Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mariposa Bicycles: A Job Worth Doing

About this time last year, I was working on an article for Dandyhorse magazine about Mike Barry and Mariposa. Since the article has since appeared and had a chance to reach its readers that way, and since it appeared in an edited form my perfectionist self was not entirely pleased with, I have decided to post it here, where it will remain for posterity.

Mariposas are my favourite bicycles ever. I have seen Mariposas of all kinds: pure road racing bikes, TT bikes, track bikes, randonneurs, touring bikes, camping bikes, tandems, mixtes, fixed-gears with fenders and racks, and so on. They all share the same thing: they are perfect for what they do—functionally superb and aesthetically gorgeous.

There was a big debate about what to call this article. In the magazine it was called "Man of Steel." I wanted to call it "The Road to Mariposa," which is the name of a story from Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town. Mike and his friends wanted to call it "A Job Worth Doing," though, so that's what I'm calling it here.

I've spruced this up with some photographs from Mariposa's website. For the lovely photos that accompanied the article in Dandyhorse, you'll need to track down the original article.

Enjoy it! (It's long!—Click on the "Read More" below if you're reading this on the front page.)

Looking out their windows in the early months of 1970, the residents of Toronto's Davisville Avenue would have seen something strange. In this city of cars, subways, and streetcars—a city very slowly shedding its dreary image of “Toronto the Good” and metamorphosing into the diverse and cosmopolitan city of today—the scene was incongruous. Half-visible in the falling snow, two grown men were taking turns riding an unpainted, rusting, brakeless bicycle along the icy roadway. Looking as delicate and out of place as a butterfly in the winter scene, the bike was designed not for the Canadian January in which it found itself, but for the smooth and immaculate banked surfaces of an indoor velodrome. The men who rode the bike, seeming just as out of place, speaking with foreign accents, had built it in a nearby basement. They were Mike Barry and John Palmer. It was the first Mariposa.

Mike Barry arrived from England in 1964—along with the Beatles, Kinks, and Rolling Stones—to a Toronto very much in need of British invasion. “After leaving London and the London pubs,” he remembers, “we were very amused by the Toronto pubs. There were ‘Men’s Beverage Rooms’ which were bleak featureless rooms filled with guys drinking beer at Formica tables. A waiter would circulate the room with a tray of glasses of beer. As soon as he saw someone finish a glass he would slap another down in front of him. There was no choice of beer—you got whatever they were serving that day. There was no food available. The impression you got was ‘drink or get out’.”

The city did have certain attractions. There were the jazz clubs at Yonge and Dundas where “one could see the best jazzmen in the world for the price of a beer.” And, with some effort, there was cycling. Barry remembers “there very few bikes on the road, and almost every time we went out some idiots would deliberately run us off the road.” The “we” made up for the idiots. The post-war years saw a flood of European immigration to Toronto. Unlike in the United States, where the “melting pot” mindset led most immigrants to leave their bicycles behind, in multicultural Toronto cycling thrived. “When I first arrived in Canada,” Barry recalls, “the bike racing scene impressed me. There were a good number of clubs in the Toronto area, all of which were ethnically oriented. I joined Britannia, but there were Italia, Croatia, Berolina (German), and others I can’t remember the names of. All catered to recent immigrants from Europe. Riding the races was like competing in international events, with the riders speaking different languages.” Barry continued to move about in the late sixties, employing his RAF training with a spectrometer company and living in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. But Toronto drew him back. “The most impressive thing I remember was the social scene. Almost every Sunday there was a party at someone’s house after the race. There were hundreds of new immigrants from the UK and Europe and most were in their twenties. It was a great time.”

In 1968, while still working full time on spectrometers, Barry met countryman John Palmer on a ride north of the city. Palmer, the son of a bike store owner, slept with a set of Reynolds 531 steel tubing under his bed, and shared Barry’s dream of building bicycles. The opportunity to realize this ambition presented itself in two stages. First, Barry and Palmer tracked down the liquidated supplies of CCM’s defunct handmade frame shop. The owner of this cache had been using the steel tubing for a basement renovation—in Barry’s words, “the fanciest steel reinforcing bars ever used in a Canadian construction project.” For $100, they rescued the large supply of Reynolds tubing, Nervex lugs, Ekla crowns, and Agrati dropouts—some of the finest materials available.

