GE retiree maintains fleet of two-wheelers to keep exchange students rolling
Every bicycle needs a good spin doctor.
In Queensbury, one of those doctors is Bob Flanagan. The retired General Electric electrical and mechanical engineer tunes up and tests the two-wheelers that fill the basement of his Nottingham Drive home. They’ll all be on the road in Lake George this summer.
On the pedals will be young men and women from Russia, Macedonia, Turkey and other countries. The exchange students, who travel to the United States each spring and summer for work experience, need transportation as they move from morning to afternoon jobs.
Flanagan and his wife, Joan, are happy to help as road agents.
“The bikes come from donations of friends and neighbors, garage sales and sometimes police auctions,” said Flanagan, 69, a native of Pittsburgh who moved to the North Country as a young man. He retired from General Electric in Fort Edward in 2001. “I salvage parts from several bikes to make one good one and loan them out to the foreign exchange students for the summer. The bikes are returned to me in the fall for repair.”
The renovation project has been going for about 10 years. It started when Rick and June Sabayrac of Houston moved next door to the Flanagans; the Texans had just bought the Travelodge motel in Lake George. The two couples became friends, and fix-it man Bob repaired a couple of bicycles the Sabayracs had brought with them.
Working with tools has always been part of the Flanagan style.
“All my life, I’ve been repairing things,” he said. “My claim to fame is I’ve never had a repairman or a carpenter or an electrician in my house.”
“Except my brother,” said Joan Flanagan. “He does carpets.”
Flanagan boosted his spring renovation work once he learned that seasonal help at the Travelodge cleaned rooms in the morning and had to hustle into town for restaurant jobs during the afternoon. He wanted to make their trips in and out of Lake George a little easier.
That’s why spare wheels, rims, inner tubes and bicycle chains are stored in the Flanagan basement. On a recent rainy day, the spin doctor had a metallic green Magna Eco Quest mountain bike on a stand near his workbench.
“I’ll oil it, check the brakes and gear shift,” Flanagan said. “Clean it up a little here, the back sprocket. Once you get the basics of the thing, they’re not very complicated.”
Flanagan has worked on more than 50 bikes during the past 10 years, keeping his fleet on the road. Sometimes, the bikes just wear out. This year, a Magna Glacier Point, a Huffy Ironman and a Ross Mt. Rushmore are among the bikes in stock.
He has worked on racing-style bikes, with curved handle grips, but said kids won’t touch them. They want to look good on their rides, and that means they have to be mountain bikes.
There have been problems with thieves over the years — unattended, unlocked bicycles would disappear. Students are now required to lock up their bikes during work shifts.
Flanagan said the kids appreciate his work.
“Rick was one time trying to describe me to one of his foreign exchange students and he used the words ‘bicycle mechanic,’ ” he said. “The student didn’t understand that word. He understood ‘bicycle’ because I had it right there in front of me. ‘Mechanic’ was the word that was difficult. Rick tried ‘repairman’ and that didn’t sink in. Finally, he said ‘bicycle professor’ and the student went ‘Aahhhh! Pro-fess-or.’ So I became known as the bicycle pro-fess-or.”
Another story was a bit more touching.
“Polina was a Romanian girl who had purchased a bike. She didn’t work at the Travelodge, she had purchased a bike at Walmart or Kmart,” Flanagan said. “I got a call in the middle of the summer from friends of ours who said this girl, her bike had been stolen, and wondered if I had a spare bike, even in the middle of summer. I said ‘Yeah, I have one, come and get it.’
“A few days later, Joanie and I received a handmade thank you card from this girl,” Flanagan continued. “She had taken a piece of paper, folded it in half and drawn in charcoal a picture of a giant elm tree, it had to be in late fall because it was barren, and a small path leading through the woods. And walking down the path was a little girl and a little boy and one was holding an umbrella for the other. The message inside the card was, ‘Mr. Robert and Mrs. Joanie were the umbrella for Polina.’ When Polina retuned home that fall she was going to tell her parents how these nice Americans became her umbrella in a time of need.”
The heartfelt thanks go a long way when Flanagan is fiddling around with broken gear shifts and bent rims. “I’m giving these kids a helping hand, and my reward is getting the thanks from people like Polina and the thanks I get from Rick and June Sabayrac,” he said.
June Sabayrac said her “kids,” part of the “Summer Work Travel” program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, have learned about Flanagan’s project. They appreciate his work.
“Bob keeps these kids rolling,” Sabayrac said.
“The thing about it is, when the kids call and they have a flat tire, they have a problem, he comes rushing out. He doesn’t make them wait. Not only does he keep the kids mobile, where they can go everywhere, but it also helps them exercise their legs. It gives them the freedom, they’re not stuck, they can go to the store, out to eat, go shopping. He is the angel of the kids. Without him and Joanie, our kids would be on foot.”
Sabayrac said up to 40 foreign visitors will go through the Travelodge by summer’s end. The program is designed to provide the students with an opportunity to live and work in the U.S. during their summer vacation from college and to experience and to be exposed to the American way of life.
Many students live in a small house on the grounds of the 100-unit motel. They work as housekeepers, man the front desk, make repairs, plant flowers.
Alexander Spirkoski, 25, of Macedonia, is one of the Travelodge seasonals. He met the Flanagans when they dropped off a couple of refurbished bicycles. In a few minutes, Spirkoski had decided to adopt a forest green Sohn Mountain Express for the next couple of months.
“Going down to the village is so far away,” Spirkoski said. “I’ll be there in less than five minutes now. Lake George is a beautiful place. The air is good. It’s green — healthy.”
Flanagan said people will call and offer donations. He’ll be happy to make a drive south to the Capital Region, if it means bikes for his workroom.
“I would come down to pick them up but try to make arrangements to go around the area and get five or six people all at one time,” he said.