Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Magic in Vermont: the Old Spokes Home

Old Spokes Museum
Over the weekend, a bunch of us (it was actually an entire delegation) made our way from Boston, MA to Burlington, VT for the New England Randonneurs Vermont Fall Classic. The ride was to begin early in the morning on Sunday, and since Burlington is quite a distance away most of us arrived the day before. There are many interesting things to do in the area, but the destination I truly wanted to visit was the Old Spokes Home. When I described it to my companions Bikeyface and Vorpalchortle, they agreed that we must see it immediately. 

Old Spokes Home
Rolling into town in the pouring rain, we headed straight for the legendary establishment while there was still daylight to be had.

Old Spokes Home
So what is the Old Spokes Home? Oh what indeed. To call it a bike shop is not sufficiently descriptive, though it is that too. But it is also a local hangout, a museum, a piece of history in the making. It is a place that is guaranteed to make bicycle lovers happy. That last bit happened to us within moments of approaching its gingerbread house-like exterior.

Old Spokes Home
Overgrown with vegetation and stray bicycle parts, the "come-hither" energy was quite strong.

Old Spokes Home
It is as if someone unleashed the power of their imagination on the place without holding back.

Old Spokes Home
The bicycles parked in the gravel driveway coyly hinted at what awaited within. Upside-down North Roads. Mismatched frames and forks. Fenders and fixed gears. Holding our breath in anticipation, we rushed inside.

Old Spokes Home
In the initial moments I hardly knew where to look. There was just so much of it that my eyes could not focus. Classic racing bikes peeked out from behind modern inventory.

Old Spokes Museum
Velocipedes and penny farthings hung suspended from the ceiling.

Old Spokes Museum
And these looked downright commonplace next to contraptions with labels such as "Crypto Alpha Bantam."

Rene Herse, Old Spokes Home
And then my eyes fell upon this. 

Rene Herse, Old Spokes Home
Displayed quite casually between the wicker baskets and the bells shaped like cheeseburgers, was an all-original 1949 Rene Herse randonneuring bicycle.

Rene Herse, Old Spokes Home
Chromed. Vitus tubing. 650B wheels. Hammered fenders and chainguard. Single Stronglite crankset.

Rene Herse, Old Spokes Home
Though I had glimpsed a couple of Rene Herse bicycles in person prior to this, those experiences paled in comparison. The bicycle at the Old Spokes Home was at once so well-preserved, so classically Rene Herse-ish and so accessible, that I was beside myself. Could I touch it? Yes. And so I did. All over!

Rene Herse, Old Spokes Home
One thing that struck me about this bicycle, was how relatively plain it looked by today's standards of custom builds. It wasn't any one thing that created this impression, but the sum of the parts. In person, the bike did not stand out, but disappeared into itself - into the strong visual logic that dominated it. In that sense, the vintage Herse reminded me more of my modern roadbike than it did of classic constructeur-inspired designs.

Glenn Eames and the Rene Herse, Old Spokes Home
As I mulled this over, the owner of Old Spokes arrived - Mr. Glenn Eames. We recognised each other and there was much delight. Glenn was on his way to the Fat Chance party that was being held nearby, but I am glad to have gotten the chance to meet him. Had I made my way upstairs, he asked? I was just heading there.

Old Spokes Museum
The upstairs of the Old Spokes Home contains a small museum of vintage and antique bicycles. The collection is labeled, catalogued, and part of it is viewable online. But nothing compares to seeing it all in person. 

Old Spokes Museum
It is difficult to photograph in the densely occupied attic space, but basically there are several pen-like enclosures behind which the oldest machines are kept. Others are hung from the ceiling. The oldest specimen in the collection is an 1868 Calvin Whitty Velocipede, and there are hundreds of antique machines on display showing the development of the bicycle as we know it. 

Old Spokes Museum
While my personal interest in antiques is limited, I could not help but marvel at the sight of bicycle history unfolding in front of my eyes.

Old Spokes Museum
Bikeyface felt much the same.

Old Spokes Museum
Entranced by the magic of it, the three of us wandered around in a daze.

Old Spokes Museum
For me some of the highlights included the 1898 "ladies first" Iver Johnson Tandem,

Old Spokes Museum
the 1897 “Old Hickory” Tonk Manufacturing all-wood bicycle 

Old Spokes Museum
(build using layers of laminated bent hickory, including fork and bottom bracket),

Old Spokes Museum
and some of the very early path racers and roadsters, such as this 1899 Tribune “Blue Streak" - a 30” wheel light roadster. 