The next task was finding a place to build. An opportunity presented itself when a fellow racer bought a house at 410 Davisville Avenue and needed help with mortgage payments. Barry and Palmer rented the basement. “John and I would be down there building frames. And Alan, the guy who owned the house, rented out rooms to a few couples. So it was always a community. It was a good time. My wife—my girlfriend then—used to come over and hang around. And John’s girlfriend was there too. It was quite remarkable. I was only there on weekends—I was traveling all week. I’d come back and work away in the basement.” Out of this scene of community and comradeship came their first bikes, bound for the boards of the Delhi velodrome. Paying homage to their European past and Canadian present, they called their bikes “Mariposa”—the Spanish word for butterfly, and the town where Stephen Leacock set his Sunshine Sketches. It was the beginning of a nearly forty-year tradition.

The Shops

I first met Mike in late 2007. I had heard of Mariposas long before on rides with the London Centennial Wheelers, whose colourful wool jerseys were designed by famous Mariposa rider Greg Curnoe. When I moved to Toronto, two of my friends—one who hit a van head-on, another who backed his van over his bike—turned to Barry to repair their mangled steel frames. I had obsessively studied the Mariposa and Bicycle Specialties websites, but imagined Mike as a remote and unapproachable bicycle deity. I finally called him when I needed an obscure part not apparently available anywhere on earth. (In a quiet, unsurprised voice, he said he had several.) I was lucky I visited him when I did. In the course of our long conversation that day, he told me the shop was closing at the end of the week.

At the end of 1971, two years after he and John Palmer had built the first Mariposa, Mike Barry quit his job and started a shop called Bicyclesport. For this venture he found a new partner in Mike Brown, another English former racer, and a storefront at 175 King Street East. Barry’s son Michael Jr. spent his early childhood here, and remembers it as “a neat little shop with a staff that was funny and a layout that was ideal for hide and seek, forts and adventures.” Its showroom had “walls lined in rainbow world champion stripes and gleaming parts and bikes—tourers, racers, and treaders.” These bikes, in this period of spiking oil prices and booming bicycle sales, were rolling out of the showroom almost on their own. The pace of business meant that framebuilding was still exclusively a wintertime activity. But during these winters Mariposa established its reputation. With the demolition of the Delhi track, the market for track bikes vanished. Barry and Brown began to build the French-style touring bikes—with integrated racks, fenders, and lights—for which they became known.

In 1980 Bicyclesport moved to much larger premises two doors down at 179 King Street East. This was the site of the first year-round dedicated Mariposa frame shop. The two Mikes trained Kerry Mews and Dave Phillips, two Bicyclesport mechanics, as full-time framebuilders and concentrated exclusively on running the retail business. Steven Maasland, who worked at Bicyclesport from 1982 to 1986, remembers Barry as “always ready to share his knowledge and interests with whoever was willing to give him a few minutes of his time.” This enthusiasm and knowledge was spread to the wider community in the form of in-store seminars. One famous presentation on the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris randonneur event, which Barry planned to ride, proved so successful that nearly all the Bicyclesport staff decided to ride it, leaving him behind to tend the shop. Bicyclesport-Mariposa set up a racing team in these years, whose riders were among the best in the country. Michael Jr., today a professional racer with Team Columbia [now Team Sky—Ed.] and a top-ten finisher in the Beijing Olympic road race, says of 179 King Street East, “my dreams of a racing as a professional racer started to really take root on this shop floor. Elite racers would come by and I would look up at them and dream of pedaling in their events.”

The end of 1985, however, brought a change of fortune. Mike Brown and his wife Jackie returned to England. And shortly after, on a ride in Mexico, Barry had a nearly fatal crash. “I was probably having a drink, with one hand on the bar,” he remembers. “When I looked back, there was a big trench across the road. I think I hit that, my hand came off, and I went over and landed on a hedge with the top cut off, and it went into my gut.” Taken to a “dirty, horrible” hospital, he was told by a doctor—“he had a cigarette hanging on his lip”—“If we don’t operate on you today, you’ll be dead.” At Bicyclesport, meanwhile, “The guys were taking care of the shop, some very good friends, but things aren’t the same when you’re not there. I was out of commission for a while.” When he made it back to Toronto further complications and surgeries followed. “1986 was a disaster.”

