Out Near the Huyterhuis

I was a pretty big cinema buff as a teenager. Folks thought I was studying French and Italian because I was a junior bike racer with big dreams, but it was really because I preferred to avoid reading the subtitles at screenings of Fellini, Godard, Bresson, Truffault… The summer of 1983 was shaping up to be a pretty exciting one. For months, I’d kept track of the planned domestic releases of Zelig, Entre Nous, Octopussy, The Meaning of Life, Scarface, Un jeu brutal, Krull, Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu, The King of Comedy, and, embarrassingly, Flashdance. But I ended up missing every single one of these films on their first runs. Because I was sent to Delft to race bikes.

In fact, it was supposed to be Rotterdam. Or Lyon. Or Ghent. Or any number of other places with a cluster of development squads… but in the end I spent the summer in Delft, along with a couple of teammies. I spent the summer in Delft, riding and racing bikes. And I didn’t get to watch any movies. At the time, I didn’t think was a fair bargain.

The cycling itself was, well, pretty brutal. In fact, life in general was much tougher than I could have imagined. I was quickly disabused of any notion of actually being a good bike racer, but instead of resorting to drowning my sorrows in the readily available narcotics, I’d mope about town… spending time in churches, smoky cafes, cluttered bookstores, and back alley bike shops. And, for better or for worse, that’s kind of where this story begins.

It was out near the Huyterhuis, on a quiet street with two dueling florists and, oddly enough, a little auto mechanic’s garage. The garage opened very early, and we’d see him puttering about just after dawn, on our way out of town. By mid-morning, he’d have a little awning up, and would be greasy-faced, always clutching a spanner in one hand. He’d wave. One day he was working on a sick 911, and I really wanted to see it. The mechanic’s name was Hugo - a pudgy little man of about 35. He let me sit behind the wheel. It was grand. As I was about to leave, I noticed that my brakes were off a bit and asked if I could borrow a wrench.

“Well sure,” he said. “Why don’t you come around back and my cousin can look at it?”

We walked around the side of the garage onto a narrow cobblestone alley. It smelled like chocolate. A kitten sat was sitting in a small patch of sunlight in front of a nondescript grey door. Hugo nudged aside the kitten and called out, knocking on a small hazy window. The door opened, and out stepped a hairy, fragile looking fellow in a crisp beige VAR apron and blue Campagnolo cap. This was Martin.

Hugo left, and I brought my bike into Martin’s workshop. Oddly enough, it was almost exactly the same dimensions of the new Wicker Park TATI: about 200sf, with a tiny, airplane-sized water closet behind a hidden door. There was an old Cinelli bike stand mounted on one wall, frames and wheels hung from the ceiling, and beautiful oak work table right in the middle of the room. A home made truing stand was built into the tabletop, and there were two identical mugs on each side of the stand. One was filled with cigarette butts (Gauloises, I’d later learn) and the other, some cold and very likely, bitter, coffee. WUT.

Now the thing is, I began writing this note with the intention of explaining what’s going on here in Tativille. There are big changes afoot - some good ones, I think. It’s been very difficult to read the new neighborhood… It turns out that Wicker Park isn’t Hyde Park… which isn’t to say that things were exactly hunky dory on the south side, but at least I was operating under the illusion that I knew what I was doing. One of the changes is that the shop will be offering, for the first time, stock bicycles.

On its face, this is a terrible decision, or at least one that does not seem in any way consistent with the shop ethos over the past six years. Above all else, TATI has valued the rare and ephemeral, the ridiculous, the hand-made, the one-of-a-kind. The impossibly Euro. The inaccessible. The dopest of dope. The kinds of bicycles you only find on blogs. That aren’t in English. Custom frames by builders who haven’t made bikes in a decade. Modern simulacra of rebranded pro bikes from the 90s peloton. Things Fausto would ride. Or wish he did. And that’s kind of where this part of the story begins.

Martin’s was the first shop I’d ever seen where every bicycle was built from the frame-up. Even Shaw’s Lightweights had Schwinns at some point, didn’t they? Or Miyatas perhaps… He would build Ciocc, Gios, and Colnago. I remember seeing Urago, a Singer or two, Zeus, Crescent, and all varieties of small local builders’ bikes. Somehow, after seeing a few dozen of Martin’s bikes, I started to see how every single build bore his stamp. The way he wrapped the tape in a double figure 8 around the levers. The moto brake routing and extra cable length. The extra short bidon cage bolts. The extra twist he’d give every toe strap behind the toe clip. These are all such high end and beautiful bicycles! My own shop back home would build perhaps one or two along these lines every month, but the lights were kept on by the steady stream of Schwinns and Kuwaharas and Treks rolling though the doors. I was so envious.

It wasn’t until later that summer that I realized that things weren’t exactly what they seemed. On a training ride one day, I asked another junior about his rig, a canary yellow Benotto.

“It’s Italian, right?”

“Well, kind of… it’s made in Mexico.”

I was confused. Later that day I asked Martin about the Benotto and he explained that yes, it was made in Mexico and that in fact he’d built it up. Not only that, but the bulk of his actual sales were these inexpensive imports. While not exactly a secret, I’d never actually seen one on display or being worked on.

“I build them up at night and deliver them early in the morning.” he said. “In reality, the paint isn’t so good, but the frames, they are straight and race just fine.”

“But they’re not Italian!”

“No, they are not Italian.” he said.

When Martin was a boy, he’d worked in a frame factory that built utility bicycles and mopeds. But after only a few years, the factory closed, and the machines were moved to East Germany or Poland, he wasn’t quite sure.

“I really wanted to become a framebuilder, I wanted to become Faliero Masi, but I lost my chance. At the time that the factory closed, I still knew very little about framebuilding, and so I went to work at a bicycle shop.”