For avid cyclist and bicycle repair shop owner Jason Merrill it’s about way more than the bikes.

“No one would think that someone who fixes bikes could be useful to the mission of Habitat,” said Merrill, 34, owner of Back Alley Bikes of Chapel Hill. “But everyone has a skill to apply, a way to help out, even if they don’t know which end of the hammer to hold.”

To Merrill helping out means being the volunteer bicycle mechanic for the 30 college-age students riding coast-to-coast for a summer of service through Bike and Build when they stop in Chapel Hill.

“I’m jealous every May when they come through, and I wish I could ride with them,” Merrill said. “They are always a good bunch of enthusiastic kids. I’m always impressed that for many of them their first foray into cycling is this crosscountry ride.”

Each rider raises $4,500, evenly divided between trip expenses and to support affordable housing nationwide. The 3,592-mile trip from Nags Head to San Diego takes 70 days. Along the way riders are hosted and housed by local community partnerships and provide hands-on help at Habitat construction sites. Locally, the partnership is the UNC student chapter of Habitat for Humanity and the congregations of St. Paul AME Church and Chapel of the Cross.

Merrill and co-workers, James Steed and Derek Wilson, work on the bikes with the riders at the church that is hosting them. “We get information from them about what’s going on with their bikes, and they ask us questions about riding technique and maintenance while we fix their bikes,” Merrill said.

“By the time they get here they’ve ridden a couple hundred miles, and things are falling apart. Cables are stretched. Wheels are not true. Shifting and braking adjustments are needed. We dispense lots of tips and pointers and try to be generally encouraging. Cross-country is a long way and can be overwhelming. We tell them to think of it as just a bunch of little rides strung together.”

Although Merrill never participated in Bike and Build as a rider, he was familiar with Habitat’s mission from his AmeriCorps construction placement with HHOC in 2001. “I’ve always loved the nuts and bolts of work, of doing things with my hands that benefit other people,” said the Jacksonville N.C., native who majored in philosophy in college. “HHOC always felt like a natural fit for me and still does.”

After his AmeriCorps service with HHOC ended, Merrill worked in Detroit as a bike messenger and at a bike repair shop there named Back Alley Bikes. He missed the bike-friendly environment of Chapel Hill and found his way back in 2007 to open Back Alley Bikes, with his former employer’s permission to use the name.

Tyler Momsen-Hudson, HHOC’s construction director, and Merrill’s supervisor in 2001, reconnected with Merrill in 2008 when Bike and Build needed a local volunteer bike mechanic.

“Jason is a real evangelist for bicycles and taking care of them,” Momsen-Hudson said. “And he’s very enthusiastic about riding and about Habitat. On site, the riders are always telling us how much they appreciate his repairs and especially his counsel.”