This was true of the business as well. The bike boom long since ended, and facing the added complications and overhead of a large location and staff, Barry decided to close Bicylesport at the end of 1988. “Those were the three worst years of my life,” he says. When I asked him if he thought of leaving the bike business at this point, he responded, “It was still a passion. I’m not a businessman by any means. I was in it just because I loved bikes.” Barry set up Mariposa’s fourth shop in 1989 in an alley off Front Street. With help from Tom Hinton, Mariposas were produced in the small space until 1995. Bicycle Specialties, as the shop was now called, then moved to larger retail premises on Millwood Road. In 2001 Barry moved to his final location, a high-ceilinged industrial complex on Cranfield Road that would serve as a frame shop, a source for specialty bike components, and as a museum for his vast bicycle collection. “I like interacting with people, and trying to steer them in the right direction,” Barry says. His passion for bicycles and the people who ride them is concretely present in every one of the Mariposa bicycles produced from December, 1969 until production ended in December, 2007.

The Bikes

Mariposa bicycles are among the extremely small class of perfect things. In an unusual congruence of form and function, beauty and efficiency are mutually reinforcing. Nothing is superfluous, everything is precisely where it ought to be, and no detail of finish detracts from the mechanism. Made by hand using traditional methods and materials, sized individually for the rider, unique in design and conception, they outlast and outperform their factory-made and laboratory-researched counterparts. Mariposas are the sorts of bikes that obsess people obsessed with bikes, and without which there would be no bicycle-obsession to begin with.

Mariposas start with steel. “Steel was the only possibility when we started,” Barry says, “and as it is certainly the most versatile of materials to build frames from we saw no reason to try other materials.” (For the entire history of Mariposa, this was literally true: the same Reynolds 531 from which the first frame was built remained an option on the last.) As the fashions turned to TIG-welded aluminum and to injection-moulded carbon fibre, “We didn’t even consider it. For the type of bike we were building, no other material but steel would have been suitable.” And so as the industry came to privilege fat-tubed, fragile, mass-produced, shoddily-crafted aluminum and carbon bicycles, Mariposas remained elegant, resilient, and beautifully made.

The next step is sizing and assembling the steel tubes for their rider. “We have always attempted to make bikes that were perfectly suited to the rider and to the type of use the bike would be put,” Barry says. This involves not only fitting the frame to the body of the individual rider, but also talking to the rider about how far and fast they like to ride, on what surfaces, and in what conditions. Each type of bike—road racing, track, cyclo-cross, touring, randonneur, city, porteur—requires a different design, different tube angles, different attachments for specialized components. Barry’s experience as a racer, rider, and compulsive student of bicycles meant that he founded Mariposa with these ideas already ingrained. “Our bikes didn’t really change over the close to forty years they were built,” he says. “Certainly there were improvements. But the basic designs and styles always stayed the same. There are Mariposas out there that were built thirty-five years ago that, apart from a few details, look the same as those built last year.”

Design does not end with the frame. Like an “auteur” in cinema who manipulates every aspect of a film in accordance with his vision, Barry is a “constucteur”: a builder who considers the bicycle as an integrated whole rather than as an assemblage of discrete parts. His racks, most famously, are not thought of as add-ons, but as a part of the bike—hand-made and bolted directly to the frame. Lighting systems too are integral to the design—attachment points for generators are brazed in place, and wires travel inside frame tubes to lights mounted to special attachments on racks and fenders. Components—derailleurs, brakes, wheels, tires, cranks—are all selected before construction of the frame and specially accommodated. Only when all such considerations have been made are tubes cut to length, brass-brazed to lugs, set into alignment, filed into smoothness, chromed, painted, decaled, and assembled.

Barry regards North American handmade bicycles, in which there has been a boom in recent years, as some of the best in the world. (“Not any European bike even comes close,” he says.) These builders, however, are seldom “constructeurs.” “They generally make nice frames, but it seems to me they fall down when they put them all together.” Focusing too much on showy craftsmanship, details of integrated design are often forgotten. “You see frames by some very reputable builders, and you see they’ve got an inch spacer between the fender and bridge. What the hell were they thinking? It’s silly. How much does it take to get it right?”

