Cory Gillis has a catchphrase: “I’d rather be pedaling than bipedaling.” Even in the depths of winter, he means it.
“As long as there’s no active snowstorm, or like 3 feet of snow on the ground, once the roads are clear and there’s no ice, I’m back on the road,” said Gillis, who commutes from Somerville to his job as coordinator of affiliate services at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
Gillis can’t remember a time when he wasn’t an avid cyclist. Besides riding, he also likes to tinker with bikes, and always has time for a colleague who needs help with a flat or a dropped chain. It’s a skill set he began to develop more than 15 years ago, during his years as a student at UMass-Amherst.
“It’s a school big enough to have its own area code,” Gillis said. “Getting around campus, if I was to walk between classes — it would take 20 minutes. The summer after my freshman year, I went home and there was a bike in the shed. I took the whole bike apart and just put it back together.”
There was no going back.
“I would get abandoned bikes and I would fix them up, give them to friends,” he said. “And then I moved to Somerville about 10 years ago, and I have a workshop in my basement.”
There are times when he’s stumped, or doesn’t have the right tool, and has to tell a co-worker to take their bike to a local shop. But, “If it’s something easy, I’m willing to do it and work with them, and kind of use it as a teaching moment,” he said.
Michelle Nicholasen, an editor and content producer at the Weatherhead, was recently the student in one of those moments, having sought Gillis’ prescription for a faulty brake. “He loves solving hands-on problems,” she said. “People call him MacGyver.”
Nicholasen noted that Gillis’s know-how is not limited to bicycles.
“He has a gadget for everything,” she said. “He has an adapter, he has a connector, and he can fix just about anything you come up with. He helps everybody out, not just with bikes. If somebody gets stuck doing their Zoom, he’s there to the rescue — he’s got headphones, he’s got jacks, he’s got adapters.”
Said Gillis: “I like to call my office a one-stop shop and anticipate the unanticipated or just any event that could come up. I’m in the office five days a week and I’m the point person for representing the Weatherhead Center. So I’ve tried to make sure that everyone has what they need.”
His typical advice for the beginner bike commuter: a good light, a helmet, a U-Lock, and a rearview mirror.
“You’re a part of the traffic,” he said. “If you drive, you know all of the things that you need to be observing. Some people don’t always translate that to biking.”
In winter, fenders are a must, as is a change of clothes. Gillis himself wears a full rain suit, scarf, and motorcycle goggles.
Most important of all, says the local mechanic, you don’t have to spend big to get rolling. That bike in the basement or at a yard sale probably just needs a little TLC.
“The bicycle is one of the simplest machines out there to exist,” he said. “So it’s a really good start for self-actualizing repair.”