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.
John Koutrouba is a “refugee from the corporate world.” Before he became a framebuilder, he managed a company that had grown from 40 to 400 employees. He left that gig, moved to Salt Lake City with his family, and took a long, hard look at himself and what he wanted to do. As he searched for a new job, he asked himself what it is he would do if he could do anything he wanted. He realized that the answer was building bicycles.
“Getting into framebuilding is shockingly easy,” Koutrouba says. “It’s having the conversation with your wife that starts with ‘I’d like to try something a little different this time’ that is hard.” He found a local framebuilder and picked his brain, enrolled in the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) and learned the basics, and now builds bikes with a passion that came across even through email.
“Every bike seems like the result of magic,” he says. “How many people get to go to work and do actual magic every day?”
At Sixth Law Cycles, Koutrouba’s goal is to solve problems for people. “From my perspective, everyone should ride a bike every day,” he states. “However, something keeps most of us from doing that.” He specializes in finding solutions to the common problems and excuses that stop people from cycling, such as fit and sizing, fitness level, or the idea that cycling is too much of a hassle.
“My value is not in creating a thing, but in moving you through the process of figuring out what it is you need, and then providing something that meets that need,” says Koutrouba. He tries to listen closely to his customers, and throws an unexpected, personal touch into every bike. “On my last bike, it was as simple as some really huge, wide handlebars,” he mentions. “When my customer saw the bike, he knew I had been listening.”
It’s this connection that sets Sixth Law apart from mass market companies, and makes small framebuilders like Koutrouba so special.
He mainly builds in steel, because it’s forgiving, easy to work with, and he can fix almost any mistake he makes along the way. If that doesn’t work out, at least steel is cheap, so it is an affordable material for experimentation and trying new things. “And so far at least,” says Koutrouba, “I haven’t run into a problem that I can’t solve with it. I suppose I haven’t run into anyone who doesn’t ride his bike because it isn’t light enough yet.”
I asked him if he has a favorite bike that he’s built, and he told me it’s always his most recent. “The feeling of amazement is always freshest on the last bike out the door. And frankly, I’m getting better with each new bike. My last bike is quite literally the best I’ve ever done at this point.”
This eagerness to learn and grow has allowed Koutrouba to add many new skills to his talent stack along with framebuilding. In addition to bicycles, he also works with people on a variety of different custom fabrication projects, such as outdoor furniture, bike racks, and even a sidecar for a motorized wheelchair to allow an aging dog to cruise around with its owner.
Eventually, his dream is to hire employees and put more people to work building bicycles. While it’s a far-off ambition at the moment, he might be closer than he thinks. While his bikes certainly use plenty of mass-produced parts, he uses local talent whenever possible. His bike for NAHBS, for instance, is a collaboration involving no fewer than six people he knows personally. “I can’t think of anything I own that involves me that deeply in a real community,” he says.
Yeah, bikes tend to do that.
If you’re headed to NAHBS this year, be sure to check out Sixth Law Cycles at the New Builder Table!
By Robert Annis
Veins are popping out of Tim O’Donnell’s forehead, and the dreamy brown eyes that once melted the hearts of many a Cincinnati teenager in his youth now narrow into a frustrated squint. After spending hours trying to wire the two small LED lights into the split top tube of a customer’s city bike, the Shamrock Cycles owner couldn’t take any more. Snatching the light, he angrily winged it toward the wall of his 600-square-foot workshop. But instead of splintering into shards against the wall, O’Donnell heard an unsettling “tink!”.
The bike’s fork, freshly returned from the painter, sat in a vice more than 12 feet away. The tiny LED bulb chipped off a small piece of paint. For the perfectionist O’Donnell, that small flaw might as well as been a flashing neon sign.
It was a one-in-a-million toss, O’Donnell said, laughing about it over a can of Hopslam in that same garage a few hours later. For many bikes, it wouldn’t be a problem, but this bike was earmarked for this year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show, and it needed to be absolutely perfect.
