- Courtesy Barnett
With miles of mountain and urban bike trails, Colorado Springs provides an ideal destination for those who enjoy adventures of the two-wheeled sort. But the area offers more to cycling enthusiasts than a cool place to ride and play. It's also home to one of only two schools in the U.S. dedicated solely to the trade of bicycle mechanics and the related functions of the cycling business: Barnett Bicycle Institute (BBI).
Founded 30 years ago by John Barnett, a local bike mechanic who began in the field in 1973, BBI has steadily built its reputation on the philosophy that bicycle mechanics is a science with little room for subjective guesswork. The school, located in Old Colorado City, also produces one of the most comprehensive manuals in the business, Barnett's Manual DX. It features thousands of images and detailed instructions on procedures and is searchable to help users find information more easily. The most recent digital edition comes in at just over 13,000 pages, and sees frequent updates.
In September 2016, the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) purchased the institute as part of its focus on strengthening bicycle retailers through education. It was a decision that Todd Grant, president of both the NBDA and Barnett Bicycle Institute, says worked well for both parties. "We wanted a place to train mechanics," Grant says. "And John wanted to sell the business to someone who would continue his work."
The students who attend Barnett come from every state in the U.S. and even other countries. Grant says the school has roughly 350 to 400 people with varying mechanical knowledge who attend each year, many of them taking multiple courses.
"Our demographic is extremely diverse," he says. "We get consumers, career mechanics, men, women, people that work in bike shops and in mobile repair shops. We train people of all levels to become professionals in the field of bike mechanics. Everyone goes out with a solid education."
The classes are equally diverse, balancing lecture, demonstration, reading and hands-on learning. Each student has access to an extensive assortment of tools and the use of work stations that include mountain, road and touring bikes. Class sizes are intentionally kept to 16 students to keep the student/teacher ratio small and foster more face-to-face time during instruction and labs.
The two most popular courses are the five-day Bicycle Assembly and Maintenance course (BAM) and the 12-day Bicycle Repair and Overhaul (BRO) course. In combination, they provide in-depth instruction on assembling, maintaining and repairing a bike from the ground up. All of the classes follow a short-form style — the entire program can be completed in a 26-day cycle.
The cost of attendance can run anywhere from $129 for a short course on service department management, to just over $4,000 for all courses and a certification exam. BBI operates as a state-certified trade school, but due to its small size and the time and expense involved, it hasn't sought accreditation. Because of this, federal financial assistance programs cannot cover the cost of tuition. However, the school does usually qualify for VA Vocational Rehabilitation programs or company tuition reimbursement programs.
Post-education support includes access to the school's job board, which Grant notes has grown more powerful with the addition of NBDA's wide network last fall. BBI also helps students who are looking for work figure out where to get started.
"A lot of times our students just need someone to point them in the right direction," says Grant. "The bike business, especially on the mechanical and manufacturing side, is really a networking business and we can help people connect."
Chatter on bikeforums.net reveals praise for a Barnett education and confirms some alumni gripes about finding work in the cycling industry, including taking significant pay cuts to enter the fix-it field. Much like the debate in the food world of heading to culinary school vs. learning to cook via experience in the kitchen, some question the value of both Barnett and the Ashland, Oregon-based United Bicycle Institute. When asked why a potential student would pay for schooling instead of learning in a shop for free, Grant points out that in mentorship trades such as bicycle mechanics, your on-the-job education is only as good as the knowledge of the people you work for and the time they are willing to invest in teaching you. (In fairness, an apt person can potentially excel in either scenario.)
Beyond the networking value, BBI also provides all updates to its comprehensive manual at no charge to everyone who attends, no matter how long it's been since they were a student. Alumni can even contact the school when they come across a problem they can't solve on their own.
"When you attend Barnett's, you are a student of ours forever," says Grant. "We are there if you call us and we'll do what we can to help."