Old Spokes Museum
And I especially enjoyed seeing some of the early step-through frames with lightweight dressguard and chaincase solutions. The earliest lady's frame on display is an 1899 Gormully & Jeffery Roadster, which I really would not mind taking for a spin.

Old Spokes Museum
Others wandered in and out of the museum while we were there, and the bicycle that impressed new visitors the most seemed to be this 3-person tandem -

Old Spokes Museum
- with its enormous rear chainring. I did not have a chance to ask about this bike and I do not see it listed in the collection, but some have suggested that the purpose of the large chainring was for the bike to be paced by a train - much as Charles "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy did by drafting behind a Long Island Rail Road boxcar.

Old Spokes Museum
Deeper within the attic are aisles of vintage bicycles that are available for sale. 

Old Spokes Museum
Some are refurbished, others not. "This is an antique, not an everyday rider," warned a label attached to a machine with a spoon brake. 

Old Spokes Museum
But most of the vintage vintage 3-speeds for sale would make excellent everyday riders in a small college town such as Burlington, VT. I was impressed to see how many there were on offer.

Hubert D’Autremont, Old Spokes Home
In part because of the Fall Classic brevet the following morning, and in part because of the Fat Chance party, the Old Spokes was a popular place that afternoon. Local framebuilder Hubert D’Autremont stopped by. His work has garnered some attention at the Oregon Manifest and Cirque du Cyclisme lately, and I've been following it with interest.

Mike B, Old Spokes Home
As we made our way back downstairs, Fall Classic organiser Mike Beganyi stopped by to drop off some supplies for the following morning. The Old Spokes Home would serve as the start and the finish for the event.

Old Spokes Home
I was glad to learn that the owner Glenn would be taking part in the ride, as well as many of the Old Spokes staff. 

Old Spokes Home
We were excited to meet such a nice group of local cyclists, and they were excited to learn that so many of us (I think it must have been over a dozen total) were making our way from Boston despite the downpour that was being forecasted for the entire weekend. 

Old Spokes Home
With all the coming and going, meeting and greeting, the atmosphere in the shop felt dynamic and warm, but I don't want to leave out the business side of things. Far from focusing on just exhibiting antiques, the Old Spokes is a fully stocked modern bike shop and repair shop. Burlington has experienced a boom in transportation cycling over the past several years, and the Old Spokes does a brisk trade in repairs and sales. The mechanics station is surprisingly large and busy for such a small town and it was exciting to see the sheer variety of customers' bikes that were up on the stands.

Old Spokes Home
As far as new bikes, the Old Spokes Home carries floor models from Surly, Salsa, Brompton, Yuba and others. They are also an Independent Fabrications dealer. What impressed me the most was their enormous selection of Surly Pugsleys. In Boston, a bike shop might have one hanging up somewhere just for show, and a request to get it down tends to elicit surprise. Here, there were maybe a dozen of these things, ready and waiting to be ridden and bought. I imagine the Vermont winters might have something to do with the Pugsley's popularity! 

Old Spokes Home
It was also great to see a Velo Orange Polyvalent that belonged to one of the mechanics. All of the Old Spokes staff seem to ride interesting or unusual bikes.

Old Spokes Home
With the evening upon us, it was soon time to check into our lodgings, and so reluctantly we bid the Old Spokes Home good-bye. We would be back for the brevet the following morning, but honestly it would take a dedicated visit lasting days if not weeks to really look through all the vintage and antique bikes they have stashed in there. My biggest regret is that I did not get to see the Hetchinses and the Flying Scotts (yes, plural), but maybe some other time.

Old Spokes Home
If you like bicycles and find yourself anywhere near Burlington, Vermont, to say that the Old Spokes Home is worth a visit is an understatement. From the extensiveness of the vintage collection, to the warmth and knowledgeability of the staff, to the interesting selection of contemporary bicycles on the floor available to test ride, the Old Spokes can be a travel destination in of itself. This bright, happy, magical place was truly a highlight of our weekend. A sincere thank you to everyone who showed us around and made us feel so welcome! More pictures of the shop and museum here.

60 comments:

  1. Welcome to my hometown! Too bad about the forecast. What a miserable weekend it was...

    Old Spokes Home is one of my favorite bike shops. They've helped me with my Miyata 610. I also was perusing the attic lately, looking for an older women's mountain bike (not to be had it seems).

