John DiRenzo, a former chef and tavern owner, once weighed 270 pounds. Resolved to reform, he began biking and running. Today, he is lighter by 100 pounds and he brims with the exuberance of a man who is convinced he's in the right place at the right time.
Now a bike mechanic and the owner of Tri-County Bicycles in Pottstown, DiRenzo, 42, believes the faded river burg has a bright future, and the instrument and symbol of that rebirth is the bicycle.
In front of his shop on High Street, Pottstown's main commercial thoroughfare, is a bike lane, indicative of the town's respect for human-powered transportation. Only a quarter-mile away is the Schuylkill River Trail, which DiRenzo describes as a "bicycle freeway."
When the dreams of planners and enthusiasts like DiRenzo are realized, that trail will extend 130 miles, from Philadelphia to Pottsville. Along the way it will link such towns and neighborhoods as Manayunk, Conshohocken, Norristown, Phoenixville, Pottstown, Reading, and Hamburg.
Pottstown, where three counties converge (Montgomery, Chester and Berks), is ideally situated to be the hub of the emerging river-town renaissance, DiRenzo believes, and he is focusing his entrepreneurial talent and energy on making that happen.
"For exercise and short trips, [biking is] the No. 1 way to go," he declares.
At Tri-County Bicycles, the yellow bikes catch your eye first. They are lined up front and center, more than two dozen, all equipped with baskets. They are free to borrow for anyone over 16 with a valid driver's license or state ID. DiRenzo's shop is the headquarters of Bike Pottstown, a bike-sharing program that has proven to be so popular and successful that other communities are viewing it as a model.
How popular? One day last week, as the sun burned through clouds and promised a pleasant afternoon, DiRenzo checked out a dozen bikes by noon.
"It's great," said Raul Santiago, 46, who is staying in a Pottstown halfway house. "If you don't have no transportation, you just come here and get a free bike."
His companion, Hector Rodriquez, 33, agreed. "With gas so expensive, it's a way to get to job interviews and get exercise, too."
Others who stopped by within the space of an hour: Everett Erwin, 42, who works for LA Fitness and uses the bikes to make sales calls and run errands.
Gene Dugan, 50, owner of Grumpy's hand-carved sandwiches, who uses the bikes to make deliveries.
Robert Strike, 45, who jettisoned his car a year ago to break from his former "chaotic lifestyle" and uses the yellow bikes to do food shopping, go to medical appointments, and commute to classes at Montgomery County Community College.
Since Bike Pottstown began in 2008, the 30 available bikes have gone out more than 4,000 times, DiRenzo said. Every single one has come back.
"The key is this," DiRenzo said, holding up a driver's license. "It's the best collateral."
The bikes - single-speed Fuji Sanibel cruisers with coaster brakes ("simple and durable," DiRenzo says) - can be taken anywhere but must be returned by 5:30 p.m., when DiRenzo closes shop. About half the bikes are used for errands and commuting; half are used for recreation and exercise.
The Schuylkill River Heritage Area, which oversees Bike Pottstown, is expanding it to other nearby river towns, such as Phoenixville (12 bikes currently) and Hamburg (four bikes). In recognition of its success and regional aspirations, Bike Pottstown may soon become Bike Schuylkill.
"Our goal is not only to get people to be active but also to introduce them to the Schuylkill River Trail," says the heritage area's executive director Kurt Zwikl. "The more riders, runners and walkers we have, the more it will benefit communities along the trail."
A $30,000 grant from the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation paid for the purchase of the bikes and for continuing maintenance.
"We've been very pleased with the increased ridership," says foundation executive director Dave Kraybill, who notes that many diseases are preventable. "Bike Pottstown does work and does keep people active."
I borrowed one of the bikes and pedaled about five miles north into Berks County. The trail was well maintained, well marked and mostly level. Along the way, I passed several folks on yellow bikes, including Theresa Haas, 74, of Pottstown, who bikes three times a week, making round trips of 15, sometimes 20 miles.
Before she began cycling, she walked with a cane and was headed for a wheelchair. "I said to my doctor, 'Tell everyone who has knee problems to get on a bike,' " Haas exclaimed. "I feel in control again and it's given me new opportunities. I've been encouraging all my friends to do it."