For retired 65-year-old writer Brian Purdy, bikes have become much more than a hobby.
Like many people, he’s been riding bikes since he was a little kid, but it’s only been in the past five years that he’s rekindled his love for bikes. They’ve helped him get through a hard time in his life.
“My marriage broke up and I basically had nothing. I needed to get around and I didn’t have money for the transit, I didn’t have money for smokes, I didn’t have money for anything. The easiest way to get around was a bicycle,” he says.
Necessity inspired adaptability and soon Purdy was smitten with his newfound passion. Local Halifax co-op Bike Again, which runs a build-to-own program on Almon Street, helped him build his first bike: a vintage Raleigh three-speed.
“I got obsessive about it for a while,” says Purdy.
“Some might think I’m still rather obsessive about the history and the technology, but you know if you’re interested in something you just saturate yourself in it and it kind of sticks to you.”
Since then, Purdy’s been buying, collecting and selling bikes. For him, the elegance and simplicity of bicycles — especially the older variety — was what drew him in.
“I love the history, I love the romance, I love the tradition, I love the usability and the practicality, I love that one-third of a horse power will put you up the tallest hill,” says Purdy.
“It’s one-third of a horsepower that a person generates on a bicycle, and look what can be done with it. It’s astonishing.”
Most vintage bikes on the roads today are from the early 1970s. Purdy, like most bicycle enthusiasts, call the years between 1972 and 1974 — the height of bike popularity in North America — the “bike boom.”
Bikes from that time were made with durable steel frames, and that’s why many of them are still roadworthy after hanging in people’s garages for decades. The way these bikes stand the test of time still amazes Purdy.
“I swear, if the end of the world comes what will be left are Raleigh three-speed bikes and cockroaches,” he says.
Bike production has changed since the ’70s and the old steel frames have been phased out in favour of less expensive aluminum for standard commercial bikes and carbon fibre for racing bikes. The only way to get these steel-frame style bikes nowadays is to pay the high price for a new one from a specialty manufacturer or pick one up used. That’s where Purdy’s business comes in and he couldn’t be happier about it.
While he’s been selling bikes for almost as long as he’s been collecting them, Purdy says, in the last year, he’s been getting more attention from Haligonians searching for these vintage bikes. The old bikes from the ’60s and ’70s are back in style in a big way, and to Purdy it’s no surprise.
“They’re cool. It’s cool to reuse things from the past and have something that doesn’t just look like something every Tom and Harry has.”
To use or collect?
It’s not just the durability of the bikes that matters to Purdy, but the uniqueness of them. For Purdy these bikes are personal, and they lend themselves to being fixed up and updated.
“You can customize them and make them feel more like they’re yours,” he says. “There was real craftsmanship back in the day. People really did care.”
Though there are people out there looking for vintage bikes in their original condition, Purdy doesn’t have a problem giving his bikes an update. While some collectors are very concerned with authenticity, Purdy thinks bikes are meant for riding.
“You have to divide cyclists between users and collectors,” he says, “[Collectors] want the bike to be all original.”
“A user won’t think in terms of concessions, but that the modernization of the bike is something they feel is necessary in order to make it as viable as possible.”
Purdy knows this first hand. He’s put lighter wheels on his French 1960s Gitane road bike to make it a smoother ride.
Trying to meet the needs of his customers is important to Purdy, whether they are users or collectors. For Purdy it’s part of the enjoyment, but also a standard he sets for himself.
“You want to give the best bike that you possibly can, you want to give what the customer wants and if the customer is particular you want to meet that,” he says.