“It’s 2,000 stories, not just 2,000 bikes,” is how one of the volunteers at Paul McQuaid’s the Good Bike Project describes the work being done by the charity which donates bicycles to Ukrainian refugees.
On Thursday afternoon, ambassadors and news crews descended upon River Cycles along Dublin’s quays to witness the donating of the project’s 2,000th bike.
The newly refurbished bikes lined the pavement, the shine from their paintwork only bested by the smiles of the Ukrainian children in attendance who were getting bikes.
The project, which is run out of McQuaid’s shop in Usher’s Island, has been in operation for almost 18 months since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.
Speaking about its inception, McQuaid recounts how a friend got in touch in March 2022, asking if he could donate three bikes to a Ukrainian woman and her two children. The family had just arrived in Ireland having fled the conflict in their homeland, and found themselves placed in accommodation 45 minutes away from the children’s school.
He didn’t give it a moment’s thought, and immediately set about delivering the bikes to the family out by a hotel near Dublin Airport.
“The effect that that moment had on my life, the effect that that moment had on those two kids, it was profound,” McQuaid says. “I’ve grown up with bikes. I was born above a bike shop. Bikes have been a fundamental part of my life all throughout and seeing the effect that these bikes had on these kids was just absolutely amazing.”
From that chance encounter on, the generosity of McQuaid and his partner Kelly, who helps run the charity, has been experienced first-hand by thousands of refugees across Ireland.
Remarking upon the experience to date, McQuaid says it is a truly unique feeling to be the one providing a child’s first bike to them, especially in the wider context of them fleeing their homeland.
“It’s amazing. It’s the first time I’ve ever done this. I ran a cycling holiday company for years, raced them and worked in bike shops too. But to see the effect that these bikes are having on these kids and their mothers is just a moment of pure joy, and we all remember when we got our first bike. I’m just very lucky to have the opportunity to be doing this.”
Despite the happy occasion, the Good Bike Project is in dire need of more funds. McQuaid says he is grateful to the Irish Red Cross for their financial backing of the project, alongside a helping hand from prominent businessman Denis O’Brien, whose Actavo company has made a van and industrial storage space available for the project.
“The Irish Red Cross have been an amazing help which we desperately needed. But we need more support though. I need a building that’s fit for purpose. We have a waiting list of over 500 refugees looking for bikes. I could double the 2,000 in no time then. But I simply can’t do that here,” he says.
Repairing and restoring 2,000 bikes in 18 months is a colossal undertaking, but he has received a helping hand from a number of volunteers along the way.
Jerry Case, from the United States, has been volunteering at the project since coming across a local newspaper article last year. Working three days a week for the last 18 months, he has dedicated over 1,000 hours of his time to aiding the charity.
“It’s a great humanitarian effort. For me, it helps provide people with some flexibility, some freedom. When you arrive here without a vehicle and have to try and get to work or go shopping, it can be tough, so this is a great outlet,” he says.
“The whole story of the invasion and people having to leave everything. Some of these kids had probably got new bikes for Christmas and here they were a few weeks later leaving it all behind,” he says. “It’s fast, it’s hard work. But at the end of the day, you feel pretty good about it. You give these kids some nice bikes and get to see some nice smiles too… It really makes it all worth it.”
Another volunteer at the charity is Ukrainian refugee Ruslan, who hails from the eastern city of Odesa which is currently being subjected to heavy Russian artillery attacks.
Working at the project for a little over a year, Ruslan, a seaman by trade, “just wanted to try and help people” when he arrived in Ireland with his mother.
“I really like helping here because I remember back to my childhood when I never had the opportunity to be given a bike. I can remember eventually getting my first bike, I worked so hard for it… and then I developed a passion for them from that,” he says. “Bikes connect people, can help you make friends. I still have my best friends from childhood that I met when we were cycling around, so bikes can be very special.”
Being under pressure trying to repair so many bikes with just a handful of volunteers, the Irish Red Cross were able to introduce the project to Mountjoy Prison’s training unit. Going in three half-days a week, McQuaid trained a number of inmates, providing them with the necessary skills to help repair bikes.
The programme has proved to be so successful that the 2,000th bike was repaired by Mountjoy prisoners themselves, with a number of them developing their own expertise in bike-repairing such as chrome restoration, according to Liam O’Dwyer of the Irish Red Cross.
Even with space at a premium and a lack of hours in the day, those at the Good Bike Project remain determined to provide every Ukrainian refugee in need of a bike with one, as they attempt to whittle down their 500-person-deep waiting list.
Appealing for more donations from the public, McQuaid parted with a final request, saying, “People can help by giving us their used bikes and if there’s anybody out there that has the wherewithal to give us a building that’s fit for purpose, then get in touch.”