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Michael Barry: Grime and Grease

Arriving home, I pull off my sweater. The scent of the workshop has woven its way into the fabric: grease, paint, rubber, flux, and oil. In the aromas, I can identify each distinct chemical, but together they mean only one thing. I inhale for half a second as I pull off the sweater. To me, it is the aroma of bikes being built and torches with flames heating tubes in the hands of craftsmen wearing dark glasses and royal blue aprons. It is the smell of fresh paint, ball bearings being carefully placed in cups of white grease, and tubulars being glued to new rims.

Above Photo: Walter Lai

An hour before, while working on the bike, the odor was unnoticeable. I was immersed in it. Now, at home, the shop aromas clash with the manufactured floral scents of laundry soap, shampoos, and household cleaners. I’ve scrubbed my hands, repeatedly, but they’re still stained black. The darkness of grime also marks the lines on my hands, like reverse fingerprints, etching the crevasses, and accentuating the callouses formed over thousands of hours by gripping brake levers tight, while climbing, while sprinting, while holding my bars as my bicycle bounced beneath me on cobbles.

Those callouses were formed in what now seems like another life, when I rode in the guts of the professional peloton. Now, back in my hometown of Toronto, on occasion I ride to and from my father’s bike shop, as I did as a boy, before I went overseas to chase dreams.

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Photo: Walter Lai

Even though there are few comfortable chairs in my father’s shop, just old wooden stools with cracked tops, it is like a second home to me, and still brings me comfort and a sense of belonging after all these years. Almost daily, my father who is retired and 75, still goes to his workshop. His retired friends come by to chat about bikes over cups of tea and then to restore, build, and tinker. Many people retire and never again return to their chosen profession. Burned out, they close one chapter of life and carry as little of it as possible into retirement. For my father and his friends, who are all passionate craftsmen, being around bikes, working with metal, fixing, and building continue to bring satisfaction.

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While racing in Europe with a pro team that fixed my bike and made it glisten, I grew distant from my father, the shop, and my roots. It has been fifteen years or more since my hands were a deep black with grease and grime.

Professionals may occasionally work on their bikes at home, but at the races, the mechanics work on them with care, precision, and meticulous attention to detail. The riders stand back and watch. Most mechanics are pro cycling fans. Knowing the bikes they build, repair, and maintain can make the difference between winning and losing in a Classic or Tour, they work with passion. Not only do they feel the pressure to build an infallible, lightweight, highly-functional, winning bike, but more critically, they are also responsible for a rider’s life—a poorly glued-on tubular can send a rider careering into a stone wall, while a broken fork can send him crashing head-first onto pavement. These are the fears with which they live. But they can also take true pleasure in every victory, as they are an integral part of it.

From my hotel room, I’d occasionally glance at the mechanics through the window as they worked away into the night. Each of them had their own routine, developed over time. I took comfort from the sound as they ran through the gears, pumped the tires, and spun the wheels. Perhaps it was because I had grown up immersed in a similar environment.

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In the biopic La Course en Tete, Eddy Merckx sits with the mechanics as they work on the bikes. In those images, he appears relaxed and comfortable, distant from the pressures of the race. In a moment of free time, before dinner and after a massage, I’d often walk with a teammate through the hotel parking lot, where the team trucks and buses were lined in rows. Wiggo, Mick Rogers, Jez Hunt, or a handful of others who loved being around the bikes, would join me. Around the trucks, there were often a few kids who had come by after to school to watch the mechanics. The vibrant colours and branding of the vehicles attracted a young cycling fan’s eye like candy. Our bikes were objects of their dreams. The generators revved as hoses blasted out water to blow off the grime from the day’s race. We hung around the truck, chatted, and watched. After relaxing around the bikes, we would thrash ourselves on the following day.

For both the athlete and the craftsmen, the bicycle is the tool with which they apply their trade and express their passion. Some mechanics rarely ride, and some cyclists rarely get their hands dirty. But we all share the same bond.