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Great Bike Towns and Bike Shops...... Berkeley, CA 

Published April 6, 2011

In its own independent and disorderly way, Berkeley is a great bike town. Other more renowned bike towns may boast of more paths or higher per capita usage, but they might also seem a bit righteous and rule-bound by comparison. The streets and sidewalks of Berkeley are a circus of mobility. A "run what you brung" spirit prevails. Wheelchairs are anticipated and accommodated with ramps at every intersection. Red tipped sticks find bump strips to warn of hazards. People get around and get along. Your bike is welcome on BART, any train, any time. Walking is permitted, as well. A stroll down Telegraph Avenue, day or night, is an antidote for loneliness. Buskers, pan handlers, and sidewalk vendors will go out of their way  to make your acquaintance.

A great bike town is sustained by great bike shops. Berkeley boasts several true IBD's (as opposed to SOBS... sanitized one-brand stores). Missing Link is a bike store with an independent spirit  and a sense of humor. According to legend, they used to keep a couple of beater bikes around so mechanics could drag them out to the sidewalk and beat the daylights out of them with mallets when frustration dictated, thus providing stress relief and street theater at a stroke. This technique is not likely to be practiced at a concept store.

Not lacking in humor, himself, Peter Rich opened Velo Sport Bicycles in Berkeley on April Fools Day, in 1962. "I opened the store with a bank roll of $400," he reminisced. "The first day, a nice new Buick Station wagon pulled up and a well dressed guy wearing wing tips walked in and bought a brand new Masi. He was an advertising executive and he told me not to buy any advertising," As a former ad salesman, I recoiled from this heresy, but let Peter continue his story. "He said to build a mailing list instead. His address was the first one on a list that grew to 30000 customers."

Peter took a hiatus from the business in the mid sixties and became a Berkeley policeman.  "I liked being a policeman in Berkeley," he continued, "but I realized I'd need a degree to get anywhere in police administration. I was injured in a bicycle racing accident and started hanging out at the shop again in my cast. I could see things were about to take off, so I bought back in. In 1968 we sold 52 bikes. In 1970 we sold 9000 bikes." In 1971 Peter organized the Tour of California the first major stage race in the Golden State. Those were the days. These are, too.

This dispatch is being composed at the Cafe Mediteraneum on Telegraph, a beat era coffee house where epic poems were once written and revolutions planned. Out on the sidewalk, seventies era, gas-crisis ten speeds are locked to bike stands next to department store mountain bikes and quality dealer brands. Whatever you rode here better be locked securely if you want to ride it home again.

When I was a student at Berkeley in the late sixties, my cherished Honda 305 Scrambler was stolen in broad daylight on one of the rare days when I actually went to class. That lesson wasn't lost on me. For the rest of the term I was careful not to attend classes so indiscriminately. (For all I know, the young cop who took my stolen vehicle report in the fall of 1967 could have been Peter Rich.)

Mourning my stolen Scrambler, I relied on my trusty black Schwinn Continental to get me around, which it did until I lost it in a poker game. I majored in economics at Cal and minored in poker. The lessons learned at the poker table were more lasting.

I've been looking for a good used black 25" Schwinn Continental ever since. Made in Chicago of real American steel, the Continental had a beefy lugless frame and bone simple French components. The aptly named Simplex front dérailleur was a manual twist stick.... no cables, no pulleys, no springs, no problem.

Forty three years after a kings up full house cost me my black Continental, my quest brought me to Recycle Bicycles on Sacramento St. in South Berkeley. This would be a better story if I could say I found my lost Conti there, or even one just like it. Fate is seldom so tidy. Didn't happen. But I did find a store to make an old bike guy smile.

Recycle Bicycles is not an SOB. It's a store of a hundred brands, and numerous non-brands. I was looking for a non-brand, a big, simple, reliable bike that would not attract the wrong sort of attention.

"You want to fly under the radar," Patrick said, as I admired an old school black Brit bike that had been simplified with a coaster brake replacing the original Sturmy Archer three-speed. It had big  wheelbarrow style handlebars and a capacious wire basket, both made by Wald Manufacturing Co. in Maysville, Ky. For decades, Wald bought the back cover of every issue of American Bicyclist and Bicycle Journal, late lamented competitors of this periodical. In the late seventies, I visited the Wald plant hoping to divert some of those ads to Bicycle Dealer Showcase. Dan Crum somehow resisted my sales pitch and the company hasn’t suffered for his cost-conscious decision. Wald was a fine example of local American manufacturing then, and is an even better example today after so much of the industry’s manufacturing base has gone out of business or migrated to distant shores.

Patrick wouldn't sell me the black Brit bike. "Too small for you, man," he said. I left him my cell number and walked to the bus stop in the lingering twilight, feeling a not unpleasant pang of regret at another black beauty lost. The search continues.

Later, I consoled myself by having dinner at Chez Panisse with one of the great gentlemen of the bicycle industry. For three decades, Howard Sutherland brought order out of chaos, reconciling the irreconcilable world of bicycle parts and components from innumerable countries of origin and standards of industry...English, French, Italian, Raleigh.  Stubborn and diverse parts and pieces were all brought to heel in Sutherland's Handbook for Bicycle Mechanics. The last edition came out in 2004, but it’s especially useful for working on older bikes. Sutherland’s repair tag and inventory tag businesses are still going strong.

Also still going strong is Phil Wood and Co., now under the stewardship of owner Peter Enright. In the early days of Interbike, Howard shared a stretch of exhibit real estate with Phil Wood and Don Milberger. You could get a pretty good education on bicycle component design and manufacturing by just hanging out in front of their booths and listening.

Phil and Vada Wood used to make exquisite hubs and their famous green grease, which Phil claimed was edible, in the former Eggo Waffle plant in San Jose. Coincidentally, another Phil Wood, based in Berkeley and no relation to the hub maker, ran a booming book publishing business, Ten Speed Press, whose early success in the 70’s was attributable to one of the best selling bike books of all time, “Anybody’s Bike Book”, by Tom Cuthbertson.

A lifelong advocate of efficient transportation, Howard Sutherland migrated to California forty years ago in a new Lincoln Continental. He enjoyed astonishing fuel economy on his journey because the Lincoln was one of many strapped down on the auto transport car of a westbound freight train. When the temperatures dipped below freezing across the plains states, he did burn a little gasoline letting the engine idle at intervals to run the heater.  Upon arriving in the promised land,  one of Howard’s first jobs was in the service department at Missing Link.

Although Howard built a business on minutiae, over dinner and a glass of the grape his conversation is expansive, ranging from Native American healing rituals to  Venetian art. I tried to hold up my end by babbling about airplanes, motorcycles and the bike business, all three of which - I concluded later as I walked down Shattuck Avenue in the rain- are challenging, unknowable and never more dangerous than when they permit you the heady illusion of control.

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