim admits.
The boys’ mother, Mary Jean, a school teacher by trade, went back to school to get a master’s degree in special education and founded a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, called Grand Traverse Community Living Center (now called BrickWays), with the goal of helping people live independently and safe.
“Mom used to say, ‘We want them to be a part of the community, not just living in the community,’” Tim says today.
Today, BrickWays has 70 people enrolled in its TRAIL (Traverse Region Assisted Independence Living) essential support programs and 50 people living in their five housing centers. Mary Jean and John have since passed, but Tim has continued to carry on the remarkable work that was spurred by the bike rides he and his brothers took on the hospital grounds. Forty years ago, Tim founded Brick Wheels bicycle shop. He was one of the four founding members of the TART (Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation) Trails and introduced cycling to many in this beautiful city, where more than 100 miles of off-road cycling paths exist. TART Trails has inspired thousands of people to take up cycling, giving them a healthier and happier lifestyle and helping make Traverse City one of the top 10 places to retire in all of America.
But there’s an extra special ingredient to the Brick Wheels chemistry, a part of the business that the average customer is not fully aware of, and it too ties back to brother John. On any given day, you’re likely to come across an adult on a big trike or a bike with adult training wheels, or you might see a van pull up, and the driver unloads his wheelchair, then his adaptive bike. It’s normal around here.
Nineteen-year-old Steve Chapman had just washed his dirt bike and was taking it out for one last joy ride before selling it when the front fork broke. It sent him propelling out over the handlebars, flipping him and slamming him into a tree. His lung collapsed, and the impact of the blow shattered his spinal cord. He lay there for 14 hours, through rain, hail, thunder and lightning.
He had passed a neighbor’s farm right before the accident and had waved to the farmer as he performed a wheelie. That farmer’s dog was going ballistic all night long, barking at the injured Steve who lay so close to the house. The dog’s owner just yelled to the dog to hush up. Because of his collapsed lung, Steve could not yell for help, yet he was conscious.
That first post-injury year was very hard for Steve. He spent four months in the hospital recovering, but he soon began to play wheelchair basketball and his spirit returned. Eventually he helped win the national wheelchair basketball championship with the Grand Rapids Pacers. He could hold the ball high above his head because his torso and arms are so long—his frame measures 6 feet 4 inches. “Getting into shape helped me. The wheelchair just became an extension of my body,” Steve says. His mom took his accident the hardest, although she said,
“God knew what he was doing when he made your arms so long.”
Eventually the lightweight materials and high performance components that were developed after the Vietnam War for wheelchair basketball athletes migrated over to bicycles, and now manufacturers are using those same materials and engineering strategies. Steve wanted to follow that high-tech migration. And Brick Wheels was there to help.
Steve now averages over 11 miles an hour on the TART Trails (or paved roads around the Old Mission Peninsula). He put 1,500 miles on his bike last year alone.
Steve’s bicycle is aerodynamic. He sits so low to the ground that his butt often hits when he passes over a crack or a bump on the trail or road. His hands get sweaty turning the crank, and the aluminum hand pedals get slippery, so he must wear gloves. And his field of vision is obstructed by his crank, and he has to look around it. But Steve can easily put 52 miles on his bike in one day. Traverse City is a bike-friendly community. Since there are so many cyclists in the area, car drivers tend to have a certain empathy for their fellow riders. Drivers look for and after cyclists on the road, Steve feels.
Lately, Steve has been riding with his son Dylan, who is now 14 years old. Dylan pedals a very fast 22 m.p.h. pace, and Steve averages a respectable 15–18 m.p.h.
Steve has ridden the I-Ride (Independent Ride) across Michigan—a four-day ride with the Disability Network, which helps physically challenged riders like Steve accomplish their goals.
Cycling isn’t the only sport Steve excels at—he water skis, snow skis, plays tennis in a special quick-moving wheelchair … is a lot more active than most able-bodied 50-year-olds. Steve has great balance. Besides his bike, Steve rides a four-wheeler and snowmobiles, although he can’t use his stomach muscles.
“Everyone takes their accident differently. I go to hospitals and talk to accident victims. It helps both of us.“
Thirty-two-year-old John Johnson had no idea when he went out for a joy ride on his 600cc Polaris snowmobile that life would be forever altered. His machine hit a rut. The impact threw his hands off the steering bars, and he lost control. He careened into a tree while rocketing along at 80 m.p.h. He broke his back. He was in the hospital for 56 days. He never walked again. He does, however, ride a bike quite spectacularly. Like 30 miles in a day. John moves at 11.3 m.p.h., and last year he put 2,600 miles on his bike without the use of his legs, riding about four to five times a week.
How does he do it? With the help of Tim Brick and his pit crew at Brick Wheels.
