Mon, Jul 23, 2012 | by Des Moines RegisterShare
By Paula Reece
One thing you might not expect to see when you walk into Rasmussen Bike Shop in West Des Moines is a 7-foot-tall robot.
The robot, made from recycled bike parts, was created by part-time Rasmussen bike wrench Brian Pottorff, 41, whose life 16 years ago looked, and felt, very different than today — and he can thank bicycling for that.
In 1996, Pottorff, a Chariton native, reached a turning point. “Being in a small town, it’s tough,” he said. “Nothing to do in those towns, it seemed, except get strung out.”
Tragedy struck when his best friend committed suicide. Pottorff bolted.
“I went out to Colorado and lost my mind for a year,” said Pottorff, who said he started using methamphetamine.
Then, at a White Zombie show in Fiddlers Green Park in Denver, Colo., he saw acclaimed pro cyclist Libor Karas, who was doing an exhibition of Trials competition, which is like stunt riding on a bicycle over obstacles ranging from rocks, mud and water to picnic tables or even cars. “He floored me,” Pottorff said. “Shortly after that I moved back to Iowa, bought a Raleigh mountain bike, got into cycling and just went off the deep end from there.”
He found he could trade the high he got from using drugs for the high he got from mountain biking.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, going down the mountain or hill. It’s a rush — but it’s healthy,” he said. “Cycling basically pulled me out of the meth.”
Greg Rasmussen, owner of Rasmussen Bike Shop, remembers the day Pottorff walked into the shop. “He had just bought his first mountain bike, and we just started talking,” he said.
They became friends, and Pottorff started working part-time repairing bikes. He expanded his bike collection and moved beyond just mountain biking.
“I used to have almost 40 bikes,” he said. “Single-speed mountain bikes, geared mountain bikes, cross bikes, road bikes, old antique cruiser bikes, tandem bikes, six-gear bikes.”
Even a unicycle. Now the fleet is down to about two dozen, used by both him and his wife, Teri, who got into cycling because of him. “She’s head over heels for it now,” Pottorff said.
But the bicycles in their garage are nothing compared to the piles of old bike parts the Pottorffs have collected, which he now uses to make art.
“I probably have a thousand pounds of recycled bike chain in my basement,” he said.
He noticed how much was being thrown away in the shop, especially old or broken bike parts. So he thought, why not make something out of it?
“Being a country kid, I’ve always loved to do stuff with my hands,” he said. His grandpa was a heavy equipment operator and his dad a farmer, so welding was in his blood.
The first art piece he made was a sunburst. “I’ve still got it, and it’s awful,” Pottorff said. “But it’s like with anything: the more time you put into it, the better you’re going to get and the more creative you’ll get.”
Now he takes custom orders from customers, creating functional pieces like wine racks and bar stools, as well as sculptures and wall decor like heart bike chains and handlebar “antler” mounts.
Then there’s the robot. Rasmussen recalls the day the giant piece found its way to the shop, from Pottorff’s house nearby.
“One day he came and grabbed the two-wheeler and took it home, loaded up the robot and wheeled it to the shop,” he said — down the sidewalk and across Grand Avenue. “You should’ve seen the people oogling and oogling him.”
Rasmussen said he appreciates Pottorff’s intentions, as well as his art.
“I think it’s great that he’s recycling all these bike parts.” Pottorff even keeps 5-gallon buckets at other local bike shops that they fill with their spare parts.
“And he’s come a long, long way. He was just doing little key chains at first, and now he’s doing all kinds of things with chains and sprockets.”
Pottorff admits it’s sometimes hard to find the time to really knock out the art, between being a husband and father (his 6-year-old daughter, Izzy, is just learning to ride a big-kid bike), working full time and part time, biking and maintaining a 13-mile stretch of Des Moines Regional Trails, which he does as a volunteer. But he does his best to keep up with demand, and the cycling community does its best to keep demanding.
And it’s just that community that helps fuel his fire. “The cycling community here in Des Moines — it’s just one big, huge family,” he said. “I can’t explain the love that you feel from everybody. They pulled me out of the gutter.”
He’s now on RAGBRAI, his seventh year of taking the Rasmussen Bike Shop on the road fixing bikes, a service the shop has performed for 38 years. Pottorff’s artwork (ReCycled Artwerks) will also be for sale in Rasmussen’s traveling retail shop.
And after all that hard work, he’ll probably be due a good, long ride of his own. “Nothing like just shutting your mind off and flying through the trails, gravel roads, city streets, back alleys and neighborhood yards — jumping curbs and tree roots and simply acting like a kid again,” he said.
“Cycling is pure adrenaline, good for the soul.”
Find Pottorff’s ReCycled Artwerks at Rasmussen Bike Shop, 301 Grand Ave., West Des Moines, or online at www.recycledartwerks.etsy.com and ReCycled Artwerks on Facebook.