Bike Your Way Sober with Freedom Machines

By Olivia Pennelle 07/03/17

Our aim is to share the joy of the open road and show people the therapeutic value in cycling as an alternative/addition to 12-step programs.

Freedom Machines picture collage
Liv interviews Freedom Machines, a nonprofit program that repairs and donates bikes to people in recovery. photos provided by Author

Freedom Machines is dedicated to fixing and then donating bicycles to people in recovery. In 2016, recovering alcoholics Chris Collins, Mike Romanoski and Kannan Kristel set up the nonprofit in Glens Falls, New York to provide a means of transportation and sense of independence. More recently, they formed a partnership with the Council for Prevention and Glens Falls Hospital’s Center for Recovery, in which they lead bike therapy workshops—called the Challenge Program. They take teens on rides as a means of introducing physical activity as a part of their addiction treatment. So far they have given away 131 bikes. The trio spoke (as one) to The Fix about what inspired their movement, the benefits of cycling and "bike therapy."

Freedom Machines provide independence to people in recovery by giving them a means of transportation. What else about cycling represents freedom to you?

When you go on a long ride, you have to just keep moving, you must climb the next hill and the next and the next. There may be a finish line in a race, or a destination on a ride, but on the road of recovery there is no finish line. Cycling can also bring you back to your childhood; the joy and freedom you experienced when you got your first bike and learned how to ride—soon you were building jumps and making trails through the woods, pushing yourself to jump higher and go farther.

You have spoken of how cycling can be used as a sobriety tool—how so?

Connecting with nature on a ride, the sound, the environment, a peaceful country road, is better than meditation for me. Conquering mountains, or long distance rides, builds confidence and self-worth. Being able to fix something broken (donated bikes), and provide them to others in recovery who are working on themselves (broken spirits), correlates well. To share the joy of the open road, or a path through the woods, and show somebody the therapeutic value in cycling as an alternative/addition to traditional 12-step programs brings us a great balance in life.

You have spoken of cycling as a means of stress relief. Can you elaborate on that?

Stress relief: the endorphin release from riding is greater than any high that can be found with drugs or drinking. There is nothing better than a good hard ride after a stressful day at work.

What prompted you to set up Freedom Machines? Was there a particular event, or was it your passion of cycling?

It started by us just passing our own used bikes along. The gratitude shown from the first few bikes given away prompted us to believe we had stumbled on a way to share our love of biking and its therapeutic benefits with others in recovery. One day we decided to make it Facebook official and started a page advertising that we wanted to help others in recovery with a means of transportation—and a push in the right direction towards a healthier lifestyle.

Moving on to the Challenge Program, what does bike therapy mean to you?

Bike therapy can be from start to finish: Building/ fixing a bike, or packing up before a good ride. For me, the world starts to turn off when I fill my water bottle before a ride. It’s the first climb of the day. On the other side of things, when I was in early recovery, it gave me the ability to get to meetings/treatment on time. That was a huge build up for me—I was responsible for me and I was able to take control of my transportation. 

Why is it aimed at 13-18 year olds? What would you say is special about that age group?

Joseph San Antonio, at The Council For Prevention says, “The Challenge Program was designed and implemented with the notion that traditional 'talk' treatment doesn't always work for adolescents. What we like or think is special about the group is the use of challenge or adventure based activities to engage the adolescents at a behavioral, cognitive, and emotional level.”

How does offering this type of therapy, and working with teens, impact your recovery?

Working with teens is a way to show them that we are people that have been in their shoes, and have turned our lives around. Also, we’re not just some people telling them what to do, we are actually out there doing it and sharing our experiences.

Would you say physical activity affects the choices you make regarding the rest of your health—with food for example?

Physical activity demands healthier eating. Without too much thought, you find yourself searching healthier options to fuel your body for longer rides.

What are your future plans for freedom bikes? Do you have any exciting projects coming up that you would like to share?

Freedom Machines future? The sky is the limit! We envision setting up satellite Freedom Machines sites, spreading farther afield from our humble start. We have opened our coverage area to accommodate more and more requests for bikes. We have had an overwhelming response from the communities in our circle of influence—they are willing to help us in any way they can. Some have donated financially, some have donated bikes, others their property, and many with likes on our Facebook page. In addition, we know our data is invaluable; if we can determine statistically that our program is effective, our organization will flourish. We do have some short term goals and they are to find a location, building or facility to work out of. We will get there just have to keep pedaling.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.