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Le tour de MIT

Decrepit bicycles go ’round and ’round among students who like a cheap technical challenge

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / November 14, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - The fundamental problem with the MIT bicycle auction is that it is held at MIT. Lots of colleges auction off the bikes that are abandoned on their campuses, but MIT’s bike situation is unique because MIT students are unique.

Two particular idiosyncrasies are problematic here: MIT students don’t care too much about appearances; and they like a good mechanical challenge.

That begins to explain why the MIT campus is home to a giant pool of awful bicycles that just won’t die.

They are rusty. They are broken. And most were ugly the day they were made. Some have been drifting around the campus for decades, continually recycled through the auction.

This year, there were 116 bicycles up for bid, and to look at them all, lined up in a dirt lot at the far west end of campus, it was easy to see why they were abandoned. Inspecting the rows, it was hard to find any that could be ridden off the lot. Several were missing wheels. Eleven were missing seats. And yet, as always, nearly all of them would be sold.

Steven Keyes was one of the first to replenish the crummy bicycle population on campus when he bought a very beat-up women’s bicycle in a lavender color that matched some blotches in his hair. There were 200 people in the crowd and he was the only one who bid on it. He got it for $5; he may have overpaid.

“This is a terrific bike,’’ he said as he stopped to inspect it, quickly realizing the brakes did not work.

Keyes admitted he didn’t know anything about fixing bikes, but he is a freshman mechanical engineering student.

“How hard can it be?’’ he asked.

This is the great do-it-yourself spirit that is part of the MIT tradition. And this is the exact thought process that makes the day of the annual bike auction the worst day of the year at Cambridge Bicycle, just up the street, because people who fix bikes for a living know that some problems should be left unsolved.

Last year, a mechanic quit rather than spend another day doing triage like a battlefield medic, telling the students - including the many looking for cheap parts - to put the bikes out of their misery.

“We need to break hearts,’’ said Ryan Stanis, a mechanic, as the first customers trickled in from the auction. In the first hour, he had already turned away three.

“Sorry,’’ he told them. “There’s a dumpster out back.’’

It is hard for some of the customers to take; one person snapped at him for not being able to get a rusted crank to turn.

“He yelled at me to try WD-40, as if I hadn’t thought of WD-40,’’ Stanis said, shaking his head.

“It’s a horrible day,’’ said Bud Durand, the bicycle shop manager. “Usually we’ll get a couple bad Yelp reviews because we turn people away and they get angry,’’ he said as he reached into the back wheel of one of the bikes that had actually made it into the shop and unwound something tangled in the spokes. It turned out to be a pair of earbuds.

The bicycle shop’s response is usually that the basic parts to fix it, not to mention the labor, will cost more than the bike was worth to begin with, and no one wants to hear that they just threw money away, even if it was just $20 or $30. So they buy WD-40, go back to their dorms, and try to fix it themselves. Often they succeed, if only for a little while, until they just abandon the bike again.

Back at the auction, Christian Wachinger, a postdoctoral scholar from Germany, said that was his stated goal.

“I just want a bike I can use and then throw away,’’ he said as he eyed one without a chain.

Like many of the students, Wachinger said looks were not important; all they wanted was a means to get from point A to point B on the very long MIT campus. This in an era where bicycles, especially in Cambridge, are a status symbol, a fashion statement that says something about you to the world. But MIT has long been a place that views status differently.

“I like that my bike says I ride a five-dollar bike,’’ Keyes said of his lavender bike with no br akes.

Dennis Levene bought a bike for $10, and once he got to sit on it - the auction rule is that you can’t ride it until you buy it - he seemed pleased. It was rusted but it worked, and he didn’t mind that he looked rather ridiculous on it. Levene is a 6-foot-7-inch basketball player; the bike he bought was a child’s BMX.

“It might be a bit small but, I’ll make it work. I just need it to get across the river to my frat,’’ he said as he pedaled off, slowly. “I think this will be a pretty good return on investment.’’

But Durand, the bike shop manager, said auction day is just one day in an endless cycle, because the DIY-types succeed, and the bikes will get ridden and live to squeak and grind their way across campus for another year.

And then, when the students are done with them, they will be abandoned and resurface again in the auction. Because there will always be a new batch of broke MIT students up for a good mechanical challenge.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.