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An American 'bicycle doctor' says goodbye to Berlin

Published December 6, 2018
 Simmons in his store's repair corner. Photo: Jo Beckendorff

By Jo Beckendorff

BERLIN (BRAIN) — When Shaun Paul Simmons first came to Germany, in 1997, it wasn't because of bicycles. "I came to Berlin for a girl and will now go back home for a girl," the American said with a laugh. But this is only one part of his story. The other is that he ran a bike repair and sales store for 16 years in Charlottenburg, one of those typical Berlin districts becoming so hip and trendy for many international youth invading Germany's capital from all over the world.

Nicknamed "The Bicycle Doctor" (der Fahrrad-Doktor), Simmons became an institution within the Berlin bike scene. Now he has decided to close down. "It's over," he said, without regrets.

"When I fell in love with that German lady and visited her for the third time in Berlin, I just stayed. In those days I was quite amazed how many people are cycling here. I was given an old city bike — a Kettler bike, I can remember that very well. I dismantled everything and exchanged some parts in a bicycle shop."

While staying alive with security guard and kitchen helper jobs, he found the bike parts he was looking for in a shop called Radkunst (today it is called Radkunsttrikot, and markets itself as "the smallest room with the biggest names in the racing bike world").

Owner Michael Blanke isn't only building and selling classic bikes, but also restores old road bikes. Blanke himself studied art history and painting, worked as a teacher and turned his hobby into an IBD career in 1989. He was impressed by his American customer's mechanical skills and soon hired him.

In 2002 Simmons set up his own IBD named Radkonzept ("Bicycle concept") with the following credo: "I believe that even an inexpensive bike should be a quality machine and everyone should get the bike that fits their needs, taste, and lifestyle," he said.

"Therefore I started with repairs. When I moved my workspace at my old shop outside in good weather, things did not turn out well at first. Hey, in Germany you can't work on the pedestrian walk, they said. I told them I can — that's the only way customers can see what I put into their old commuter bikes for work. And at some point they found that in their quarter quite cool. They started talking to people in their neighborhood. This is how my career as the first and only African-American bicycle dealer not only in Berlin but probably all over Germany began."

His retro store became a kind of neighborhood meeting spot.

In 2004, Simmons and a colleague drove to Eurobike. "(The colleague) steered us to the stand of German custom-builder Patria. Actually, I thought that he wanted to work with them. On the way back it turned out that this is not the case. So I got in touch with Patria by myself. Since 2005 I have been a Patria support point retailer," Simmons added. He later added German commuter brands such as Hase Bikes (recumbants), VSF Fahrradmanufaktur and kids bike maker Puky.

The closing sales have begun.   Photo: Jo Beckendorff

Ultimately, however, he returned to nothing but the custom brand Patria, as well as service. 

Simmons describes himself as a tool fetishist. This becomes also clear when looking at Patria's measuring system, called "Velochecker," which he modified with Salsa's measuring stem and a sizing measuring crank by Purely Custom.

He said two things are clear when closing the Berlin store: "I will take all my tools back home. I could not live without them." And: "Over all these years I was almost always a one-man show. Now I need a change."

The Bike Doctor has studied literature and philosophy. "I love to write. Maybe I will write a book about my life as a colored man with a bike shop in Berlin. This is not just about Berlin, but also about all the impressions and political reflections that I was allowed to collect here as a U.S. citizen. I think that someone living outside of his home country for a long time has a very different view than someone living all his life in his home country. I would like to write about that."

However, he can't let go of Germany completely. He intends to marry his American girlfriend soon, but has a deal with here: "I want to live in Washington D.C. for eight months with her and her son. But I also want to be able to spend four months a year in Berlin."

What he loves most in the German capital: "You don't need — unthinkable in USA — a car. The bike is enough. And I will certainly spend a good time in the gazebo — historically a typical German Berlin thing I felt in love with."

Those kinds of recreation activities had simply come too short in his long time in Berlin. "Apart from my neighborhood I know little in Berlin. I worked six days a week. And on my day off, I was done. I finally want to see something of Berlin and the surrounding area. That's what I wish when returning as a tourist."

Ultimately, there is another reason why Simmons needs a change. His workshop customers, who mostly cruise on old commuter bikes, have become accustomed to their neighborhood tinkerer. They think to get everything done for a few euros.

While BRAIN was visiting the store, a customer entered the store just wanting to borrow tools. This is something that tool freak Simmons for sure doesn't like at all.

It did not get any better, as another customer with a flat tire entered the store but didn't want to invest more than 20 euros. "I don't want to invest more, because I'm soon going to buy a new bike anyway," the customer said. Simmons pushed the bike out of the store without saying a word and barely managed to say goodbye.

Simmons almost apologized to us. "I'm just fed up with this penny-picking. That's why I'm unfortunately reacting quite impatiently. It's another simple reason to say: time for a change."

A final date for the Radkonzept closure isn't set. Simmons has a long-term lease and said he hopes to keep it until the end of 2018. A few people are interested in continuing the store and others want to open a very different business in this trendy Charlottenburg location.

In any case, we hope to someday read a book written by probably the only "colored U.S.-American IBD in Germany."

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