I’m jostling for a position on a couch with two vintage road-bike frames. As I scan across the room there are more vintage frames hanging neatly from the walls. Perfectly placed bike parts abound on bookshelves. A neat cache of toolboxes line one wall, just below a bevy of bike rims. At the centre of all this is a single bike stand, placed atop a black-and-white-check vinyl floor that has seemingly been transported from a Californian hot-rod shop. So I ponder, confused, yet amazed – have I stumbled across a workshop, a showroom or the lounge room of an over-enthusiastic bike owner? The answer as it turns out, is all three.
The space in question is Shifter Bikes, which now resides in a warehouse space just off Chapel Street. The store has recently moved for the third time in 8 months, but this store seems to have an air of permanence about it and it's sparse interior serves as much as a workshop as it does a museum to classic and famous bikes. A visit to this new store will send aficionados into a frenzy and become an education in the rare and high end for the amateur.
But the store isn’t the only reason I’m here. I’m also here to find out more about the man responsible for this shop, to find out about the decline of fixed-gear bikes and discover where the evolution of Melbourne’s cycling culture should go next.
Dan Hale has been a bike mechanic for over 23 years, with a client list including some who boast 10 and 15 years of loyalty. Once your amazement at the store has sunk in, your attention quickly turns to the figure that is Dan. He’s a helpful, amazingly knowledgeable and approachable guy, but you might not guess it from first glance. It’s hard to ignore the abundance of trad tattoos he sports from head to hands. As we talk further, I begin to realise that these tattoos are not fad or fancy; they’re much like the work that Dan produces. They don’t conform to a trend or a style and confirm that he’s an original thinker and does things with conviction.
His skills as a bike mechanic are unrivalled and highly regarded. Andy from Fyxomatosis, a long-running cycling-culture website, states “Dan is not only unique in what he does in Melbourne, but world class in his finish and attention to detail.” And this is evident in every piece of work Dan produces. So it seems fitting that we sound him out on the future of cycling.
It’s evident that the fixed-gear phenomenon has entered the mainstream, heralded by websites offering ‘custom’ bikes in more flavour combinations than a Korean BBQ and delivered to your door for under $500. So where did this cycles-as-fashion trend start? Dan attempts an answer, saying “The whole fixed-gear thing was started by couriers in New York and San Francisco, looking for a cheap bike that was easy to maintain. But, I’m loath to say that someone looked at a courier once and said ‘I want to be like that’. There is so much irony behind it because couriers are notoriously unfashionable.”
So for whatever reason, we are now in the grips of a trend that sees people riding highly impractical bikes in terms of geometry and safety. And if you’re one of the culprits, sporting a bike with no brakes, be sure to enjoy that $250 fine when you get pulled over.
As we know, when a trend hits the mainstream, the forward thinkers have already hit onto something new. Dan provides some insight by revealing that a good number of his builds now involve restoring classic road bikes. And this is where his knowledge and expertise really come to the fore. Many of the customers have a ‘no expense spared’ approach, and looking at the price of frames, gear sets, re-sprays and more, it’s any wonder that a restoration becomes a labour of love for Dan and his band of loyal customers. Anyone not picking themselves up a vintage roadie is probably opting for a class of bike called the cyclo-cross. The drop bars of a road bike combined with the aggressive tyres of a mountain bike. They’re go-anywhere, do-anything at high-speed machines.
The evidence of Melbourne’s cycling culture evolution is clear in the blue rental bikes now dotting the city, combined with a slow introduction of dedicated bike lanes. So where to from here for the urban cyclist? Dan proposes the ultimate solution: “One gear, two brakes, mudguards and a rack. Things that make an urban bike practical.” So when considering your next purchase, put function before fashion, or be sure to visit Dan for a healthy dose of both.