One of the first times I visited Chocolate Spokes Bike Studio in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood in 2013, a young man rolled his bicycle in the door of the cramped shop and asked if he could get a flat tire fixed. Gregory Crichlow, the owner of the fledgling bike shop, said yes, and apologized for stepping away from our conversation.
The young man had an ankle monitor on his leg, the ones you get when you’re on house arrest or parole. He said he just needed the tire fixed so he could get to work that morning. Gregory said, “Absolutely, no problem, and whipped through the tire change in about three minutes, with the speed and grace of someone who’s changed a thousand tires.”
“That’ll be $11 including the new tube,” Gregory said.
“Man,” the young guy said, “I only have $6.”
The guy with the ankle monitor is white. Gregory’s African-American. Five Points, where Chocolate Spokes is located, is historically a black and Hispanic neighborhood, once known as “Harlem of the West”—black musicians used to come to Denver and play downtown hotels where they were allowed to perform, but not stay, so they’d stay at the Rossonian Hotel, three blocks away from where Chocolate Spokes now sits, and jam into the night. The shop is next to a liquor store, popular with folks who pass a lot of their daylight hours drinking single cans of malt liquor in public, and, of course, urinating in public, sometimes on the walls of the bike shop.
In Chocolate Spokes’ early days, business was primarily bike maintenance. Gregory wore a bow tie to work and didn’t look down his nose at anyone who came into the 400-square-foot space, treating them the same as the college students he taught architecture to at CU-Denver. He built custom steel frames, but he didn’t consider himself “an artist.” One of those bikes he made for himself and displayed in the front window of the shop until someone stole it while he was helping a customer and had his back turned. “You know what breaks my heart about that,” Gregory told me, “is that someone’s going to get 40 bucks for that bike, and that 40 bucks is going to buy crack.”
But Gregory didn’t give up and close up the shop, and customers of all walks of life came in, including a lady who had a baseball bat strapped to her bike frame (because she had no place to live and needed to use it for protection) and that young man with the ankle monitor who needed to get to work.
This is America—you can definitely say we don’t haggle over prices. When someone says something is eleven dollars, you don’t say how about $5—you give them $11. But the guy didn’t have eleven dollars. He has six bucks in his pocket and a flat tire, and a guy who’s trying to run a business and feed his two kids has just told ankle monitor guy that he needs to have eleven dollars in order to get to work. Right? But Gregory says, “That’s fine, $6 is just fine.”
In my head, I figure Gregory probably paid $4 wholesale for the tube, so he only made $2 on the transaction, and that’s kind of shitty, but I guess some things are worth more. When Gregory had the choice to help out a guy who’d taken a few wrong turns in life and was just trying to take a step in the right direction, he did it for a little less profit.
I went home and told my girlfriend I was going to buy a custom bike from Gregory. I am not a fancy-bike kind of guy, but that guy is a good dude, and I want to support him. Two years later, I had the money to do it, and Gregory started building my bike. I came into the shop, which has now doubled in size, to talk about this thing and that thing, and get measured, and to watch him weld a little bit, and figure out what kind of handlebars I wanted. Gregory and I talked about how the neighborhood was getting gentrified and the good things and the bad things about that.
“I don’t have to ask people to stop peeing on the shop wall anymore,” Gregory said. But of course the liquor store is still in business, and it’s not like they started selling expensive wine instead of those cans of cheap malt liquor.
I know Gregory says he’s not an artist, but I got my bike, and if I do say so myself, it’s a piece of art. So I guess that means the guy who made it, the guy who sketched it out and cut the tubes and welded it together into the right shape and sweated all the details, is an artist. I mean, he didn’t open a bike shop because he loved to change tires, although he does that too, when he’s not hand-building bikes that are works of art.
—Brendan Leonard took his new bike on a 10-day gravel grind through Utah a few days after he bought it at Chocolate Spokes Bike Studio. His latest book, Funny Shit in the Woods and Other Stories, is available at semi-rad.com/book.