Getting to the essence of anything is tricky business. Starbucks, for example, has turned the humble morning cup into something gaudy. Coffee plays second fiddle to whipped cream, caramel sauce, and shots of vanilla. That's not a cup of coffee. It's a dessert, even if you drink it at 7:30 in the morning. It packs the calories to prove it. But somewhere, in Costa Rica or Sumatra or Ethiopia, there is a farmer who tends to the beans, not the Torani syrups.
Bikes have gone upscale too. [See my post "Ditch the Pearls. Wear a Bike."] Designers like Fendi and Gucci have tapped into a market where the clients will shell out nearly $10,000 for two wheels with fur saddlebags, leather accessories, and small suitcases that sit the where the woven basket used to be.
Getting to the essence of bikes, then, is no less complicated than finding your coffee under the whipped cream. If you want to see bikes as thoughtfully constructed machines, don't go to a large discount store like Wal-Mart or Target. To appreciate their perfect Bauhaus-ian marriage of form and function, avoid the big bike chain stores too, where the two-wheelers are forced to hide their personalities and stand obediently in line. To celebrate the essence of "bike," think small. How small? Coffee farmer small. Hand-knit sweater small.
I may have found the place that holds the essence of bikes. It is tucked behind an unassuming brick colonial in a narrow detached garage in Falls Church, Virginia. Within its four cinder block walls is a little-known bike restoration business, owned by Mike (of unknown last name) called Red's Restorides. Where most people see trash, Mike finds treasure. He is a human metal detector, a scourer of yard sales, and a student of Craig'sList.
Mike is an understated guy. Not one for extra words. I first called his cell phone where I heard this recorded message: "I can't come to the phone right now. You know what to do." I panicked. What if I didn't know what to do? I'm an outsider. If there were a secret code shared only among cycling's inner circle, I'd be the last to know. I listened for the beep, recorded my message, and hoped for the best. He called me back five minutes later. Simple. Within two hours, I am standing in his garage between a folding bike and riding mower. Bikes hang from the ceiling like bats, and where there are no bikes, there are tools. Evidence of dismembered bikes is strewn on the floor - a frame here, a tube there. There is music, but I don't recognize it.
Mike is smoking a cigarette and drinking something out of a coffee mug. His faded t-shirt says "Sublime." From the back porch, his mom smiles and waves to me. He asks how I found him, and when I reply, "Online," he is surprised.
"Online? Really? I Googled my own website - all of it except for the 'dot com' part - and nothing came up." This fact seems a little sad to me, so I don't mention the numerous typos and misspellings on Red's Restorides. I figure that the skull on the home page is coolly subversive enough to compensate for the errors, and once I meet him, those grammatical oversights just add to his shabby-chic charm.
Mike buys bikes at yard sales, restores them, and then sells them on Craig's List. He'll also repair bikes, but he prefers restoration. If he comes across valuable parts, he'll keep them for himself. He showed me a Brooks saddle worth $250 and a pair of tires for $300. He demonstrated how to fold a folding bike that he recently fixed up for a friend. But like any small business owner, he has to think about his bottom line. He and the owner of Bulldog Bikes, a bike restoration outfit in South Arlington, were once business partners, separated, and are now hammering out a business deal that would allow them to join forces.
More than a bike restorer, Mike is a Renaissance man and is skilled in ways that I can only dream about. He is a small business owner. He has taken welding classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). He can join pipes using a solder, which is different from welding. He worked with a plumber for a while, though he doesn't want plumbing as a career. "Plumbing is a lot like bike repair," he explains. "You know, lots of metal tubes and pipes that have to fit together, but it's not what I want to do." Right now, he's studying architectural engineering at NOVA. "I'm going to keep working on bikes," he says. "I just need a degree."
A decade ago at age 13, Mike received his first BMX bike. (BMX stands for bike motocross and refers to a style of bike used for extreme tricks and off-road racing.) He immediately took it apart and then reassembled it. I suspect he's one of those people who can't help seeing an object as a collection of discreet parts that are begging to be disassembled and then reunited. "See all these tools?" He points to every square inch of wall that's not covered by a bike. "They're all mine. The house belongs to my parents, but the garage is mine." He is like an artist in his atelier, minus the angst.
I know that BMX bike riders prefer to be airborne. You don't buy a BMX to ride to Safeway. Here's the kind of stunts that BMX bikers do. This isn't Mike, and don't try this at home, or anywhere.
"Can you flip on your bike in the air?" I ask. He can - backwards. "Do you feel yourself going backward, or does it happen too quickly?"
"Man, when you ride a BMX bike, it's like everything slows down. You can feel yourself going backward. You can see things upside down. There's nothing like it. You just ride off the jump and throw yourself back." I'm picturing myself in traction, but Mike looks sturdy, though he's happy to list all the body parts he has broken over the past decade. "Let's see. All my fingers. All my toes. My wrist. And I flattened the arch in my right foot." So much for his career in the Army.
Maybe it's his curly red hair or his mountain-man look or the perfect space he has carved out for himself, but there's something other-worldly about Mike. He's not quite a dude, a hippie, or a yippie. He's that rare person who seems to have all he needs. He grows bikes. He grows beautiful hair. He is self-sustaining.