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  2. Cool to be inside this building and feel the vibe.

    This Herse...is so mythologized and copied it's hard to appreciate it, particularly since no one rides one on brevets except for one guy.

    Disappearing into itself -- it's monochromatic with, by modern standards, components that are underbuilt.

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    1. Which component is underbuilt?

      Maybe the front rack, but that's not a RH rack.
      Maybe the fenders, but they get replaced like tires do. If you ever get a chance to go over a French bike this old you will see how many approximately familiar parts, like Lyotard 36 pedals for example, were handmade, benchbuilt, one-at-a-time and very tough. Even 60s PX-10s will have more solid parts than you might imagine.

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    2. The front rack, the rear rack, the spider, the chainrings, the non-os tubes, the chain guard.

      I didn't say it was feeble, but look at the VO.

      The Herse is basically a race bike, one pared down to essential elements to go fast over distance and save energy. Jan had weighed one at 17lbs.

      Lately people have conflated low-trail multipurpose machines such as the VO to be "similar" to the Herse. Perhaps cosmetically, but that's it.

      I wouldn't carry a stack of LeMonde on that day-after-day, it's just not suited to it.

      And a px-10 is not a Herse. The only similarity is they're French.

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  3. Funny, I'm just planning my final tour of the year for mid-October, with the first day being Montreal-Burlington. The Old Spokes Home was very high on my to-do list. And after reading this post I'm even more excited!

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  4. During a recent ride, I was daydreaming about what type of bike I would be riding if a time warp suddenly transported me back to the 1950s. Initially I imagined it would be a Schwinn Paramount or maybe a Raleigh Lenton. This post nailed it. Rene Herse for sure.
    What an amazing store. Reminds me that I have a good buddy living in Burlington. A visit is long overdue.

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  5. The three person tandem, more commonly known as a triplet, was used to pace riders around the track. As riders got stronger and faster there was a need for four, five, six and even ten rider bicycles. They were finally eclipsed by motor pacing machines as the weight of the riders and the machines produced diminishing returns for the riders they were pacing.

    I have yet to visit The Old Spokes Home and hope to get there someday.

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    1. Aah, to the best of my knowledge the only 10 place made was the Orient Oriten out of Waltham MA, and there wasn't a particular need for it, they just wanted to show they could.

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  6. Gosh, I've wanted to go to that shop. I found it online long ago and was amazed at their vintage bikes!

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  7. Well I'll be ! I lived in the Burlington area for 15 years 1989-2003 and I never heard of this "legendary" establishment. In defense of my pathetic ignorance, I was not so into bicycles as I am now, but wow! What a gem of a place. I was in Burlington this past May (we cycled entirely around Lake Champlain starting and ending in Colchester. My journal and photos can be found on crazyguyonabike.com) and never knew it. Next time, for sure. Thanks for the enlightenment!

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  8. Oh my gosh, that looks like heaven!!! Lucky you!

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  9. This post was a treat to read. I bought my 2010 Surly Crosscheck from Glenn a little over a year ago, and it was a great pleasure to do business with the folks at Old Spokes. Now I'm tempted to buy that Raleigh Tourist they have listed...shhh. ;)

    Your photos are great - true, the website photos don't convey the full extent of the collection!

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  10. Great story, thank you. I sure hope that Rene Herse is for sale, whatever the asking price may be. To keep such a fantastically useable machine in captivity would be a shame.

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    1. It is not for sale, as it performs the very important function of the shop's loaner bike.

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  11. Wait a minute, Matt Damon stopped by with supplies? Sign me up for those rides!

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    1. I'm not sure I understand the appeal of Matt Damon. Please inform. I liked the video he recently did with Sarah Silverman, but I liked it mostly because of her.

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  12. What a great writeup! As a former mechanic for a few years at the OSH, I gotta say you really did an amazing job of portraying the vibe and energy of the space. I miss the days of rebuilding a Sturmey Archer hub only to be followed by a modern-day road bike tuneup and then maybe a wheel build. You never know what to expect at the place, though it's a safe bet that you'll be fascinated.

    Approaching my 1-year anniversary of not working in the cycling industry, I couldn't be happier to have been part of the OSH and had made some great friends along the way. Friends that I still see every week whether it be for beers or bikes (or both). Be sure to come back and visit!