John arrives at the store in his modified van that enables him to drive using only his hands, and the “pit crew” greets him like a NASCAR star. John can get himself out of his vehicle on his own, into his wheelchair, onto his bike and lift his legs, strapping them in. But still, 99% of the time the crew is there to help. Unlike Steve, John can sit up. The crew airs up his tires and checks his brakes, and he’s off, using his hands to pedal. Every ride begins and ends at Brick Wheels.
When John has a flat on the trail, Brick Wheels arrives like a personal AAA roadside service; they put his bike up on blocks—with him still in the seat—and change tire tubes.
“If it wasn’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be riding,” John says.
He is an inspiration for all who see him. Like the elderly couple who flagged him down to find out about his recumbent bike. Now they are out there staying fit and having fun in their 70s.
John and Steve’s bikes each cost about $10,000, and they received grants from foundations to help purchase them through Top End Co., which also makes specialized wheelchairs for various sports, skis and other adaptive athletic gear. Although there are more than half a dozen bike shops now in Traverse City, Brick Wheels gets the lion’s share of disabled riders. Tim’s staff caters to them.
Steve and John tell me, “They know us here, what we need, and go above and beyond.”
Ray Myers arrived at Brick Wheels after surviving brain surgery to correct his seizures, a surgery that left him needing to relearn just about everything. Like how to count, spell, read, even move his body. He hadn’t driven in many years, but that was his goal. Learning to ride a bike would help him achieve that goal, Ray believed. Tim Brick at Brick Wheels agreed to help.
Ray learned to ride his bike and rode all through the seasons, over ice and snow. He learned to balance and steer, build his stamina and his confidence. He was rebooting his brain to learn new skills.
“There are so many things happening when you ride a bike. There are horizontal, vertical angles to deal with, multiple functions had to be executed in order to stay upright and move. I had to learn to balance, focus. I knew in my heart that if I could learn to ride a bike, it would be a stepping stone to driving a car again.”
No one believed in Ray, but Tim Brick did. Everyone else said, “You will never drive a car, Ray. And you should give up that bike,” recalls Ray, as he ended up in the hospital on more than one occasion.
After 11/2 years of practicing on his bike, Ray was granted an automobile driver’s license. At first he was restricted to 10 miles of his home, then 20, then 50. Now Ray owns his own car and is leasing his own home, which is huge for this previously homeless man who lived in shelters, was having seizures despite 12 meds a day, and who was without a job, income or hope.
“I am so grateful to Tim Brick. He brought about great change in my life.” Ray believes God put Tim in his path to help him. “I have had more blessings in my life in these last six years than most experience in an entire lifetime.”
The other unusual clientele Brick Wheels has are mentally handicapped cyclists … the people who live in Mary Jean Brick’s popular group homes and independent apartments under the BrickWays guidance.
Peter Garthe is one such cyclist who serves as the Ambassador of Traverse City’s Cherry Festival. Peter makes it his duty to sell more pins to the beer tent than anyone else. Last year he sold over 20,000 via his familiar one speed coaster-brake cruiser with turn down handlebars, and has been doing this work for over 25 years, promoting the city he loves on the bike that he loves. It’s actually his second bike because he wore his first one out. The National Cherry Festival organization purchased his new bike for him four years ago. He had it set up just the way he likes. It’s an unusual set up, but Peter knows what he likes.
In a normal week Brick Wheels will service about 15 to 20 special-needs cyclists. “They may come in and talk, discuss sports, ask us to check their gears, investigate squeaks, see if their bell is working right, or just grab a coffee,” Tim says, “even if we checked the same problem the day before, we still do it. To these folks their bicycles are not only their main form of transportation but also a great source of pride and status. They’ll look forward to adding a new set of streamers or valve caps like a young CEO might covet a new carbon shaft [golf club].”
Tim teases his special needs clients, gives them bike gloves, and other presents they might need. And they give presents back to Tim. On Tim’s office door there is a handmade get-well card that a man nicknamed Fast Eddie gave to Tim after Tim had a surgery. To Tim the card is a Rembrandt.
Fast Eddie got equipped with a trailer for his 27-speed mountain bike. He cruises town picking up recyclables, which earn 10 cents a bottle or can. He has made over $300 in one day.
Eddie, born to a homeless couple was found in a box as an infant with rat bites and long rat claw scratches. He’s had a tough life in and out of foster care until he found BrickWays. Tim recently visited Eddie in the hospital, where he was recovering from a bout of pneumonia.
When Tim walked into Eddie’s room, Tim teased him about the brown iron IV drip, “What’s that in the bag, Eddie? Root beer?” Tim never hesitates to tease his special-needs friends, and treats them all as if they were family, like his brother John. When asked why he is called “Fast Eddie” (he named his mountain bike “Hot Rod”), he answered, “Because I’m ****ing fast!”
As Tim prepared to leave the room, Eddie put his arms around Tim, hugged him hard, and teared up. He said, “I love you, Tim. You’re like my big brother.”
Mom Mary Jean and Brother John are both smiling broadly down on Tim Brick.