Down Rock Hill’s Heckle Boulevard Thursday morning just after sunrise rode a man on a bicycle. The guy pedaled away from a homeless shelter, on his way to work at a diner where he washes dishes.
A guy he never met repaired that bike.
And that is exactly how that guy who fixed that bike for free – the parts and labor and effort at his own expense – wants it to be.
Robert Baker, the owner of College Cycles in Rock Hill, doesn’t want recognition. He does not want anything.
Except more bikes that he can fix, make whole and give away. To a kid who had been abused, people who live in shelters, AIDS patients. Poor kids from homes without food – let alone bicycles – or a single mother trying to work two jobs who can save $20 in cab fare by riding a bicycle to work.
“Every one of those bicycles is one thing to the kid, the lady, the homeless guy,” Baker said.
“That bike is freedom.”
Just this week, Baker finished a bicycle that went through the Rev. Craig Butler’s social ministry at First Presbyterian Church to a woman who needed a bike to get to work. The bicycle was a castoff found by Rock Hill police.
All the cops, the recreation people, they know Baker the bicycle guy, because he is the miracle worker.
“There are bikes out there lost, stolen and never claimed later, just left, that we get to Robert and he makes the bikes whole again,” said Dusty Chisholm, who works for the city’s property warehouse. “The bikes he fixes end up with people who need one, with kids who never had one.
“The guy does it all because he wants to help somebody. Nothin’ complicated about caring about people.”
In the back room of College Cycles on Oakland Avenue, next door to Winthrop University, among the sprockets and gears, the tubes and tires, Baker works his magic.
He greases and oils, repairs and fixes and lubes in a building that housed a Krispy Kreme bakery decades ago.
Just don’t try to compliment Baker for doing it.
“The donation is all that matters,” Baker said. “For that lady who had to spend $10 each way on taxis to get to and from work, now she can ride for free.
“The bike means so much more to somebody who needs one, or never had one.”
Baker looks like he should be fixing Harleys, not Schwinns.
He has tattoos, his head is almost bald, and he is built like a fire hydrant.
He answers the phone with a “Yo, College Cycles; hey, dude,” and turns a wrench and drinks coffee and talks to customers – all at pretty much the same time.
He knows books and movies and religion and good whiskey. He served a stretch in the Air Force, just like his late father before him, who fought in Korea and Vietnam.
People who help others in the community, people who sponsor youth soccer teams and people who ride bicycles in clubs, are supposed to wear stretch pants in day-glo colors, be skinny and eat granola.
Baker keeps Iron City beer in his refrigerator and wears his heart right there on the sleeve of his tattooed arm.
His barrel chest has never been called svelte.
And when he rides a mountain bike through the city he has lived in almost all his life – and has run a bike shop in for 23 years – he usually sees somebody riding a bike he either sold, fixed or gave away.
The feeling never gets old.
“This is my city, and I love it and the people in it,” Baker said. “Those who need a hand, what I can give with my hands, I love them even more.”
Not long ago a stranger walked into College Cycles after parking his bicycle outside.
The guy had started out bagging garbage at a restaurant. He got the job because he had a bicycle, fixed by Baker, that was given to him by one of the dozens of charities and churches Baker helps.
The guy had worked his way up to line cook at the restaurant. He found his own apartment.
“The man had dignity,” Baker said.
Baker tries to ride with friends, bike clubs, when he can. But he’s a one-man operation, running the store while doing all the repair work.
Plus, there is the poison.
“Chemotherapy makes it tough to ride sometimes,” Baker said.
Baker, 47, has cancer, which he said is in remission.
He left the hospital two days before Christmas, sick, so he could finish a bike that had to be ready for Christmas Eve.
Yet this stocky guy – who can quote John Wayne movies and the Bible and Greek myths in the same sentence – does not complain or quit helping others.
On Thursday, he worked on a bicycle that needed a ton of work – brake calipers, bent rim, more.
“Some kid will get this bike, and that kid will get the present he deserves,” Baker said.
He never mentions what it would cost.
In the front of the store stood a red Mongoose mountain bike.
Not cheap new, it was refurbished and gleaming and beautiful.
Baker looked at that bicycle and rubbed the seat, the handlebars.
He tested the brakes, and the bicycle chain moved with the pedals.
“All this baby needs now,” he said, “is a kid to love it.”