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Building Bicycles

Michael Barry Tekst Michael Barry Gepubliceerd 23 August 2019

The rising sun breaks through the trees, as we thrash across the open fields. Beneath us, our bikes absorb the undulations of the grass and dirt, as our legs push harder though our arms and torsos remain loose. Wood chips, stones, and sticks flick up from the tires, hitting my shins. Relaxed in the effort, my senses are piqued. The bicycle feels as though it is an extension of my body, allowing me to focus on the coming descent and the effort. Daily, for a couple of hours, I will ride on the road, through woods, on the trails, and over the fields, awakening my body and mind before heading into work. On the weekends, I’ll go further, riding for most of the day. When I was a child, my father built the bicycles I rode. Now, after 14 years of racing in the professional peloton and almost an entire life of racing my bicycles, I build the bicycles I ride. 

Photo: Ian Patterson
after 14 years of racing in the professional peloton and almost an entire life of racing my bicycles, I build the bicycles I ride.

The aroma of paint, rubber, grease, flux, and everything else it takes to build a steel bicycle are heavy in the air, as I switch on the lights, turn off the alarm, and open up for the day of work. In the back of the shop, beside the frame building tools, there is a drafting table on which we still hand draw each frame design. Computers are used as well, but a simple scale line drawing remains useful. Above the table, frames are lined up, ready for paint. On the shelf, tubing ready for cutting and brazing sits in boxes with the customer’s name. I switch on the radio, which is tuned into the national public news channel. 

This has been my routine since retiring from professional cycling in 2012, when I returned to Toronto, Canada to be closer to my family. It was my father’s for almost 50 years. As I transitioned away from racing, months passed in the workshop, cutting tubes and brazing them together. It was a return to my youth, when I had spent hours mucking about in his bicycle shop. Then, I helped out where I could—or at least I thought I was helping. 

Photo: Walter Lai

When I wasn’t on my bike, I wanted to be around bicycles. A professional cycling career took me away from the shop and around the world. Once I was back in Toronto, my father—who had also grown up around bicycles and frame builders—taught me the intricacies of the trade and craft. He was a passionate cyclist and craftsman who had the goal of building functional, long-lasting bicycles. Steel was the material of choice, as it is resilient, can absorb the vibrations of the road and also heavy impacts, can be easily repaired, is comfortable to ride, and the frames can be made in almost any size. For 50 years, we’ve been building custom bicycles. Some have been raced on velodromes, at international competitions and to national title victories. Others have ploughed through deep mud in cyclocross races, while a number have been ridden around the world by cyclo-tourists. Several have gone back and forth to an office every workday for decades.  

A good steel frame will last if it is well cared for. If bent in an accident, it can usually be fixed. The process can often appear mediaeval: a hammer and a crescent wrench can sort out a bent dropout, a torch and hacksaw can pull out a tube to be replaced, and muscle and effort can get a frame straight again to be ridden for decades more. 

Last autumn, just before his death, I watched my 80-year-old father repair bikes and frames. Experience and knowledge made complicated jobs look easy, as he understood the limits of the materials. If he didn’t have the tool for the job, he made one. These are the skills a craftsman learns with each job done.

Photo: Mike Barry Sr.
When I wasn’t on my bike, I wanted to be around bicycles
Photo: Mike Barry Sr.

Many of the frames we have built hold memories and stories for their owners. Some even name their bikes. For many, the bicycle has taken them on unexpected journeys, been a catalyst in their growth as individuals, and, in turn, something they cherish. As a builder, it is a pleasure to see, repair, and upgrade old frames that have been going for decades, some over hundreds of thousands of kilometres. 

Customers often become friends. The custom-frame-building experience can be intimate, as the customer is involved in the entire process. Unlike a bike bought off the peg in a shop, every bike we build is unique and to the customer’s specifications. With our guidance, they decide on which type of tubing, components, tire size, wheel size, or carrier will suit their needs. For many, the toughest decision is the colour. Some choose the colour of their favourite sweater; others select a colour that has a family meaning, and some rely on a car they once owned or desired. 

It’s most important that the bicycle’s geometry is right for the rider and for the type of riding he or she will be doing most frequently. A fully loaded touring bicycle requires different angles than a track bicycle or a cyclocross bicycle. A degree or two difference in the head angle will change the way the bicycle steers and handles. Poorly designed frames can be dangerous and will make the rider uncomfortable or even tense. Experience, both in the workshop and on the bike, has taught us what works and what doesn’t. A track bicycle isn’t overly complex to build, but with building a touring bicycle with generator lighting, front and rear carriers, which we also make by in the shop, there are hundreds of factors to be considered. Each added piece must fit uniformly to improve the comfort, durability, and performance of the bicycle. These are references to past engineering and designs that work, or didn’t, from which we also draw as we build and repair bikes. 

Photo: Ian Patterson

The workshop comes alive with noise as the first tube is cut. The mill whirls and screams, as the tubes are mitred. Files rasp with each stroke as the tubes and lugs are cleaned and fitted. Silence resumes, as the tubing is fitted into the frame jig to be brazed. The builder is focused. The torch hisses quietly, as the flux-covered joints are heated and silver or brass is introduced to bond the lug to the tubes. After the frame cools, the joints are cleaned.  Cable guides, mudguard eyelets, bottle cage bosses, and all the other bits to make the bike functional and complete are added with a smaller flame and a touch of silver or brass. The final step is the paint. The fans and compressors suck and blow, as colour flares from the gun. On a hook, it’ll cure in an oven and then be lined up to be assembled. 

Our shop is not the typical bicycle store. From the rafters, hang bikes from the turn of the last century to modern day: Penny Farthings, Bianchis from the ’40s and ’50s similar to Coppi’s, idyllic vintage hand-built French touring bicycles, and dozens of others. Along with them are many with unique parts, specifically derailleurs that form a vast collection.  

It is often evident what worked and what failed. Invariably, what’s new to the current marketplace has been tried before. Sometimes an idea failed because it simply didn’t work; other times it was an idea too far ahead of its time in terms of materials or it was poorly marketed and didn’t catch on. 

On occasion, I’ll pull one of the old bikes down from the rafters and ride it home to see how it handles through the corners, out of the saddle, or down a dirt path. Most often, I’ll ride one of the bikes I built for myself home. I’ll take the trails through the park, or dodge cars and buses on the city streets. Having raced on dozens of bicycles during my career, it is the ones that were built specifically for me that I enjoy riding the most, as they feel as if they are a part of me. 

Photo: Ian Patterson