Barry’s obsession with details and impatience with shoddy craftsmanship made Mariposas what they are. In the words of Barry’s son, Michael Jr., “My father’s objective with almost anything relating to bikes is efficiency, simplicity, and perfection. He told me as a kid that his mother had told him ‘A job isn’t worth doing if it isn’t done properly.’ This is Mariposa.” Gary Dellarossa, a Bicyclesport employee in the early 1980s and owner of a 1981 Mariposa, says “If my house were burning down and I could save only one thing—living things notwithstanding—it would surely be my Mariposa. It is a testament to Mike Barry’s vision of the bicycle as a simple, extremely well- designed, impeccably built, beautiful, yet fully functional tool.”

The City

Mike and I met for our interview in late November at the Granite Brewery, a few blocks from the original basement shop at 410 Davisville Avenue. It was an unusually cold day with snow on the ground, and I had decided to take the subway rather than ride. As I approached Mount Pleasant on Eglinton, however, I saw Mike’s “hacker” locked outside: a red single-speed Bianchi with fenders and a generator-powered headlight. (“I always meant to build myself a Mariposa hacker,” he told me later, “but never seemed to find the time.”) As I went inside, a waiter asked me right away, “Are you here to see Mike? Follow me.” As I talked with Barry for over three hours, struggling at times to make out his quiet voice in the noisy pub, several people stopped by to say hello. When we finished talking, I got out my subway token and Mike—looking, like most active cyclists, ten years younger than he is—pulled elastic bands over his pant-cuffs and rode off.

That an adult with a car would choose to ride his bike in the cold and snow is still, forty years after that first ride on the unpainted Mariposa, somewhat unusual. Making it normal has always been one of Barry’s objectives. “I’m very interested in seeing people riding bikes,” he told me at the Granite. “Commuting and whatnot. I think that’s really important, for all our good. To get people out of their cars and on to their bikes.” It is important not just for reasons of health, environment, and enjoyment, but also because bicycle riding involves us in the community. “You’re not isolated like you are in a car,” he says. “As soon as you get in that car, you’re isolated from the community. On a bike you’re part of the community.”

Barry’s utopia is one in which cycling is as normal, easy, and automatic as breathing. “I’ve got a photograph at home,” he says—“it’s just a couple of girls in France, standing by the side of the road, leaning on their bikes, chatting. I don’t know—that to me sort of typifies what I love about bikes. How it should be—a part of your everyday life.” He continues, “A couple of years ago in Liège I was sitting and chatting at a café when two women came along on their Dutch bikes. They were in their teens—riding next to one another with their handlebars just about banging, chatting away as if they were sitting on a park bench. And they’re heading through traffic, and one of the girls has a drink, and she passes it to the other one. That’s what was so lovely about it—that the bike was just part of everyday life. They had complete control, and there was traffic all around them—it didn’t bother them at all.” Laughing, he concludes “That’s what I would like to see here some day.”

The steps are, in his mind, quite clear. First is education. “People are frightened of the traffic,” he says. “And it’s a shame. The problem is that no one is ever taught how to ride a bike.” In the words of Michael Jr., who spent his infancy rushing through the city on the top tube of his father’s bicycle, “Unlike most North Americans, my Dad doesn’t see a bike as a toy but as a vehicle. Bikes should be respected in the streets but they should also respect the traffic laws and other traffic.” In Barry’s view, this message isn’t being sent. “The school near here,” he says, “put a big poster up saying ‘Be Cycling Safe. Wear a Helmet.’ Well, that’s as far as their instructions go. They don’t get any instruction how to ride a bike safely or follow the rules of the road. No—just put your helmet on and they’ll be all right.”

Part of bicycle education is making sure that cyclists obey laws about lights and brakes—“laws that, if enforced, would prevent accidents.” “We were in Halifax soon after we were in Holland,” he tells me. “Have you ever been in Halifax? It’s on the side of a bloody great hill. And you’ve got couriers riding there with no brakes. How would they stop? They wouldn’t. But they’ve got their helmets on! And you see the same guys at night—no lights. But they’ve got their helmets on!”