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    1. "I miss the days of rebuilding a Sturmey Archer hub"

      These are rare words from a bicycle mechanic I have to say; music to my ears!

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    2. Oh, I remember that, too. Sturmey Archer's are a joy to rebuild, so much better than Shimano's! This shop sounds like the one I worked in durning college. Eight mechanics keeping busy maintaining so, so many bikes...Never a dull moment!

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    3. @Velouria rare indeed, though I found pulling them apart to be quite therapeutic and very rewarding! Of course, having a nice stock of new & used Sturmey parts certainly helps. And I agree w/ Anonymous, the only Shimano hubs I liked rebuilding were of the Nexus variety.

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  13. Definitely my kind of place. Hope I get to visit it one day! Don't suppose there were any old Fujis in the mix...?

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  14. Glad you guys had such a good time. I actually did a dropout replacement on that tandem, and boy was it a challenge! Just moving the thing around. Sorry I wasn't around in the evening to show you the shop. You will have to come back up and see more of the riding and great bike culture Burlington has to offer.
    HHd'A

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  15. Really rather good. Reminds me of the cycle jumbles we get in the UK, although on a bit more esoteric scale...

    Http://www.andbike.cc/bikes/a-bit-of-a-jumble/

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    1. I hadn't actually, no - will check them out. Do you get over to the UK very often?

      By the way, the main pic I can't help noticing is a Penny Farthing. We did a piece on their revival in the UK recently, which includes some madman setting up a Penny Farthing delivery service in Cornwall... It takes all types!

      You can see it here.

      Cheers,

      David

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  16. The Rene Herse is a lovely machine, but "all original" it isn't. The adjustable front rack is quite different from the elegant custom racks Herse made. Not that this detracts from the bike, and your description of it, being sparse and not over-the-top, is quite accurate.

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  17. One of the few reasons to be indoors while visiting Vermont.

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  18. Never been to Burlington and fear if I did visit I wouldn't want to leave! Seems a haven for us cycle loving, coffee drinking, bearded men. Are there also lovely women cycling about? :)

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    1. Walking around on Saturday night, it seemed like the whole town was on 2 wheels - lovely women, and men, and those who do not wish to identify themselves with a gender. On our way home after dinner we saw a woman doing an awesome dismount from her tall bike that I wish I'd captured.

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    2. Sounds like a great town! My son was considering UVA which would allow me to visit to my hearts content. Ah, instead he chose a school in Boston :)

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  19. Shoot! I live in the Burlington area, it's so fun to see this write-up! I have to say, in years past, I really had terrible service, but lately it's been FANTASTIC! Glad to hear you had a good time

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  20. Was a pleasure meeting you and your troupe on Saturday.

    Despite the work that it takes to organize the brevet series seeing folks truly enjoying themselves on their bicycles in our fair state makes it all worthwhile. I do hope you'll come back to ride in VT again next year. I think I can convince Hubert to host us for the Saturday night meetup next year.

    Or maybe you'll join us for a Pugsley ride this winter?

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    1. Mike, thanks so much for organising this, for making us feel welcome, everything!

      Winter Pugsley ride, are you serious? Let's talk!

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    2. We are putting together some winter ride ideas. I'm sure we'll be able to find a loaner for you. :)

      I'll keep you posted.

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  21. I really worry about the security of that place. There have been high-profile cases recently of unscrupulous people using the internet to find the location of even one valuable bicycle (such as people who post all their rides to Strava, including a list of all their bikes, and the site itself reveals your house location, if don't you set your privacy parameters accordingly), let alone a massive treasure trove of them.

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    1. I'd be concerned. All my rides that I post start within 2 miles of my house, no closer. I've been tempted to record rides on My Tracks but don't want to want to publish routes to my house. Not that I own the nicest collection of bicycles.

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  22. Nice subject and pics.
    Thanks.

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  23. I just love all of these bikes and the interesting folks who stop by this place. What a fascinating post!

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  24. UVA is The University of Virginia.
    The University of Vermont is UVM. The initials UVM stand for the Latin words Universitas Viridis Montis, or University of the Green Mountains.
    As a graduate, x3, I had to point that out. The explosion of bicycle culture there is amazing considering college hill and the weather, in general.

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    1. oops, my mind was thinking one thing and my fingers doing another:) UVM...go Catamounts!

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    2. I considered UVM for undergrad. Scary to think that was more than 15 years ago!

