Magic in Vermont: the Old Spokes Home
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.
Rolling into town in the pouring rain, we headed straight for the legendary establishment while there was still daylight to be had.
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.
Overgrown with vegetation and stray bicycle parts, the "come-hither" energy was quite strong.
It is as if someone unleashed the power of their imagination on the place without holding back.
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.
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.
"Crypto Alpha Bantam."
And then my eyes fell upon this.
Displayed quite casually between the wicker baskets and the bells shaped like cheeseburgers, was an all-original 1949 Rene Herse randonneuring bicycle.
Chromed. Vitus tubing. 650B wheels. Hammered fenders and chainguard. Single Stronglite crankset.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bikeyface felt much the same.
Entranced by the magic of it, the three of us wandered around in a daze.
For me some of the highlights included the 1898 "ladies first" Iver Johnson Tandem,
the 1897 “Old Hickory” Tonk Manufacturing all-wood bicycle
(build using layers of laminated bent hickory, including fork and bottom bracket),
and some of the very early path racers and roadsters, such as this 1899 Tribune “Blue Streak" - a 30” wheel light roadster.
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.
Charles "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy did by drafting behind a Long Island Rail Road boxcar.
Deeper within the attic are aisles of vintage bicycles that are available for sale.
Some are refurbished, others not. "This is an antique, not an everyday rider," warned a label attached to a machine with a spoon brake.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.