Mike and Michael Barry live and ride bikes in Toronto, Ontario. They also work side-by-side at Bicycle Specialties at 45 Cranfield Road, a short bicycle ride from the neighborhood they share across town. Mike is in his mid 70s; Michael is nearing 40. Both have made a living with bicycles, but have taken a different path: Mike owned and ran Bicycle Sport/Bicycle Specialties and Mariposa Bicycles from 1969 to 2007, while Michael raced professionally, representing Canada at several world championships and Olympics and racing the three Grand Tours of Spain, Italy and France before retiring in late 2012.
Michael Barry is a published author, and upon retirement wrote his autobiography. His plan was to learn the framebuilding craft from his father, then enjoy some adventures before writing a book about the experience. What he found was a love for using a torch, so the Barrys decided in early 2014 to resurrect Mariposa Bicycles, this time with Michael doing the building under the watchful eye of his dad.
Boulanger: Mike, you’ve told me the story of how Mariposa first started in 1969 and was shelved in 2007. Please tell me how the idea of Mariposa’s commercial return came about.
Mike: Michael was interested in building one bike and using it on some adventurous ride and writing a book about the whole process. But he came to the shop, started building his frame, and realized that he enjoyed the work and felt that he wanted to carry on building frames. It was a big surprise to me because I didn’t expect it at all; Michael has always had someone else look after his bikes. He never impressed me much as a mechanic! But he really seemed to enjoy the framebuilding process and he took to it really well, and quickly. He’s doing a good job.
So I thought ‘why don’t we start building Mariposas again?’ His wife Dede got involved and we have a terrific advantage having her tend to the business side. With the two of them things should work out.
Tom Hilton (pictured above), who worked alongside me from 1991 to 2007, has returned to work with us again. He was building kitchen cabinets after I closed shop in 2007, and I gave him a call about working for Mariposa a second time. At first he said he wasn’t interested, then it became ‘maybe I’ll help out just on Saturdays’, and it evolved into ‘I’d like to come back full time.’ It’s a terrific advantage having Tom around. He’s an excellent worker and frame builder, so everything’s falling together nicely.
Michael: Tom always took notes about frame geometry, braze-on placement, etc., so when he came back to work with us he still had all his notes. It didn’t take him long to get back to where he was after leaving in 2007. It’s been a big advantage having both Tom and my dad around to correct my mistakes and guide me along. It’s also been a great learning experience.
Boulanger: How many Mariposas were built originally between 1969 and 2007?
Mike: Somewhere between a 1,000 and 1,500; not many if you consider the number of years we were originally in business.
Michael: Because there were three or four frame builders over the years, they also used different serial numbers and didn’t keep proper records like Tom. His predecessor Kerry Mews was building about one bike a week, but tandems would take longer. This was between the late `70s to 1990. We’re trying to create a proper registry; people come in with old Mariposas purchased on eBay or craigslist. It’s neat to see them come back for reconditioning. Some are in immaculate condition while others had reflectors and kickstands added! We’ve built 22 bikes in the last few months.
Boulanger: Tell me about your vision for Mariposa.
Michael: During my professional racing career I always wanted to come back and build one frame for myself, kind of a Barry family heritage. I helped my dad build my first frame when I was 11, coming into the shop after school. I rode that bike back and forth to school for several years—a fixed-gear with mudguards and generator lights—while my classmates were riding BMX bikes. As I progressed with racing I spent less time in the shop. I’d come in and have tea with my dad and always came in to visit but never actually work on bikes.
I always wanted to learn more from my dad about his antique bikes, their history and his business; he has an incredible amount of knowledge. What started as a one-bike dream evolved into something else: the first bike I built was for my son Liam in February 2014. From there I built bikes for other people—friends and neighbors— and didn’t build my own until midway through the year. During the process I realized how much I enjoyed it, thinking about it at night and being excited about getting back into the shop the next day. The days passed quickly, and I needed something creative to immerse myself into. There’s a certain rhythm to the work that I enjoyed and the bikes I built were appreciated and well used. It’s very gratifying.
I’ve been back in Toronto nearly two years, and I’ve finally come to truly appreciate what my dad and his business partners over the years created with Mariposa. It would be a shame to let it fade away, so we began looking at what it would take to get the business going again. It seems Mariposa’s reputation in Canada grew even after my dad retired in 2007, so we started having discussions. It was important for me to learn from him to keep the knowledge alive and share it with other people.
Boulanger: How do you compete for customers now that carbon fiber is so accepted and pervasive in the minds of consumers?
Michael: Our customers appreciate steel bikes and how they ride, and aren’t interested in mass-produced carbon bikes. Completely different mindset. I rode my new Mariposa for a cyclotourist charity event in the Pyrenees; it handled well and it was comfortable to ride. I hadn’t ridden a steel race bike in 15 years, and it’s quite light! I’d like compare Mariposa to a fine Swiss watch that you’ll enjoy for years, maybe even pass down to a family member. My son Ashlin is riding the bike my father built for me when I was five years old. I bet 10 or so kids have ridden it in between, so there’s something unique about steel that it can be passed along. My dad is still riding the Mariposa be built for himself in 1980. He rides it a couple times a week.
The randonneur bikes my dad and his employees built came with all the integrated carriers and mudguards, all very seamless. Well put together. You just don’t see unique randonneur and city bikes made from carbon. My dad has always prided himself on designing and building bikes for function, where all the pieces are designed to be on the bike, nice and tight, no rattling.
