Bicycle Specialties, bicycles, bike painting, Christmas trees, head badges, Mariposa bicycles, Michael Barry Jr, Mike Barry Sr, North American Hand-Built Bike Show, Poka Bike Accessories, recycling, Toronto, Vélocolour
Noah Rosen rents space at Bicycle Specialties as a bicycle frame painter. Mike Barry thought I should talk to Noah, and that’s all I needed to hear.
Noah has a beard and an engaging smile. His girlfriend, Suzanne Carlsen, is very pretty, with long, dark hair. They’re both in their early thirties, both artists. A friend introduced them to each other because they were the only two people she knew who rode bikes year-round. As the interview begins, I find they do more than that. For instance, last week they collected their Christmas tree with their bikes and a bike trailer; they rode home along Christie Street with a six-foot tree.
Because he’s Jewish, this is Noah’s first tree-shopping expedition. Suzanne is from Kelowna, where you chop down your tree on your own land.
“Even if we had a car,” Suzanne tells me, her eyes gleaming, “we’d get the tree by bike because it’s fun!”
Suzanne operates Poka Bike Accessories, a metal and textile business that offers custom chain guards, bicycle bags, and head badges. A standard head badge is a manufacturer’s logo affixed to the bike’s head tube. They may be made of metal or plastic, a sticker, a decal, or a painted logo.
Online, someone’s described personalized head badges as “hood ornaments for your bike.” In Suzanne’s case, a head badge is an opportunity to leave a small, intimate indication of the bike’s personality in plain sight.
In her outstretched palm are the most exquisite hand-crafted ornaments, delicate pieces featuring hot air balloons, rockets, canoeists and trees.
Designing custom head badges is a rare art. Each badge must fit the bicycle’s head tube precisely, and every bike frame is slightly different in shape, size and design. Suzanne also designs unusual chain guards. Noah’s bike bears one of hers, which makes his bike look extremely classy.
Suzanne started out working as a guest artist at Harbourfront, and she now distributes to such shops as Hoopdriver, Curbside and Blacksmith. Noah and Suzanne both consider themselves very lucky to be able to support themselves artistically.
“Getting to paint bikes is amazing!” he says.
Noah began working for Mike Barry Sr., on a three-bikes-a-week basis.
“I was allowed to screw up his Mariposas,” Noah says, as a nod to the kind patience of his mentor. Noah eventually rented space from Mike and developed his own full-time bicycle-painting business, Vélocolour.
Noah enjoys the recycling aspect of his work, making an old frame look new again. What he finds most exciting about the process is “what others are excited about.” Sometimes, he’s asked to restore a carbon frame to its original beauty. Sometimes, he keeps the paint on a mountain bike simple but adds a few interesting details. And sometimes, he’s asked to create an entirely new aesthetic, what he calls “art projects,” or even “complete free-for-alls.”
On a straightforward project, the entire painting process takes about seven hours, over the course of a few days. First, the frame is stripped and dried, and then sandblasted. The next day, before the painting process can begin, the frame is cleaned again.
“[Mike] taught me how to paint, but I had to evolve the process,” Noah says. When I look confused, he explains that it’s “more about the bike than what I did to it.” What he means by this is that his job is always to bring out the bike’s existing personality, not attempt to impose something on it that it’s not. The downside to painting is that it’s very labour intensive. “I’d love to paint everyone’s bike in the city, but it all just takes too long.” Offering quick jobs would compromise the quality, and the artist in him refuses to do that.
“How can people bring themselves to ride such masterpieces, after you’re done?” I ask.
He laughs. “After they get the first mark on the frame, they’re okay with it.”
And he’s not worried about theft, because these bikes are unique. It’s easier to sell a bike that blends in. These bikes would have to be repainted first, and that would be too much trouble and expense.
When I ask Noah what his favourite colour is, he tells me at once that he “really loves grey.” His city bike is grey, a colour you can mix with subtle or vibrant colours. Grey is a blend of modern and classic.
There are only a handful of people painting bicycles in Canada and Noah is the only professional bike painter in Toronto. He’s been in the trade for eight years and he says his reputation stems from his connection to Mike Barry, but there’s more to it than this.
A couple of years ago, Noah won the North American Hand-Built Bike Show award for Best Paint. The bike was Mike Barry’s 1951 Cinelli, one of his racing bikes. With only black and white photos to guide him, Noah found it a challenge to match the paint colour. Another challenge was matching the proportions on the seat tube bands because the metal had roughened over the years. Noah put in twenty hours, many of which were taken up getting clean lug edges.
“When I was done with the Cinelli,” Noah tells me proudly, “Mike had a sixty-year-old bike looking brand new.”
Statistically, 95 percent of Noah’s customers are men, and the majority are Caucasians. “Do women have a different attachment?” he asks me.
I admit I don’t know the answer to this. Stereotypically, women do concern themselves with the artistic elements of everything, while men prefer the safer blues and browns. And so, at the start of this project, I’d assumed women would be more into the idea of being interviewed for a bike story, but that wasn’t the case at all. Why don’t women bring their bicycles to Noah’s shop? A fascinating statistic I’ve noticed this year is that women are less likely to bond with their equipment—for instance, by naming their bicycle. My male interviewees did this far more often than my female interviewees. Regardless, Noah would love to have more women calling him, excited at the prospect of having their bike painted.
When Noah and Suzanne ride together, he often rides with his arm around her waist. “It’s so nice,” Noah says, “that we can be that close and that comfortable with each other!”
Like true artists, they want to share this romance they feel on their bicycles with others. They want to make bikes sexy, in whatever form that takes.
Recently they were cycling slowly through the Yonge and Dundas intersection, and passed two older women walking with canes. As the young couple passed, one of the women pointed at Noah’s bicycle and shouted, “That’s the most beautiful bike ever!” She then mused, “If I were their age again…”
Suzanne grinned at them and called out, “Anyone can do this!”
My heart skips a beat, because I’ve been insisting on this all year long. And then, Noah nails it.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t ride. It would be heartbreaking!”