Cedar and Pearl

Building bikes

By John Piotti | Jun 21, 2016

For seven years, beginning when I was 14 years old, my summer job was at Snow’s Cycle Shop on Nantucket Island, where I rented, repaired and sold bicycles.

My first year, I was what we called a “grease monkey.” I had two roles. First, I helped fit bikes to renters, adjusting seats and showing them how the locks worked. Second, I cleaned and checked the bikes when they returned, wiping them down with WD-40 and making minor adjustments to the gears or brakes when needed. Later, I learned to replace brake cables and fix flats and repack hubs and undertake a variety of other tasks that ultimately earned me the coveted title of “bike mechanic.” By my fifth year at Snow’s, I was the shop manager, training and supervising over a dozen employees.

I don’t think many people look back on their first job as fondly as I do. I loved working at Snow’s. I liked the people and earning a few dollars, but mostly, I liked the sense of accomplishment that came from doing this work.

These memories came flooding back to me this past weekend, when I assembled two new bikes, fresh out of their Raleigh boxes.

The bikes we rented at Snow’s were mostly 3-speed Raleighs, classic black bikes with upright handlebars sporting wicker baskets.

Snow’s was sold in 1982, the summer following my last year working there, when I decided to take a summer job in Washington, D.C. My old boss, Allen, told me he had sold it when I came home to Nantucket for a brief visit at the end of the summer, just before my senior year in college. I was devastated. I had counted on the bike shop to always be there. It had shaped me, taught me technical skills, and how to sell to customers and manage employees. But it was more than that. At Snow’s, for the first time outside my immediate family, I felt at home, felt I belonged.

Snow’s had also — as odd as this may sound — imparted in me a love of the bicycle, that amazingly efficient and beautiful machine, at once simple and complex.

I was pained greatly by the sudden sale of Snow’s. It hurt that it occurred when I was away, without the opportunity to say a fitting goodbye, without the opportunity to rent or sell few more bikes, or to rummage through the parts boxes I had often reorganized to rediscover the many treasures hidden there. And it occurred before I could buy from Allen a Raleigh Sports bike of my own, vintage 1970, all-black, with a Brooks leather saddle and a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub.

For 30 some-odd years, I’ve been thinking about those black Raleighs, with a sense of longing and nostalgia that is far more intense than I’d like to admit.

Several years ago, as I was getting to that midlife stage where nostalgia can become overbearing, I began to search online for the bike of my dreams. I found a few classic Raleighs on eBay, in poor shape and at high prices; but I could not find any new bikes of any brand that fit my fancy. A few Dutch-made city bikes met some of my styling demands, but they were clunkers, overly armored with bulky fenders and chain guards.

At that point, I began to search the internet for the kind of frame and components that would allow me to build the bike I wanted myself. I even contemplated a side business that I would create to reintroduce simple classic designs. I intended to call the new company “Black Bike.” And with that entrepreneurial drive that runs through much of what I do, I began to sketch some logos and think though the marketing plan. I was convinced that people who loved beauty and admired mechanical efficiency would eagerly buy all that I could build.

But I never took any additional steps — and just as well.

Then about two weeks ago, something inspired me to go online again. Perhaps it was because my 15-year-old 15-speed is now unrideable, as it needs a new rear wheel that will cost more than the bike is now worth. Or perhaps it was because I was thinking of my new job in D.C., where I hope to get an apartment just down the road from my office, in a city well-suited to bicycling.

In any event, for whatever reason, I clicked on the Raleigh website and there, where nothing similar existed a few years back, were several models of newly engineered but classically styled black Raleighs. The Brooks saddles are gone, but the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hubs remain.

Then and there, I bought two. Those who know me know how uncharacteristic this is, how I’m not a decisive shopper, how I fret — often for weeks — over pretty much every big purchasing decision. But this decision was driven by something else. And the fact that Susan’s birthday is fast approaching, emboldened me to buy two without hesitating.

When I arrived home last Friday evening, there in the barn were two big beautiful bike boxes, courtesy of FedEx.

I had assembled dozens of bikes during my seven years at Snow’s, but that was a long time ago. I wondered if I still had the right stuff. Saturday morning I entered the barn full of hope. I tuned the radio away from Maine Public Radio, finding an oldies station, then opened the first box and began exploring, like a kid at Christmas.

So there I was, listening to music from my youth and assembling a bike for the first time since my youth.

I’d like to say that I didn’t run into any snags, but that wouldn’t be true. The design of so many things — brake levers, cable clips, hub indicators — are different from the past. But the mechanical principles behind all of these components remain the same, and I found myself taking great pleasure in solving intriguing but not particularly difficult problems. I remembered things I once knew, and learned a few new things as well. What great fun!

Within a few hours, Susan and I were testing out our beautiful new bikes. How smoothly they run! How elegant they look! And I was filled with a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt in years.

Life is funny. Two weeks ago, I announced that that I had been chosen to lead a national organization — and the period since then has been full of hearty congratulations. But the greatest sense of accomplishment I’ve felt in ages occurred in my barn last weekend, amid the smell of WD-40 and the sound of the Eagles and Rolling Stones, with a spread of hand tools around me.

John Piotti lives in Unity. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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