Ok. It’s time for me to lie down on the psychologist’s couch. Perhaps you can help me untangle the complex and disturbingly powerful emotions I felt when I walked inside Shifter Bikes.
Nostalgia? Regret? Joy? Long forgotten memories brought back to life?
Actually it’s all of these, plus a few more.
Perhaps you should visit Shifter Bikes for yourself and see if it has the same effect. But I suspect that there will be three factors in your life that will influence the degree of impact this shrine to cycling of years past has upon you: your age, how long you’ve been cycling and how heavily you’ve been involved.
My answers to these questions set me up for a triple-strength dose: old, all my life and heavily.
The music doesn’t help either… via an old turntable and stack of 12-inch records, Shifter Bikes’ iconoclastic owner Dan Hale keeps a stream of soulful old jazz and blues tunes filling his workshop-come-shrine to cycling’s lost innocence.
Dan certainly has a well-developed sense of style.
On one hand it feels like you’re walking into an old-time cyclist’s garage, just like some of those I remember as a kid growing up in Adelaide after I started racing at age 10. Some of those guys were heroes to me and were genuine cycling legends. Olympian amateurs and seasoned pros. Racing was a hard man’s, working class sport back in those days.
On the other hand, Shifter Bikes is also an immaculate and busy business premises, where nostalgia does not get in the way of a fully functioning workshop and significant range of items available for sale.
Shifter Bikes is tucked away on a back lane, just a stone’s throw back from the high-rent fashion shop end of Chapel Street, South Yarra, an inner city suburb of Melbourne. I’ve known Dan for at least 20 years since he was an elite rider in the early days of the Australian mountain biking scene. These days his business is more road focused. When I visited Dan was busy, but not rushed. He was happy to talk to me while he built and trued a nice new set of road wheels.
Bicycling Australia: When did you open Shifter Bikes?
Dan Hale: In varying stages of what you would call a traditional shop, but it started in 2003. It sort of started in the back of a regular bike shop just as a work shop only, and then went to an appointment-only studio space after that, and then to what you’d call a street-front shop even though…
BA: Even though there’s no window?
DH: Not really no. I call it a studio space.
BA: Which was the bike shop you were out the back of?
DH: It was Malvern Bicycles Plus and that was at the start of the 2000s.
BA: You go way back before that because you were involved with Spot Bikes.
DH: That was just before that time. I was just doing some importing.
BA: Importing of Spot single speeds?
DH: Yes. There were a few other small niche market things that I did, and I continued that to the end of the 2000s, until it was just not viable any more.
BA: And you were at Groupe Sportif before that?
DH: I was at Groupe Sportif, and I was at Goldcross Cycles and a few other shops before that. I started in 1988 in the bike industry.
BA: 25 years…
DH: It’s a long time.
BA: So here you just do repairs?
DH: Repairs only. I mean I sell workshop consumables but that’s about it. No bikes. I do a lot of wheel building. About 30 per cent wheels, about 30 per cent high end servicing, about 30 per cent vintage builds or restorations and then 10 per cent odds and ends.
BA: Does someone still come in with a kid’s bike or a mum with a pram with a flat tyre?
DH: I don’t get that at all anymore. That was part of making myself a little difficult to find when I went out on my own. I built my customer base early on and tried to explain that the service I offered was a little bit different.
BA: Are you still appointment only?
DH: No, not appointment only but I’ve tried to maintain that… exclusivity is a horrible word… but trying to be the second or third step in someone’s cycling experience. I’m not easy to find really. With social media I am. But I try to offer a service that’s a little bit more personalised, a little bit more experienced, a little bit different to your regular slat wall and plastic pump type of bike shop.
BA: How long have you been collecting this amazing cycling memorabilia?
DH: I guess like anyone that’s into it, slowly and surely over time. If I had kept everything I had when I started, I would be a bit happier. The amount of bikes I’ve bought and sold and wish that I still had. All my race bikes really. My mid-90s mountain bikes I’d love to have again.
BA: What models or brands are you talking there?
DH: What did I have? An American, and some early Giants which I really liked. Fat Chance.
BA: They were big in their day, weren’t they?
DH: Huge. I had a Klein for a little while, that I wished I’d kept.
BA: But it’s pretty much all road bikes here I’m seeing.
DH: Pretty much. I’ve got some clients that have followed me for the past 15 or more years and I still work on mountain bikes for those clients, but I just think that even though that’s my background, there’s enough other people doing it. I’ll let them do it very well and I’ll concentrate on something else. I guess that what I’ve tried to do ever since I opened, was find a point of difference between myself and other stores and try and run with that. Which sort of started in one-speed mountain bikes that evolved into one-speed commuter or fixie, as much as that bothers me to say. Which has then evolved slowly into vintage road and high end road.
BA: It’s just you running the business?
DH: Yes, just me.
BA: No plans to take on another mechanic?
DH: I don’t think so. It’s not how I’ve structured my business to work. I do enjoy what I do, so to come in and potter around with bikes is a nice way to spend the day, particularly when it’s in a space like this that’s open and nice to look at.
BA: Do you get people coming in just to look at the old bikes?
DH: Yes, all the time. Part of what I wanted to achieve when I set up was to find a place that an enthusiast would find interesting. You don’t have to come to buy anything, you can come in every month and everything would be different because the bikes on the walls all belong to customers. It’s like a revolving museum, with the exception of the Merckx titanium. It’s one of Phil Anderson’s bikes.
BA: These old cane rims. I know they’re not really cane but that’s what they used to call them. Are they new replicas or they just old ones in immaculate condition?
DH: They are new replicas, but they’re manufactured by a company called Ghisallo which has been making them since… I don’t know… since they started making them.
BA: It’s an Italian company?
DH: Yes, owned by the same family since they began. There’s actually a photo in the foyer of Ghisallo that I’ve heard about. It’s a photo of all the rims just stuck together like a big pipe on the back of a truck. It’s some phenomenal number of rims. The caption on the photo says ‘Here are 10,000 (or however many) rims, headed for Australia and New Zealand’, which I found quite amazing.
BA: What’s a pair of them cost these days?
DH: I think they’re about $200 or $250 each. I guess it’s like a lot of this throwback stuff—a lovely addition even if it’s not a high performance part by any stretch of the imagination. But a beautiful addition to a city bike with Brooks leather tape, nice mudguards. They are pretty amazing to look at.
BA: Is that ‘Find what you love and let it kill you’ framed plaque above your work bench a motto of yours?
DH: No it’s not actually. That was given to me by a group of friends on my 40th birthday. They understood what it was like to love an industry so much, and maybe be a little bit too emotional about it at times, and for them to watch how it affects a person.
BA: You’re obviously a very tidy person, the place is immaculate.
DH: I think it kinda needs to be. You wouldn’t expect to go into a restaurant and eat there if you could see the kitchen and it was dirty. You wouldn’t walk into a store to buy a new suit if there were wool scraps all over the floor. You just wouldn’t. And I think that a bike shop, particularly what I do, a service based shop, should be exactly the same.
If someone’s got a $15,000 or $20,000 road bike, the last thing they want is to see a 15-year-old kid lean it up against a wheelie bin full of cardboard offcuts. I just think it’s a level of professionalism that you see in every other industry and expect from every other industry but maybe not so much from bike shops.
I could go on a diatribe about how the industry’s changed in the past 20 years but I don’t think I have an answer on how to fix that just yet, only that it’s really scary.