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  25. Yes, I think we are proud of our state as a whole and our cycling culture in particular up here in the sparsely populated wilds of Vermont and it feels really good to be seen. Reading your post makes me realize that I sort of take the Old Spokes Home for granted. It is a gem, and an unlikely one at that. Somewhat unlikely as well, the nearby Alpine Shop features Velo Orange frames and equipment and copies of Bicycle Quarterly on display in a glass case.

    Perhaps the terrain and endless dirt road makes us naturally gravitate towards the highly versatile bikes typified in a kitted out randonneuring machine.

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  26. Hm. Interesting to note the Herse's rack precludes the carried weight to be behind the front axle, yet I've seen a few modern interpretations in the manner of the pictured VO avec porteur to cantilever far out over it, as if that is a good idea.

    Ok done.

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    1. Been a while since i shopped there, but previous experience convinced me VO is about the look not the thinking of what builders such as Herse did.

      A few modern builders in the U.S., Japan and U.K. are on the same page. A lot get it wrong.

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  27. what a herse! i looked at the pic again and again, it's quite hypnotic, hard to explain - one keeps on seeing different visual balance in it. the big snag is that in the unlikely event of ever owning something like it, i'd find it impossible to use it.

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  28. That's fabulous.. more than fabulous, it's historical. I especially like all the 'steam-punk' details on the lights and hardware. A real museum of bicycles!

    jn

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  29. then after clicking on the herse link, i came across boulder bicycles, and a creation that seems even more just perfect than the herse..

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  30. Wow. This is at least as impressive as the aerodrome at Rhinebeck or the back room of the late Jon Lundberg's guitar shop.
    (SpinDizzy will know what I mean)

    I would find myself completely lost for hours.

    I guess I have a destination in Vermont....

    CK

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    1. I do know, I was also thinking it looked like my basement could look if could squeeze a broom between the "exhibits" and I wasn't such a badger. My crap isn't as nice though in any case.

      Spindizzy

      And about Old Rhinebeck? I absolutely cannot go there unless I want to go through some serious de-tox after.

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    2. "And about Old Rhinebeck? I absolutely cannot go there unless I want to go through some serious de-tox after."

      Yep.
      I'm still recovering from a weekend at Oshkosh in 2000.

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  31. A lovely place, located in a lovely place. I so want to get up there.

    Your post, too, was elegant and well-illustrated. You do nice work, V.

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  32. Great to see Old Spokes Home written up here. I met and travelled with Glenn and partner Mary a few years ago (27?). Made it to Burlington last year and was able to bring my kids and get Glenn's 50 cent tour. He will appreciate the irony of my son riding for Jacks Bicycle shop team this year!

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  33. We here in ABQ, NM had our own equivalent or superlative of the OSH -- in size of collection if not in viewer-friendliness -- in Dick "Call me Mr" Hallet's collection, adjunct to the now defunct World Champion Bicycles. Beside have a repro Ordinary on display in his lot, a '40s Urgo or Heylett or somesuch hanging near the entrance of his store, and a concourse-quality boneshaker on the shop floor with the Diamond Backs and Treks, he had a little warehouse down the street full -- packed -- with weird, neat old stuff dating back through the '50s (one of Reg Harris's track bikes) to the 1890s. Hell, he showed me a NOS Cyclo rd, 600 grams of pristine ironmongery. I don't know what became of his collection when he closed shop about 10 years ago, but he did claim that the Smithsonian was after some of his collection.

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  34. Not sure if anyone has heard of the Pedaling History Museum in Orchard Park NY. It contains one of the largest and most remarkable bike collections in the U.S., include many of the earliest models. It closed in 2009 but for awhile remained accessible by appointment only. This past year the owner Mr. Burgwardt passed away. Its a bit of a mystery what will become of this collection. I hope it remains here in U.S. and becomes accessible to the public once again.

    Found this. Shows some of the museum:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoap4qPemgU

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  35. Hope this doesn't come across as being too prying and personal, but I can't resist asking:
    Is there a chance that Bikeyface and Vorpalchortle may be shopping for a tandem?
    It's just that they look so cute together.

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  36. What a cool place filled with beautiful creatures!

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  37. Like the bike nerd hottie, to be honest.

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  38. These guys are so helpful, great service, this is the absolute best bike shop around Burlington.

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  39. I have a very old hand-made bicycle. Anybody interested?

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