Sometimes, an interviewee recommends another bike enthusiast—someone without whom their own cycling experience would be much less satisfying. Tonight, I’m seeing a man whom I believe could be described as having that affect on a lot of bike enthusiasts in Toronto. His name is Malcolm Munro.
My most recent interviewee Leo is going to Malcolm’s shop to pick up his Bontrager, and he wants to introduce us to the shop, and to Malcolm. He has, in casual conversation only, given me Malcolm’s first name and the name of his shop, which is Biceagal. This name makes no sense to me, so of course I have forgotten both the name and its exact location on Carlaw Avenue. At the appointed time, Leo is nowhere in sight. My friend Max and I walk aimlessly down the street on both sides. Luckily, someone steps out from one of the inner sanctums and lets us into the correct building unexpectedly. On the wall is a directory, and I point to the only likely name on the whole board: Malcolm Munro.
“Well, how many Malcolms can there be in this city?” I say, slightly frustrated.
After fifteen minutes of wandering around the building, we find it. There are no signs, but there are bikes at the door and there are bike people. It is 8:45, nearly an hour after we were to meet Leo.
Leo has not arrived, so I nod to a few of the people inside who seem mildly interested in our presence. Max and I introduce ourselves and Malcolm quietly says, “Oh yes. Leo told me you were coming.” And with that, they all go back to what they were doing, which as Max later describes it, was “building, repairing, and experimenting with bikes. In other words, making dreams come true.”
We explore the shop. It’s tidy. Tools and machines are everywhere, yet not in a haphazard layout. It feels comfortable, the way you want the vet clinic to feel to your pet. For a non-bike nerd, I am beginning to recognize some of the more adrenaline rush-inducing names. I see a very old Miele frame in the corner, and a banged up but ridable Schwinn step-through. There’s an Atala, a red and yellow Pogliaghi, and even a Brodie Sovereign, all hanging gently on hooks in the ceiling. I see a Proctor and nudge Max, who smiles boyishly. These are made in his hometown. My favourite name is the Fast Woman. We spot a beautiful penny farthing wheel beside one of the machines. The place smells of varsol and gear oil.
“The smell takes me back,” Max inhales happily. For me, it feels like a high school shop, somewhere you can learn without intimidation.
Most of the people in the shop are starry-eyed customers waiting for their bikes. Malcolm casually picks up a frame, makes a couple of obscure adjustments, puts air into the tires, and hands the bike to the owner, ready for delivery. The owner beams, thanks Malcolm happily, and leaves.
Beside me is a dramatic looking grey bike. The frame tells me it’s a Munro, meaning it is one of Malcolm’s own creations. I note the gentle reminder on the tube: Handmade in Canada. An M on the front has been hand-brazed in place. The bike is of lug steel construction.
I unexpectedly follow a customer to the door. He is wheeling a rather surprising looking Moulton suspension bike outdoors. When I ask if I can interview him about his intriguing bike, he demures.
“It’s Malcolm’s bike, actually. Malcolm is letting me try it out.” When he returns to the shop a few minutes later, he tells me with no small delight that the smaller, 16” wheels were designed intentionally for street riding, because they allow you to speed up and slow down more quickly. This particular wheel size was one of the original designs, from the “more obscure Moultons.”
“Tell me about this shop and how you feel about it,” I suggest.
He says, “Malcolm is the guy who, if your bike breaks in two, you bring it to him and he’ll fix it.”
Malcolm is beginning to sound like a bike magician. The fellow’s bike is ready, and he leans it against the wall for me to admire. The frame is a Peugeot, and he assures me it’s nothing special. The special parts are what he and Malcolm have done to it. He proudly shows me the fender paint job, which he has done himself. The seat post is Malcolm’s work. Apparently the bike only fits a 24” seat post, which is very rare. Malcolm decided the best thing to do was to grind down a seat post to fit the bike.
Someone jokes, “Now, that seat only fits this particular bike.” Everything that comes out of this shop has a one-of-a-kind feel to it.
Another hanger-around arrives, and asks me what the most interesting bike has been so far, in my search. I tease him that, because I like Rockies so much, it’s the one I’m standing beside right now, which is a lovely Rocky Mountain Altitude. He grins. It’s his bike.
I see a break in the action, and sidle over to where Malcolm is standing, having just watched another satisfied customer head out. I ask if I can sit on a stool beside him as he works, and ask a few questions. Unfazed, he agrees and then he sits down to his next task. It is a very old wheel, which requires cleaning and some repair.
“Back in the mid-80’s, people wanted to experiment with the bike design,” Malcolm explains gently. “This one has an internal hub riveted onto the wheel, an early attempt to reduce the distance a hub can jut out. It’s a first generation experiment, and because they found something better fairly quickly, this design only lasted a year. Now, the tools used on this design were only needed for the year. Both the wheel and the tools for it are obscure and can’t be replaced.”
“How did you end up with all the machines in the shop?” I ask.
Malcolm says that most of them originally belonged to a friend. When this friend got out of the business, Malcolm housed the machines in his shop. When the friend decided they were truly done, Malcolm bought the machines outright, and later added a few missing machines to the collection. Even though it was a bigger investment, Malcolm tells me “it worked out because it averages out.” I assume that’s because of his unique position in the cycling community.
Apparently, no one else in Toronto has a bike shop that is also a machine shop. Other bike shops have to order parts in, and sometimes that’s impossible because the bike parts required are no longer available. Malcolm can and does actually build obscure parts for any bike that’s brought in. He quietly relates to me that his ability to do this does attract more business to the shop, but that in itself wouldn’t be enough. So, the machine shop business complements the bike shop business nicely.
“He’s pretty unique that way,” says one of the satisfied customers visiting tonight.
As he works on the tire, Malcolm relates that he’s had his share of crazy projects. For instance, one guy requested a recumbent tandem bike. I look up and smile at this, remembering a past boyfriend’s love of his recumbent, and my love of his tandem.
“But that’s not half the story,” Malcolm grins. “This one was designed as a fixed gear track bike, with steering on both ends so the cyclists could travel in either direction.”
“A push-me pull-you bike!” I laugh.
Another time, an ex-pat flew in from England and saw something at the Canadian National Exhibition that he wanted to mimic. There was a contest to see who could ride a backwards bike. The man was intrigued with the contest and wanted to practice at home. Malcolm designed a bike that not only travelled backwards, but also folded up, allowing easy transport to the U.K. The final product had quick release handlebars and a two-gear tube, so you could steer in both directions.
“These weird projects really appeal to me,” Malcolm smiles gently.
It’s getting late. As we shake hands with all our new friends, Max looks up to the carbine Colnago hanging above his head. It’s got downtube shifters and a titanium stem, and because he’s admiring it, someone comes over rubbing some grease from his hands, and tells us that’s Malcolm’s bike. I look over at Leo, grinning in the corner.
“Malcolm seems to own a lot of the outstanding bikes hanging in here,” I comment glibly.
Leo, who has seven drool-worthy bikes of his own in his apartment, says to us, “I can’t get my head around all the possibilities.”