While most NAHBS builders were starting to worry about finishing bikes before the March 10 show start, O’Donnell was in an even bigger pickle. His annual pre-show at Triton Brewing Company in his adopted hometown of Indianapolis was just two weeks away and a full two weeks before NAHBS, meaning he was being squeezed twice as hard. O’Donnell’s normally tidy garage had boxes of components lying around, and the show bikes in various states of completion are scattered throughout. While the last steel tube of this year’s bikes had long since been brazed, O’Donnell was now at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
Luckily some bikes were finished relatively quickly. O’Donnell’s S&S Coupler- and SRAM eTap-equipped travel road bike was wrapped early on, with local artist Kate Oberreich hand-painting paper airplanes over the frame, and Indy painter Rocky Thomas spraying on the clear coat.
Customer Greg Dyas’ stainless steel gravel road bike was the second to be completely finished, and both O’Donnell and Iverson took a few moments afterward to look it over with a sense of well-earned accomplishment. The polished stainless contrasts nicely with the burgundy paint accents, custom leather bar tape and Brooks Cambium saddle. It’s a perfect microcosm of all the things O’Donnell does well and is renowned for in the craft-builder world.
Cooper Ambjorn had been pestering O’Donnell for a glimpse of the gravel road bike she commissioned, so he took photos of the bike under several layers of foam wrapping as a joke. Nearly completed, the bike was just waiting for components, namely the new Rotor hydraulic groupset that was supposed to arrive in January. It was now the middle of February, and still no parts.
The week before the Triton party the parts finally arrived from Spain, allegedly diverted from a European continental team. It was then up to O’Donnell and his trusty lieutenant Fred Iverson to install the groupset. Only there was a problem—neither they nor anyone they knew had ever done it before.
“During the unboxing, there’s this big mass of hoses for the shifter and brakes that’s a bit overwhelming,” Iverson said. “Call it fear of the unknown really. But once we took time to read over the directions and understand what was asked of us we were able to settle down and figure out how this system liked to be installed. SRAM Hyrdro prefers that you set the shifters and then cut out the slack of hose at the caliper; Rotor does the reverse.
“When you install any drivetrain on a custom steel bike, the most difficult part is trying to route it the way I want to. There was a pucker moment with the crank and the internal routing of the rear hose for the shifter. Rotor uses a BB30 spindle coupled with a BSA-threaded Bottom Bracket, and we weren’t sure was it was going to fit with the rear hose. Luckily it all fit with little room to spare.”
It’s believed Ambjorn is the only non-professional rider in the U.S. to have the Rotor drivetrain at the moment.
But it’s the city bike that’s monopolized O’Donnell’s days and haunted his nights, with the builder estimating he’s spent double the time on that bike than any other NAHBS bike this year. The urban camo paint scheme might be a bit of a fright for the traditionalist O’Donnell, but he was proud of the innovation he managed to fit into customer Rob Simon’s 56-cm frame: a Schmidt front hub laced to a H plus Son rim, Shimano Alfine Di2 with custom shifter, a Sinewave Revolution power converter, Antigravity 12v charger pack wired to the LED bullet lights and a USB power port.
“(Simon) asked for a really cool city bike and gave me carte blanche to make it happen,” O’Donnell said. “I did about two months of brainstorming before I even started physical work on the bike. It turned out to be a bit of a beast. Doing all the wiring so that it was both reliable and as discrete as possible forced me to do it over and over again. I had to think five moves ahead of time. Hopefully (Simon) loves it.”
Unlike previous NAHBS when O’Donnell had to invite a significant portion of the contacts from his iPhone, the run-up to this year’s show was significantly more low-key. After installing the Rotor drivetrain and doing a run-through on Simon’s city bike, O’Donnell and Iverson were finished with a week to spare.
The Triton Brewing preview party was a massive hit, with more than 200 of Indianapolis’ most frenzied bike fans ogling his latest bikes and a few favorites from previous shows. As he and his crew packed up the bikes to be prepped for shipping to Salt Lake City, O’Donnell also picked up something else—a deposit check from a new customer.Tweet Print