By Carolyn Pioro
Photos by Anita Lalchan
In the H.G.Wells-penned comedy, The Wheels of Chance: a Bicycling Idyll, Mr. Hoopdriver, a worn-out everyman, embarks upon a liberating ten-day cycling holiday. He explores near-distant lands, makes unexpected acquaintances and most importantly, is offered the freedom of mobility and repose—all made possible by his trusty two-wheelled steed.
Stepping inside the eponymous Toronto bike shop, Hoopdriver Bicycles, the spirit of adventure and independence is embodied in the steel and aluminum framed bicycles that hang in the carefully packed retail space. Here you won’t find bikes with tricked-out suspension, disc brakes or infinite gears. Instead you’ll find stylish yet practical, high-quality but unpretentious, bicycles for urban cycling of any kind. Proprietor Martin Neale describes his fleet as simple, durable and definitely well-designed. Mainstream and complete bikes by KHS and Opus are prominent along the racks, as is a substantial-sized collection of accessories, like Brooks England bags and saddles. Neale sells what he loves, and what he loves is many a-thing local. His keep-it-close-to-home sensibility sees the shop stocked with loads from Toronto-based vendors, like wickedly whimsical chain guards from Poka Cycle Accessories to YNOT Cycle’s pedal straps to artist Iris Fraser’s DIY leather handlebar-wrap kits (the pre-perforated leather comes in gorgeous jewel tones and the kits includes everything you need to customize your handlebars, like a needle, and thread in myriad colours).
The store, which opened in the spring of 2009, sits beside The Common on the south side of College near Dufferin. Just a hop, skip and a jump across the sharrows, Hoopdriver Bicycles has a welcoming interior with warm red walls and a bright wood floor. It may feel like a cozy bookstore, but the bestsellers here are bound by frames, forks and finesse; many of these low-tech masterpieces are also one-of-a-kind. Since opening, Neale (with occasional assistance from his senior mechanic) has completed approximately 40 custom builds. Each of these beauties is photo-documented on the store’s website. He finds doing custom work the perfect outlet for his artistic temperament and mechanical skills. His own collection has more than a dozen custom-vintage bikes, some from the 70s and 80s and even a 1939 CCM, which is on the docket to be rebuilt next. (Just as soon as he can find the time that is!) Besides doing custom orders, the shop also provides for the local cycling community with day-to-day repairs, accommodating riders needing to fix a flat or have a tune-up; the store will even keep your ride safe over the winter, as they offer bike storage for a nominal fee. We had the chance to talk to Martin “Hoopdriver” Neale about why bricks-and-mortar bike shops trump e-comm and about the rise of the not-your-hipster-boyfriend’s fixie.
Your website mentions how Hoopdriver Bicycles provides “a much deeper level of service than is available from long distance (and even some local) sources.” How is your shop different from other—concrete and/or virtual—stores?
We serve the needs of the people who are looking at their bikes on a deeper level technically, and want to customize a little bit. Then of course in reference to e-commerce… One of my big worries was whether or not we could compete with all the online stuff, but when you do provide good service it’s surprising and gratifying to see how many people are happy to support local businesses.
What are some of the trends you’re seeing with bikes this season and do you have any predictions for what’s to come?
I’m finding that people are realizing that they don’t need 21, 24 or 27 speeds for city riding. You know, three, two, seven or eight [speeds] works really well or even sometimes just one. I think there is a really bright future for single-speed and fixed-gear, but not fixed-gear how they are often portrayed in major media (as these track bikes with no hand brakes on them.) We’re seeing single-speed bikes with room on them for larger tires, fenders, racks, water bottles and I think these will become more and more popular.
What sort of things are people looking for in a custom bike?
What we’re doing more of in the shop now is working with people who are bringing in their vintage frames and parts and we’re modernizing them a little bit. For instance: making a 70s road bike with skinny tires and a limited range of gearing a little more practical for perhaps its original owner, who is now older, and doesn’t want to push those big gears uphill. Or for someone who wants to make their bike do something a little bit different. I did this with a lot of my own bikes: take an original bike and bastardize it, but in a very unique, sensitive and carefully designed way.
Hoopdriver Bicycles is located at:
1073 College Street
dandyhorse magazine is proud to have Hoopdriver Bicycles as an ongoing supporter. Customers of Hoopdriver Bicycles can pick up a free copy of dandyhorse while supplies last.