Rolling Stock: Beneath Trees, Russell Steele Recycles Bikes

By CHRIS BURRELL

His workbench is situated under a tree for good reason. Russell O. Steele 2nd needs those tree branches to support the ropes and chains, pulleys and counterweights.

All that gear is critical for holding a bicycle up in the air.

Welcome to Russell Steele's used bike shop, where everything in sight is a pile of junk just waiting for resurrection.

His place is set in the flats of downtown Oak Bluffs, just down Dukes County avenue. You've probably noticed the line of cycles parked out by the rail fence and then glimpsed the mountain of old bikes set back a little farther in the yard.

Just to complete the scene, there's a big, old dog tied up in the yard, looking like the proverbial junkyard canine. That's Taffy.

It can all seem a bit off-putting at first, but the fact is, Taffy leans up against you, angling for a pat on her back, and Mr. Steele is one of those friendly, self-styled characters who can't stand to see something go to waste.

"My father was a world-class junk collector," he says. "But I hold my own, that's for sure."

Mr. Steele reckons that he sells only about 30 used bikes a year, but after surveying the massive pile in his yard, he just scratches his head and grins. At that rate, he'll barely make a dent.

"I'm afraid I got over 500 here," he says.

The junk-collecting gene has clearly gotten the better of Mr. Steele. "There's a limit. There's got to be a limit," he adds.

A retired firefighter, Mr. Steele worked in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and then moved to the Vineyard in 1994, to the home where he spent his childhood summers.

Shortly after settling on the Island year-round, Mr. Steele found himself at the West Tisbury dump, witnessing something of an outrage - police officers throwing out dozens of bicycles.

That was the start of it all. He rescued the bikes and embarked on a sideline that quickly filled his yard with heaps of rusty two-wheelers. But Mr. Steele, who is 56, thrives on it all, taking pride in his singular style of doing things.

Unlike most bicycle mechanics, Mr. Steele doesn't use one of those fancy bike stands that hold the frame firmly in a vise grip.

Instead, he invented a perfectly Rube Goldberg system, looping a series of ropes and chains over the limbs of a maple tree to make a double-sling - one for the bike seat, the other for the handlebars. Two old fishing floats function as counterweights.

Sitting on the ground underneath this contraption is a handsome, shiny metal sluice gate to catch all the drippings, oil and solvents needed for a bicycle transfusion.

"That? That was a stainless steel stovepipe that I cut in half," he says. "All that stuff was going on the ground."

Mr. Steele then walks over to the side of the tree and grabs the cover, a long, pointy plank of wood with carved handles. "I made it look like a rocket ship," he says.

He fashioned another set of tools solely for the purpose of loosening up rusty bicycle chains. Again, the handles - made of oak - are carved and even ornate. "That's styled after Prince Valiant, or my interpretation," he says.

Alongside the wrenches and pliers above the workbench hangs a white Frisbee, his catch-basin for screws when he's taking apart a bike.

After six years on the job, Mr. Steele is finicky about what he'll bring home. "Huffy, Western Auto, Sears: I try to avoid the cheapos," he says. "They take three times as long to fix and they're a third as good when you're done."

Mr. Steele saves his praise for other brands: Specialized, Trek, Giant, Miyata. He even has a few Peugeots out in the pile. "That's a good one, too," he says.

Fixing up a bike can take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. He prices them in $5 increments - figuring in discounts for rusty wheels and premiums for options like aluminum cranks.

Buying a used bike here will set you back between $15 and $100. And they're all guaranteed.

That's about the only sales pitch you'll hear from Mr. Steele, who barely budges when customers come calling. You want a bike? Just look at the dozen or so at the fence.

"Tell her, if you wait a couple days, I'll have a better selection," he hollers out to his friend, Carol Zittel, who is talking to a young mother looking for a bike for her seven-year-old son.

Another piece of advice for dealing with Mr. Steele: Don't ask him to build some custom job. "Special orders kind of upset me," he says, smiling again. "I just go with the normal flow here."

He hasn't commissioned any market studies, but he knows his customer base and they're looking for affordable wheels.

"Brazilian workers use 'em to commute to work," he says. "It's safe to say I have the Czech Republic cornered. I cornered the market on them."

Ask for a client list, and Mr. Steele shoots back this suggestion: "Just go look at some rusty bike and wait for the owner to show up."

He is one of the more self-effacing salesmen you'll ever meet. "It's just a hobby, a hobby gone awry," he says, laughing to himself.

In addition to bicycles, his yard holds a myriad of other things: two Harley Davidson motorcycles, six boats and at least three sheds filled with more stuff, much of it containing memories.

In one shed, there's a photograph of a boat, a 43-foot dragger that he built with his father when he was just a teenager. His dad was an engineer and a designer with the Continental Screw Co. in New Bedford. "He got me started," he says.

One of Mr. Steele's favorite courses in college was physics. "I use that in everything," he says. "It always made sense to me, levers and pulleys and stuff."

Now, he marvels at the technology in today's bicycles. They are worth fixing, and Mr. Steele goes about the job methodically. He takes a hose connected to a canister of compressed air and blows the dust off the axle and chain of a bike dangling in the air from its sylvan crane.

Then he loosens the gear and brake cables to lubricate the lines. His fingers glisten with oil. "A good bike like that will last you the rest of your life," he says.

All around him are the bones of a bicycle graveyard - seats sticking out of milk crates, handle bars stacked up the length of a tree trunk and an endless supply of silvery tire rims.

Ms. Zittel has just called up the BFI disposal company to see how much it would cost to send some of these models back to the dump - $10 a bike.

"I don't know how I'm going to get rid of all these," he says. "I'm trying to think of a good invention to make out of all that tubing."

Despite all the ribbing at his own expense, Mr. Steele is committed to his bikes. He has three of his own, but rides them only as far as Reliable Market. Still, he happily extols the virtues of the Vineyard for cyclists.

"It's the best place in the world to ride a bike," he says.

Plus, Mr. Steele's bike shop has unwittingly retained one vestige from his previous life as a fireman. When customers need help out front, they grab a wrench hanging from a string and ring a bell - an old tire rim.

Mr. Steele never thought of the connection, but he grins at the parallel. To him, it was just another matter of recycling.