Today, I’m going to post a series of stories I collected from several of our outstanding bike shops, where the staff are dedicated to ensuring rider safety and joy in being out on the love of their life. You may have a shop that you love that isn’t included here: that’s great! I’m not saying these are the only good shops in town. I’m saying these reflect what you should be looking for in a good shop.
This afternoon over a coffee, my bike mechanic, Jamie Foss, and I are discussing the cycling scene. He begins by telling me that the way the handlebars are curved, what sort of seat you prefer and how high, even the PSI setting you keep your tires at: all these things say something about you.
“What do you mean?” I ask him, feeling slightly exposed. Well, he explains, a bike is an extension of the person who rides it. It’s a direct reflection of them. Some people even look like their bike. I pulled a face at such a ridiculous notion.
“You ride a white bike,” Jamie said. “I’ve noticed that you wear predominantly white clothing.”
He’s right. I have a white shirt on today.
The bike reflects the rider’s style. Jamie says there are two kinds of cyclists: there are the functional riders and there are those who really love riding. Even I’ve noticed how often this idea is reflected in bike maintenance: some people make regular adjustments to their bike while others don’t even oil the chain.
I have to step back and consider. One of the most intriguing concepts I’ve discovered in this project is that cycling in every city is different. The experience is driven by such variables as climate, terrain, politics and the economy. These things go some way toward explaining a city’s metropolitan tastes and its idiosyncrasies, but maybe not the entirety of it.
In Toronto, for instance, we tend to ride what we feel reflects our style, what makes the most practical sense, and in the end, what’s the most fun to ride. I’m no bike expert, but even I can see that people ride everything in Toronto. We love our bikes, the versatility of them, the variety available, sometimes the beauty that only we can see and sometimes the beauty that’s clear to anyone with eyes. We don’t care how others view our bike or our style, which may explain why many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of belonging to a Toronto bike community.
I suddenly decide, as Jamie orders his coffee, to mull over what I’ve learned from my interviews with shop owners.
When I walked into Curbside, which sells mostly city bikes, Eric Kamphof found me among the herd at the back. The name that appears on many frames there is Linus: Curbside brought Linus to Toronto from the States.
Upstairs, they have a design and manufacturing gig, where they custom-brand bikes specific to a market’s demands. Just as I had theorized, each city in North America wants something different. Some prefer single-speed, some three-speed. Some want bright coloured frames. Curbside redesigns bikes from the United Kingdom, from Holland, and now from Halifax, to conform to what each city really wants.
Originally, Curbside’s owner wanted to open a bike shop in the Annex that offered European-made city bikes, but he had no money to open a full-fledged shop. Instead, he opened in a tent on the curb (hence, Curbside) in front of the Brunswick House on Bloor, a popular pub across the street from their current location.
“This neighbourhood is very committed to riding all year, everyday,” Eric explained. The problem the shop encountered was the common complaint, “Why is my chain rusting?” which reflects our Canadian climate. You wouldn’t get that question in Europe where commuter bikes are built to last. Curbside responded to what they perceived as a Canadian need by selling bikes that people could leave outside all year.
Eric has strong Dutch roots. I kept forgetting that he’s in sales, because he’s frank and youthful in his zeal. He’s also very particular about his bike brand. Eric rides a WorkCycles, a Dutch brand.
“This bike is for the person who reveres bicycles,” he had said, grinning.
“Tell me about your career choice,” I suggested, interested in how he views bike shops. He agreed with me that there are many attitudes surrounding these stores. For instance, Curbside is sometimes viewed as “gentrifying Toronto.” Maybe it’s because a bike is considered a pure object—a humble thing with a lot of power. If an object is truly that pure, maybe you shouldn’t be trying to make money off it.
“A bike is eternal youth,” he’d beamed. And then he laughed. “In the business, you can’t take yourself too seriously. It’s just a bike shop!”
And yet, Curbside is famous at Interbike (the biggest annual bike industry event in North America) for having introduced city bikes to North America, something that was a tough sell originally. Compared to other continents, North America has a strong car culture and no one expected bikes to take hold here. A further complication is that while Paris and New York have a strong sense of identity, Toronto has diversity.
“Our cycling culture must be an expression of diversity, like nowhere else in the world,” Eric said. Toronto is considered one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and the attitude here typically is one of tolerance, in this case catering to the cycling philosophies of each culture.
One of Eric’s career goals is to change how cycling is viewed in Toronto. He saw a downtown being drained of people, so many of whom were moving to the suburbs. The Trinity-Spadina ward, where Curbside is located, is “too close to drive and too far to walk.”
Owning a car in this neighbourhood means you get stuck in traffic a lot. Unfortunately, there were some peculiar attitudes to cycling developing here. For one thing, bikes were getting pushed aside as impractical. Cycling was also seen as a male-dominated sport, so the business’s conciliatory overture was to offer pink bikes. Eric described this as “what a boy imagines a girl wants.”
One of the things Eric enjoys is gender dynamics. He sees couples visit the shop and the man introduces his girlfriend saying, “She wants this [sport] bike so we can ride together.” I felt my jaw tighten: I hate being patronized.
With this kind of introduction, Eric said he focuses on what the woman is saying, to gauge what her cycling experience is and should be. Most often, what she really wants is a commuter, because women naturally embrace the functionality of a bicycle, whereas men typically embrace the sport aspect. Eric laughed that men often return to the shop later looking for a commuter bike so they can join their girlfriends.
He summed the situation up in two sentences. “Cycling has an image problem. We need to make it glamorous.”
Bicycles appear in all countries, where both genders and all races enjoy the benefits of cycling. Every culture has its own idea of what that means.
“The bike industry can’t be out of touch with what people want … [In Toronto] we’re collectivists, but also fierce individualists. It’s just what you do: we’re very practical, a little romantic, a little self-reflexive.”
When I had asked to see his spectacular bike, I was surprised at how a plain black bike could embody such class. It was glamorous, exactly as he describes the cycling phenomenon. I almost wanted to ask him to ride off on it, so I could watch.