Rusty Earl is a storyteller. Rather than pen and paper or keyboard and screen, he uses a camera, the internet and his garage. The stories he tells on his YouTube channel involve bicycles and more often than not, nostalgic bikes and the people who ride them. But that’s not his day job.
Earl grew up in Idaho Falls, and worked at Bill’s Bike Shop as a repairman back when the store was still located on Holmes. During his college days in Rexburg, he ran a mobile bike repair business out of a 10-by-10-foot storage unit. After college, he taught video production at a middle school in Mountain Home for 10 years. On weekends he continued to take a mobile bike repair trailer to regional mountain bike races. When the economy tanked in 2008-2009, he packed up his family for a job as a video producer and director at Kansas State University.
“I work on documentaries in the educational world,” Earl said. “We produce two major documentaries a year for PBS locally in Kansas and do marketing videos for them, too. I’m fortunate that the majority of our work is in the educational world. We do stuff that matters.”
He also began producing videos after work hours for YouTube under the channel “Cool Bike Projects.”
During the pandemic, much of the academic world found that it could work from home. Earl convinced KSU that he could do his job while living in Idaho Falls, and packed up his family and moved back to the Gem State. His Cool Bike Projects videos were also picking up a following. More than 1,600 people subscribe, up from a handful. He’s on the lookout for new projects and new stories.
“The main focus of the channel is bike restoration,” Earl said. “We’ve done about a dozen videos — as far as restoration probably eight. Most were done in Kansas before we moved here. I’ve done five or six videos since we got here.”
Neatly arrayed above a workbench in his garage are all his bike tools. On the walls hang bike frames and bike parts for current and future projects featured on YouTube. He tinkers on the projects during lunch and after clocking out for his university job. During a recent visit, he held a chain guard for an old clunker bike he was restoring for a relative. “I had this powder-coated here in town.”
One restoration video project focuses on the classic Schwinn Sting-Ray kid’s bike built from 1964 to 1982. Possibly the most popular bike ever built, with its high-rise handlebars, banana seat and sissy bar in the back, it was a favorite with any kid who wanted to pop a wheelie. Rusty Earl’s brother, Tyler, had one he wanted to restore for his children.
“On a good day (the Sting-Ray) might fetch $700 or something,” Earl said. “But the ones that have all the drum brakes and all the bells and the down tube shifters, those will go for $5,000.” In 1964, Schwinn Sting-Rays sold for $49.95, according to bikehistory.org.
The video starts out with the brothers (via video chat) talking about restoring a Sting-Ray and follows the process of obtaining parts, painting and rebuilding two bikes. The process covers not just the story of the bike build, but finishes with the bikes zooming down a sidewalk.
“A lot of these, even though we say bike restoration, there’s going to be a modification of the original bike,” Earl said.
He said many of the restored bikes will have more modern wheels, tires, cables, paint and components to make them actually better riding than the original.
Another example is the rebuild of his brother’s beloved 1998 Specialized Rockhopper ridden for “10,000 miles” during his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission, then left to gather dust in a garage.
“We upgraded everything on it here,” Earl said. “Everything is a mixed match of new parts and used parts. We’re kind of going modern, but it’s still got 26-inch wheels.”
The spiffed-up bike was repainted and original decals were found on the Etsy website.
Longtime friend Milton Beasley of Blackfoot became the subject of a recent Cool Bike Project story when he was looking for a family adventure and set his sights on biking the Hiawatha Trail in north Idaho. But he had a problem: His bikes were all in disrepair. The resulting video story is restoring the bikes and riding the Hiawatha rail trail in July.
“My boys had older department store special bikes,” Beasley said. “We gave Rusty a bit of a run for his money. He had to work on it to get them road-worthy and back together again. But it was amazing. It’s like they’re brand new again.”
Another video project was restoring a sidecar made with a steel frame and oak paneling that matched up with a Trek mountain bike. The Earls once used the sidecar for a son with special needs, but after he passed away, the sidecar fell into disuse, disrepair and rust. He restored the sidecar to pass on to another family.
“Here we are washing a 40-year-old bicycle that for a lot of people would say this thing’s got nothing left in it, but the reality is a clean bicycle that is well maintained can last for a long long time,” he said during the video. “And sometimes with a little bit of engineering and creativity, we can find new purposes for old bikes and bike parts. As I’m working on new videos and growing this channel, that will be a common theme for me.”
Find the Cool Bike Projects YouTube channel at tinyurl.com/rvv6rb5d.