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Sweet rides
The Bike Cycle caters to Portland's urban cyclers one straggler at a time
BY JOHN BRONSON

The Bike Cycle shop in Portland, opened on April Fool's Day 2004 by Percy Wheeler and Dugan Murphy, has emerged as a haven for many local cyclists who see cycling as a lifestyle rather than a sport. This unassuming little blue shop on the corner of Deering and Congress streets caters to its own niche market the hip urban cyclist, that horn-rimmed antithesis to the sport rider on his skinny performance bike, head to toe in spandex. The shop has captured a lot of lucrative business and the imagination of many in the urban cycling community.

"I knew this was the bike I wanted as soon as I saw it," one guy in his early twenties told me when I visited the shop recently. He was sanding rust from the handlebars of an ancient green Schwinn. "It just suits my personality. It's solid and strong, even if it's a little heavy."

Kneeling at another bike behind the counter, Percy Wheeler, the shop's owner, concurred.

"That's a tough bike," he said, motioning to the Schwinn. I frowned at the frame's many rust spots and the grimy, obsolete parts. It was certainly a bike with character but it wasn't a bike I'd ever ride. Still, only the coldest heart could deny the love between a guy and his old dawg.

At the Bike Cycle, Wheeler and Murphy have built a space that allows for this kind of personal connection between a cyclist and his or her hardware. Conventional retail stores usually cater to two kinds of cyclists only sport riders looking for a lightweight hotrod or those looking for the cheapest possible junk ride, who often end up at big-box department stores. But there's a vast and ignored middle class in cycling, the urban riders, comprising a variety of personalities and incomes: There are the moneyed and hip urban cyclists who value style over function. There are the commuters, who often cobble Frankenbikes together out of old parts to save money. And there are the very young and poor riders who have little or no money to maintain their department store bikes. It's a truly diverse set, but they have one key thing in common: whether out of necessity or personality, they form close relationships to their bikes. They don't shop for a bike so much as discover, salvage, and patch one together. As a bazaar of cheap, old parts, the Bike Cycle is a focal point for these casual riders and commuters.

"The stuff you see at the high-end bike shops isn't for getting anywhere, specifically. It's your after-work recreational bike," says Eli Cayer, owner of Rapid Courier, Portland's only bicycle courier service.

"A big problem is the industry more than any one bike shop," says Stephen Wagner, who assembles bikes at Back Bay Bikes and volunteers as a bike mechanic at the Bike Cycle. "Because America is so auto-centric, cycling isn't touted as a way of life. It's a sport. You go into a place like Back Bay [Bikes] if you're trying to see how fast you can ride. It's not something you do to get to work."

You can tell right away the Bike Cycle is a leaner, funkier bike shop than most. You'll find only one person running the store at any given time either Wheeler, the elder, or Murphy, the affable youth. Both are easy to talk to, and they're both willing to do repairs on even the most hopelessly trashed old bikes.

In fact, The Bike Cycle feels more like a community center than a retail bike shop. Wheeler and Murphy provide minor repairs at little or no cost, "especially for kids who can't afford it," Wheeler says. As a result, children are constantly showing up for minor tweaks to their BMXs and ten-speeds.

The shop also occasionally displays local artists' work. Currently, a half-dozen upholstered handbags hang from a post there. The bags are made by a local seamstress and a friend of Wheeler's.

Wheeler says the store charges no commission on the handbags or art they let people display in the store. The store has also accepted paintings in exchange for bikes.

Wheeler showed me his latest project, a wooden pushcart for a local florist. The cart has wheelbarrow handles and gleaming bike wheels with skinny tires. The bike wheels attach to the cart with standard bicycle forks. The forks can easily be removed for storage by pulling out a couple of pins. Wheeler showed me how the cart's weight balances perfectly over the wheels. The florist built the wooden frame, and Wheeler installed the wheels and forks, donating the gear and man-hours.

"It's a good cause," he says.

Wheeler has a history of wrenching for good causes: before opening the Bike Cycle, he ran Area 51 in Portland's Old Port, a program that provides free repair classes and cheap recycled bikes to kids.

The shop sells only used bikes. Rebuilt urban cruising bikes line the walls. Aged, like fine wine, long beyond their intended lives, most cost $150 or less. These ancient urban cruisers have a cachet of their own: these old, swoopy Schwinns would be at home in a rustic still-life painting, next to broken shingling and retired lobster traps.

As a high-speed road rider myself, I was puzzled at first over the old Schwinns. Why would anyone drop a hundred dollars or more on a rig that was born before I was, that weighs more than I do? The reason is, if you're not a performance snob, the urban cruiser looks cool. Hip urban cyclists can't find the perfect bike in a catalogue. As cyclists, we look for bikes the same way we look for dogs. Like a dog, your bike resembles you and reflects your personality. There are dog owners who go to the finest breeders for a purebred with papers. And there are those who spend weeks cruising shelters looking for the perfect mutt, a soulmate, a diamond in the rough. Likewise, some cyclists scrutinize components and compare weights between prospective bikes. The hip urban cyclist sifts through heaps of rejects for a neglected treasure to save and nurse back to health.

Most bike shops offer only a small section of used bikes, and usually don't carry used parts. The Bike Cycle has turned used parts and low-cost repairs into what appears to be a lucrative niche business.

It's refreshing to see a space where cycling is welcome in all its forms. Bicycles offer instant gratification entirely apart from the competition that sport riders enjoy or the political and environmental statements many make out of cycling. Anyone who's used a bike to commute to work or school knows how beautiful a bike is in its simplicity. It starts moving right away. You don't have to wait for it to warm up. You don't need to make sure there's fuel in it. You don't need a license to operate it. And when you're done there's no parking hassle; you just get off. On those practical merits alone, a bike is a great option for getting around, especially on the peninsula.

I found more people in Portland using their bikes to commute year-round than one might expect. Dan Martin, a manager at Photoshops on Congress Street, says he drives from his home in Cape Elizabeth and parks at USM's commuter lot on Marginal Way. From there, he rides his bike a mile or so up the hill to Congress Street.

"On really snowy days I walk it," he confesses.

Martin says he plans to start doing the whole commute on his bike. "I've been getting fat lately, and I need to trim that down," he jokes.

"I would ride my bike to work every day if I could," says Zarra Hermann, owner of Zarra's Coffee in Monument Square. He says he rode his bike exclusively for seven years. He drives now because he needs a car to run the shop but wants to start riding more often, if he can. "Parking here is just absurd," he says. "Most employees can't go out and move to a different meter every two hours."

"A big part of it, for me, is the environmental aspect," says Trina Chaisson, a University of Southern Maine student who also volunteers time fixing bikes at the Bike Cycle. "I don't want to support American dependence on foreign oil."

Chaisson has been a cyclist in San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and New Zealand, and agrees that Portland is a bike-friendly town.

The shop is seeing more business, and there are big changes in the near future. Last week, Murphy sold his half of the business to Wheeler. Wheeler says Murphy will still help run the store and stresses the split was amicable.

"He's too young to be tied down, and I'm old enough," Wheeler says. "So I'm the sole owner now."

Wheeler's ideas for the future sound suspiciously like those of a more traditional bike shop owner. In September, the shop will offer new bikes by a manufacturer called Kona, costing "between $350 and $3500," Wheeler said. And in October, the shop will hire its first paid mechanic.

Despite the changes, Wheeler is confident the shop will maintain a niche following and live up to its legacy of community and charity.

"We'll always help the stragglers who come in," he says.

John Bronson can be reached at john.bronson@maine.edu

 


Issue Date: July 8 - 14, 2005
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