Words and photos by Brendan Leonard
Gregory Crichlow builds custom steel bikes in the back of Chocolate Spokes Bike Studio in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood—clean, subtle frames, with no name on the downtube, just a head badge with a cacao bean and a bike wheel. Dozens of customers have bought and loved the frames he’s welded for them. So you might wonder why he rides a beat-up old Surly to work every day.
He used to have his own Chocolate Spokes bike, blue and black, and he used to put it up in the window of the shop every day when he opened in the morning, sort of a sign that he was there for the day. He opened the shop in August 2011 in a humble 375-square-foot space on 28th and Downing Streets, right next to a liquor store. Transient folks would pee on the outside of the building; the dealers and customers exchanging crack cocaine and cash dubbed the electrical box in front of the shop “the drop box.”
The shop was crowded with customers’ bikes awaiting pick-up, other bikes awaiting maintenance and repair, and a few consignment bikes Gregory sold. So the front window was actually a good spot to store the bike, off the tiny shop’s floor and out of the way. But one day in January 2013, Gregory was talking to two customers, and turned around to see that his bike had disappeared from the window. Gone.
“You know what’s sad,” he said to me in the shop later that week, “is I know someone got $30 for that bike, because they just needed some money. This is still a crack corner.” He was angry at first, and called his wife, Cher, who reminded him that he was one of very few people who could just build themselves another bike.
Five Points has an interesting and varied history as one of Denver’s satellite neighborhoods. In its glory days in the 1920s through 1950s it was known as the “Harlem of the West.” Jazz musicians from all over the world would play the hotels in downtown Denver where African-Americans weren’t allowed to stay. So they’d stay at the Rossonian Hotel in Five Points, three blocks down the street from where Chocolate Spokes now sits, and put on legendary after-hours jam sessions. The neighborhood became home to a predominantly black and Latino population, and weathered tough times from the 1950s through the 1990s. In the early 2010s it started to see the first inklings of gentrification.
Gregory grew up in Denver and raced bikes during his undergraduate years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and earned a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Chicago. He worked professionally as an architect for more than a decade. In 2011 he took the money he’d saved for retirement and opened Chocolate Spokes. He’d seen the building while working around the corner at an architecture firm, and after years of neglect it had become a rough spot. There was no roof and no windows. People would hole up there to shoot up or smoke crack, and when Gregory first took a look at the building the stairs to the basement were covered in human excrement.
“People were questioning, you know, ‘Why are you opening a bike shop?’” Gregory said. “My answer was, ‘Why not?’ I find that the bike is a universal thing. Ultimately it was about investing in the neighborhood. If I really want to make this neighborhood work, I have to put my own investment into it. And that means more than just being a resident. It means opening something that is serving the neighborhood. And that’s how the shop came around.”
In Five Points, and many other central Denver neighborhoods, most businesses have bars on their first-floor windows. Gregory wanted to make a statement and welcome people into the shop.
“I’m a person of color and I opened up in the neighborhood saying, ‘I’m taking off the bars, I’m inviting you in, you can see everything I’ve got—just ask me, we can work together,’” he says. “At that point it seems that people have looked out for the shop in the neighborhood, as opposed to being suspicious of the shop.”
When I first started going to the shop in early 2013, the clientele was a mix of young professional bike commuters and recreational cyclists (like myself), folks who lived in the neighborhood or day laborers and homeless folks who brought their Wal-Mart bikes in to get fixed so they could get to work. Gregory told me a story once about working on a bike that a woman rode with an aluminum baseball bat strapped to the top tube— she unstrapped it from the bike at night for protection while she slept somewhere outdoors. The bulk of the shop’s business was not from selling $7,000 triathlon bikes—it was service, of any bicycle that came in the door in a neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification. Which led to an interesting mix of people in the shop at times.
“I had a mother who was just picking up her son from lacrosse practice out in Stapleton, and I had a gang member who was trying to get a new tube for his new blue cruiser, and they were both in the shop,” Gregory said. “At first I was like, ‘Oh boy, what’s this going to be like?’ And I was working on the gentleman’s tube, and I was trying to get it done quickly to buffer this conversation, and I realized they were actually having a conversation. They were just talking, and her son was sitting there.”
Business slowly grew, and the landlord offered Gregory an opportunity to expand the shop into the space next door, almost tripling the square footage with the addition of the corner-facing storefront where sunlight pours into the windows all morning. Now two workstands sit in front of a pegboard of tools, and the 375-square-foot space in the back where the shop originally started is dedicated to frame building.
Gregory wears a bow tie to work every day as an homage to his grandfather, and to let customers know that Chocolate Spokes is a professional environment. He rides to work every day with his son and daughter in tow (his family doesn’t own a car)—and curates the shop’s rotating stock of high-end chocolate bars for sale next to the cash register.
I’ve asked Gregory, why does an African-American guy open a bike shop in an African-American/Latino neighborhood instead of the more common business model of selling brand-new bikes in the suburbs? He said he did it because he values bikes for fun and utility first, and for exercise and adventure second.
“As a kid, when you ride a bike, it’s about freedom, your independence from your parents,” he said. “As soon as you get a bike, your boundary expands a little more, because you can go further. As adults, it’s about feeling like a kid again. As adults, when people talk to me about it, they have that feeling, but they have that adult justification, so it’s one of those things where ‘my body feels better, or my work becomes more productive if I go on a bike ride,’ so it’s always that adult justification instead of, you know, ‘I had a lot of fun on my bike today.’ But I think hidden in those justifications is that whee factor.”
His vision for the shop is making it into a hub for the community—more barbershop-style chit chat than Saturday morning lycra- clad shop rides.
“I want it to transcend beyond a bike shop,” he says. “I think we’re becoming a space where people can come without a bike and just talk, and have that neighborhood conversation, you know, guys just sitting there and talking. We want everybody, where it’s one of your community stops. You don’t need a bike. You can just come in and say hi, see your neighbor.”
I was never a big believer in custom bikes, preferring to build up old steel frames I could find on Craigslist and leave the fancy custom stuff to people who had way more money than I did. But I’d wanted to support Gregory and what he was doing, to put my money where my mouth was. In fall 2015, I put down a deposit and Gregory took my measurements to start building a frame. I stopped in to talk to him every few weeks about the tubes, about the welds, the components, the color, and what I wanted to use the bike for—riding around the city, and road and dirt touring. I watched the list of names of people who’d ordered custom frames grow on the wall in the back of the shop, and asked Gregory: When are you going to build yourself another bike? “This summer,” he said.
In March 2016, I rolled my new Chocolate Spokes bike out the front door of the shop and drove it to Utah for a five-day, 300-mile gravel grind tour. I became a believer in the custom frame, elated to have a bike that fit so well, and alternately slightly horrified that its first week in existence was spent hammering down dusty dirt roads and lying down in the sand while we snapped photos of our desert tour.
When I got back to Denver, I stopped into the shop again. Gregory asked me how the bike rode, and I said it was wonderful. “You really have to get yourself one of these Chocolate Spokes bikes,” I told him. “I know a guy who can hook you up.”
As summer turned to fall, Gregory still hadn’t started on his own Chocolate Spokes bike yet. I keep ribbing him to get moving on it, because I love my bike, and it’s such a shame he doesn’t have one of his own. But for now, I just look for his old blue Surly in the rack out front when I ride by so I’ll know whether or not to stop in and say hi.
This feature originally appeared in Bicycle Times #44.