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VCU's Free Hot Coffee Bike Pedals Beyond Campus To Engage Those In Recovery

Carter Bain pedals the Free Hot Coffee Bike
In Monroe Park, student Carter Bain rides the Free Hot Coffee Bike, which was designed to engage people in conversation about recovery. Ian Stewart/VPM News

VCU Professor John Freyer creates art pieces that use everyday objects to develop human connections. He gained national attention with All My Life For Sale, selling all his possessions online and traveling the country to visit the people who bought them. His recent project Free Hot Coffee creates a space for people battling addiction.

For Virginia Currents, WCVE’s Ian Stewart has more.

To Learn More:
Learn about the services for students in recovery at VCU’s The Wellness Resource Center in which students and their allies have a place to go on campus. Find information about Professor John Freyer’s Free Hot Coffee Bike and his other projects, such as Free Ice Water and Free Hot Supper, which are all part of his Fifty/Fifty Art Project.  


It’s early morning at the newly renovated Monroe Park and VCU student Carter Bain is standing behind an unusual coffee stand. As joggers and dog walkers pass by, two students slowly approach. Bain invites them closer.

Carter Bain: You all want to help us out here?

Bain rode a big red tricycle to get here. But it’s not just any bike. It’s the Free Hot Coffee bike that’s part art piece, part community service.

Bain: So, we’re going to start with grinding beans. So give that a spin.

The bike is run by Rams in Recovery, part of the Wellness Center at VCU and supports students with a history of addiction.

Bain: So what we do is serve free hot coffee and have conversations about recovery and you know, it’s served by students in recovery and their allies--ya, grind on, there you go.

Bain asks the students if they know anyone in recovery. One says her uncle.

Bain: A lot of folks have people in their family or their extended family or friends that are in recovery and that’s part of what this project is about, is kind of, you know, helping people make those connections, you know.
Free Hot Coffee was created by VCU Associate Professor John Freyer. He makes “social practice art,” works that engage community members. Many of Freyer’s projects come out of his own personal experience in recovery.

John Freyer: When I went into recovery I started to listen to people. And spent hours with people, talking, which was really foreign to the lifestyle I had before--I think I was always talking...uh and never listening.

Free Hot Coffee Bike works in tandem with two other of his projects. One called Free Ice Water, the other Free Hot Super, where strangers share a glass of H20 or a hot meal. All are part of a larger project called Fifty/Fifty which revolve s around creating a space for conversation.

Freyer: My main kind of working practice is to work with accidental audiences. I’m really interested in seeing people who just kind of accidentally fall into one of my projects. And they can get a cup of coffee and walk away or they can get a cup of coffee and engage and stay for a conversation and hang out.

Inside is everything you need to make “Recovery Roast” coffee, made by Lamplighter Coffee Roasters. The bike has seen some miles as well.

Freyer: We went to the University of Georgia. And that campus is all uphill and downhill. And no amount of gears could help me through that. So this really is a project that VCU is kind of a perfect campus for because there aren’t any giant hills.

Grinding the beans by hand is an integral part of the process. It can take up to 15 minutes for the pour over coffee to brew. And there are no “to go” cups here, only blue enamel camping mugs. This is part of the plan.

Freyer: There’s no script with the coffee bike. It really is designed to create that 15 minute window for people to be in contact with somebody that is connected to recovery.

Freyer and his Fifty/Fifty project also traveled to London. He spent a week in residency at the Tate Modern museum. There, Freyer built a new free hot coffee bike for a Recovery program at Teesside University in Middlesbrough. And he worked with a local coffee roaster to create their own “Recovery Roast.”

For his next trip, Freyer hopes to take the bike along the Capital Trail to the campus of William and Mary.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Ian Stewart.