There is also, of course, the question of the ideal bike for city riding. Barry recently built city bikes for Michael Jr. and his wife Dede (her second Mariposa; on her first she won the 2002 World Cup race in Montreal). They are beautifully finished with chrome plating, box lining, custom-made racks, integrated fenders, hub gears and generators—not the sorts of bikes you’d want to lock up in front of the office. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” he says while we’re discussing the balance of aesthetics and function. “They are, you know, very nice bikes. But really, they’re too nice for the purpose they’re made for. The bike you ride every day should be functional and efficient, but shouldn’t be fancy.”

What he recommends is a bike like the Mariposa his wife has ridden to work for the last twenty years. “The ideal commuter to me would be light, have 26-inch wheels, light smooth tires, mudguards, possibly an internal hub, but no bloody suspension forks or any of that stuff. Just get rid of all that extraneous stuff and make it as simple as possible. Definitely lights of some form—possibly a generator hub.” To ward of the “real problem” of bike theft, Barry would like to see more bike lockers. “There’s no reason there shouldn’t be a load of them at Union Station,” he says. “Then people could keep them there and just use them when they get in in the morning.” He would also like to see bike rental systems like those in Paris, Barcelona, and Montreal: “great—if you can get people in to that, that’s fantastic.”

This is the point to which my conversation with Mike Barry kept returning: his love of bicycles and desire to get more people riding them. “It’s a beautiful machine,” he said several times. “The bike is a super machine—one of the most efficient forms of locomotion ever devised by man or nature.” I closed our interview by asking my “big question,” which I hoped would convey my own often overwhelming enthusiasm for bicycles. I asked him which aspect of cycling he loved the most. Riding a bike? Its beauty? Its simple, efficient mechanism? The history of its technical development? The sport of cycling—as a participant, a fan, a historian? Its social, health, environmental benefits? Collecting bicycles? Building them? As my question went on and on, he looked into my eyes, increasingly engaged, smiling more with every question, nodding his head. The spell was finally broken when I proposed the last item: running a bicycle business. He rolled his eyes and laughed ironically.

The closing of Mariposa and Bicycle Specialties was Mike Barry’s liberation from this final vexatious item—and the opportunity to indulge unhindered in his passion for all the others.


Maté said...

AH said...

Follow that link, people!

Beautiful seatstay caps on a very old Mariposa!

Sprocketboy said...

I bought a subscription to Dandyhorse just to read this piece when it came out. Nice job. I met Michael Barry at Cirque du Cyclisme in 2007 and saw a number of beautiful Mariposas then.

John said...

Mike Barry, speaking in Canada, was sadly only too right, and only too completely ignored. I was fortunate, as aboy, that when my fatehr taught me to ride - back in '54 - the most important part of the lesson was that I had just taken on the Duties and Responsibilities of a driver, and that, if I fulfilled those, I would get the privileges that went with it. No mention of the word "rights". When I tried to use that, he cut me off sharply, and informed me that this was a wrong-headed, dangerous route to follow.
That eh mirrored this in his driving, of course, only made it plain to me how much it made sense.
When my own children came to become cyclists, many years later, I followed the same basic line, with the addition of lots of on-road, careful mentoring and practice. That their Dad was a cyclist who felt that traffic was the proper place to be, only made it easier for them to follow the same route.
Sadly - with few exceptions, this does not get passed on to cyclists until they have grown a whole set of mis-conceptions, that now have to be excised.

Pondero said...

Excellent work! Thanks for the story that should be told.

Julian said...

Very nice article. Thanks for posting it and for posting the link on the boblist. I was perusing your blog and am wondering if you and your SO ever started production of the trouser bands, and if so where you are selling them.

AH said...

Thanks to all for your nice comments! It's nice to see the article getting so many readers!

Julian: no we never did start making those straps! But we may still if there's any interest...

Unknown said...

What happened to Mariposa Bicycles? Their website is gone.

AH said...

Oh dear, all those missing photos! Mike retired long ago (this article is indeed primarily about that retirement), so it looks like he's taken down his website.