Pour one out for Cycle Smithy, which helped create new Chicago bike commuters

Owner Mark Matthei locks the doors of Cycle Smithy for the last time. Photo: AJ LaTrace
Owner Mark Matthei locks the doors of Cycle Smithy for the last time. Photo: AJ LaTrace

AJ LaTrace is a former Cycle Smithy employee.

When Mark Mattei locked the door to his store Cycle Smithy at 2468½ N. Clark Street for the last time on the evening of September 10th, it was the final bookend of a 49-year run as the owner of a beloved local bike shop. Mattei, now in his seventies, once built custom frames and had an impressive collection of classic bicycles built throughout the last century hanging up around the shop. 

And while countless bikes have been sold out of the shop over the decades, Cycle Smithy was also a hub for bicycle culture and community in the city. It was the kind of place where anyone could walk into and then walk out of as a true believer in the many benefits of bicycling as a method of transportation. 

A thank-you note to Mark Matthei from a customer.
A thank-you note to Mark Matthei from a customer.

I purchased my first “real” road bike at Cycle Smithy towards the end of summer in 2005. It was a red Cannondale R500 that I paid about $650 for. Previously, I had been riding a way-too-small Schwinn road bike from the ’80s, which I picked up at a used bike swap in Arlington Heights a year or two prior. 

But beyond simply upgrading to a nicer, newer bike, going to a proper local bike shop was a new experience for me. Unlike at a typical big box store, the salesperson at a good independent bicycle store asks what kind of riding you’re interested in, what you need the bike to do, and most importantly, has expertise in helping you find the size of frame that fits you best. Going from an old hand-me-down to a bicycle that was more appropriate for my 6’1″ height and needs not only made riding more comfortable, but it helped me build up the confidence to become a full-time bicycle commuter (yes, including the winters) for the following years. 

In the summer of 2008, I started as a salesperson at Cycle Smithy and became proficient at helping customers explore the dozens of options we had and to find the right bike to fit their needs. While we did carry high-end, custom bikes and lightweight racers, I interacted much more frequently with people looking for something just to get started with and get comfortable riding a bike again. We worked with a lot of people who were looking for their first “real” adult bike, just as I was just a few years prior. 

The author gives a video tour of Cycle Smithy in the early 2000s

Local bike shops and their surrounding communities have a symbiotic relationship, as many small businesses do, that is built on trust and a reputation for quality service. Cycle Smithy didn’t stay in business for 50 years because of Mark constantly making shrewd business decisions that boosted the store’s bottom line. In fact, employees often felt he took business risks that other store owners or consultants wouldn’t consider. But the shop earned its legacy and longevity through the relationships built with customers, and for fostering a sense of community in the broader cycling scene in Chicago.  

There were many instances when someone would walk into the shop and talk to me or another salesperson about their desire to either learn how to ride a bike again or to take their cycling up a level and start commuting to work by bike, but they were struggling to overcome a very acute fear of being hurt from falling or being hit by a passing driver. It’s a real issue, and one that I always took seriously when working with a new customer. Sadly, it seemed that the fear of being injured or killed by a reckless motorist was one of the biggest barriers to entry for bicycling in Chicago.

According to a 2012 report from the Chicago Department of Transportation, 32 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles between 2005 and 2010 — the period that I worked at bike shops and was a full-time bike commuter. Between 2012 and 2016, the city witnessed an average of 5.8 on-street bike fatalities per year. This year, 8 bicyclists and 23 pedestrians have been killed while navigating Chicago streets, as shown in the map below. 

Chicago’s local bike shops are not only a place to buy a new bicycle, but they’re also places where people can take their bikes for service and to ensure the safe working condition of their bicycle. Some stores also offer workshops or events where customers can learn basics like changing a flat tire or making fit adjustments. It’s all of these services — and dedication to promoting cycling as a means of transportation — that helps people learn new skills and build confidence. 

But we also liked to have fun, as well. In 2008, Cycle Smithy sponsored the then-new Bicycle Film Festival that was held at Columbia College. While the festival was essentially an event for the scene to celebrate itself, it was also an opportunity to share video footage and images of what life was like for bike couriers and others who rely on cycling for their livelihood to a larger audience.

In the following years, Cycle Smithy also got involved with the Bike-to-Work Week effort by offering hot coffee and encouragement to morning commuters heading downtown. Eventually shop employees formed their own road racing and cyclocross racing team and become even more entrenched in the larger Chicago cycling scene.

When a beloved local bike shop closes, it’s not just the loss of another small business — it leaves a hole in the heart and soul of a regional bicycling community. And it’s not just the loss of economic output or wages. When a bike store closes for good, so goes all of the services and encouragement it offered to everyone from new riders to seasoned cycling pros. 

A final gathering of ex-Cycle Smithy employees at the shop two weekends ago. Photo: AJ LaTrace
A final gathering of ex-Cycle Smithy employees at the shop two weekends ago. Photo: AJ LaTrace

I met with Mark and a couple dozen other former shop employees two weekends ago to say a final goodbye to the shop and to share memories over dinner. It was certainly a bittersweet moment, especially for those of us who worked there at a very formative time in our lives. But the legacy of the shop will continue through the bonds and friendships that were formed there, as well as through the thousands of bikes purchased at the store that  are still being ridden on the streets of Chicago.

Listen to former Cycle Smithy employees Daniel McMahon and Joe Gaspar discuss the shop on the podcast Bike Shop Society.

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