Mike: We’re in the midst of building a camping bike right now, lightweight but heavy-duty carriers front and rear, with all the necessary braze-ons. It will be quite impressive when it’s finished.
Michael: We bend all the tubing to fit each carrier because of the different geometry. Same with the mudguard stays: all the fittings are machined on our lathe, and the stays are chromed and bent to fit each wheel size and frame. It’s interesting to see some of these bikes come back after decades of use because people enjoy riding and hold on to something they like. Dede and I have Mariposa city bikes that are 12 years or so and despite neglect they still run well.
Boulanger: Some have said that if steel was invented today it would be hailed as the most exotic material ever. Do you agree?
Mike: I think so yes; the major advantage of steel is the ability to make almost anything relatively easily. It’s relatively light: we built a road bike recently that weighed 17 pounds. Steel is far more adaptable for bike building than aluminum or carbon.
And steel is repairable; one can also replace dropouts or top and down tubes.
Boulanger: What steel tubing are you using now?
Mike: Most of the old stock we have is a bit heavier and undersized for our needs, especially road bikes. We use lighter Columbus Spirit and True Temper tubing for that. We still have plenty of Columbus SL tubing for touring, city and randonneuring bikes. We also use different lugs and bottom bracket shells for the lightweights.
Michael: We can build a light, strong, nimble road bike with all the Shimano Di2 fixings that weighs under 17 pounds with lightweight wheels and stock components, like the large road bike I built for myself. We’re building a super lightweight racing bike for a customer now, and it will be interesting to see where we go.
Boulanger: If a customer contacts you today, when would they expect to take delivery of their Mariposa?
Mike: Three months or so. Most of our sales are complete bikes. To avoid a bike that looks like a dog’s breakfast we prefer to design and build a complete bike for customers than merely sell a frame and fork. Especially randonneuring and touring bikes. Based on my experience it’s better if we handle all the details start to finish to get it right and looking right.
Boulanger: According to my research, the last retired pro in modern times who became a framebuilder was Chris Huber. But I can’t recall one who rode in all three grand Tours. Michael, you’re in a small fraternity.
Michael: Framebuilding is something I watched and discussed with my dad at the dinner table, then and now. My mom would often fall asleep listening to us! A lot of the fundamentals of bike building were already there in my head, so I just needed to learn how to use my hands. I’ve been coming into the shop five or six days a week, working alongside Tom and my dad. They make difficult tasks look easy.
I know my dad had many sleepless nights when he had a problem to solve with a certain bike over the years, whether it was how to make something look better on a bike or a technical issue (he still does), now I’m waking up at three in the morning with similar challenges! This is what it’s like to be fully immersed in the process, I guess. Because I’ve been enjoying this it’s helped me take on new tasks and skills a lot quicker than normal.
Mike: Most pros stop riding bikes after they retire, and many lose interest altogether. Michael has a real love for cycling, riding dirt roads and possessing a keen interest in bikes themselves. I think he’s unique.
Michael: I sat down this past spring and recorded conversations with my dad as we were building a bike together, with the idea of writing a book about it. Our careers were entirely different up until that point: even though we both made a living with bikes, he spent his in a workshop, and mine was on the bike racing. Even though I never touched a derailleur. Coming back to Toronto and to Mariposa specifically brings it all together. It’s like coming full circle.
Through those taped conversations I also realized how rich his story is and how fascinating his life has been, bringing a cycling culture to Canada from Great Britain.
Mike: I guess in some ways I was fortunate to live through many bicycle booms and crashes, first in London after World War II because no one had cars and rode bicycles, then in the early 1970s when there was an oil embargo in North America, spurring another bike boom.
Now we’re seeing another bicycle boom evolve over the last few years. I hope I’ve learned something from each of these bike booms!
Michael: I did several charity events and local community rides this year, and I’ve noticed a sea of black carbon fiber. A colorful steel bike always stands out! Our customers like to have choices, especially paint. The process takes a while: customers want photos of the build and assembling, but it makes it that much more special. Any of us could walk into a bike shop and plunk down thousands for a carbon bike and walk out that day. Some people want their own bike, and out customers appreciate that.
Boulanger: When I spent time with both of you in June 2013, there was plenty discussion about the youth bicycle racing scene in Toronto when Michael was a boy. What’s that status today, and do you have plans to get involved?
Michael: Toronto is a different city compared to when I was a kid 30 years ago. My dad used to run races in the parks and we’d race in the streets; now there’s too much traffic for either. We’re organizing grass track racing, like I used to do. We ran a test event earlier in the year, but the main issue is finding park space to use.
Even though Toronto has plenty of green space and parks they’re typically booked. We’re working hard on it now. For me it’s an important way of teaching young kids how to ride bikes properly, a skill many kids around here don’t learn until they’re much older if at all. We want to teach them confidence to ride in traffic and in general. Young riders became more aware of cyclists when they become young motorists.
I’m also involved with my boys’ school to get kids riding on indoor trainers, 30 minutes or so, which is good for all of us. It would also be nice to get kids riding at the new velodrome opening nearby in January.
Mike: Thirty-year-old Mariposa 24-inch-wheeled track bikes are still being ridden by kids in the London, Ontario velodrome. They probably need a paint job!
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