Julie Lorch pedals along with notable members of Philly’s bicycle community on a route of their choice. They ride, they chat, she reports back.
Nice ride!” shouts a dude on a bike. “Awesome!” yells another. In 2010, a high wheel bicycle is a strange sight in Center City. But in 1886, the year that Curtis Anthony’s prized Victor was built, the high wheel represented state-of-the-art bicycle engineering. Many collectors would scoff at riding this valuable antique, just as they would be shocked to know that Anthony actually wears his 1975 Harrogate racing cap instead of, say, keeping it in a glass case. But Anthony believes in riding the bike.
Anthony opened Via Bicycles 29 years ago with a $5,000 loan from his mother, backed by an antique bed for collateral. “I was a bike nut,” admits Anthony. “I thought I knew something about bikes. But as soon as I started the shop, I realized how little I knew.”
Our ride begins at the shop on 9th Street (near South), and cuts a winding route along the Schuylkill River. It’s a breezy Sunday morning. We talk about plans for our summer gardens, and Anthony recounts adorable tales of Curtie, his four-and-a-half year old son: On the way back from John’s Water Ice one night, Curtie rode on Anthony’s shoulders, dripping all over his head.
“I said, ‘Curtie, let’s sit down on a step and enjoy this together,’” recalls Anthony. “So, we’re on the step, and, you know when you put a nut and a bolt together and there’s that round thing with a hole in it?”
“A washer,” I offer.
“Yes. So, he picks one up and goes, ‘Daddy, look—a dryer!’”
I’m smiling as we come up to a short, steep downhill. The high wheel is fixed-gear, and has no breaks. Before I can even imagine how this will work, Anthony whips his right leg around the back of the bicycle, puts his foot on top of the tiny rear wheel and slows the Victor with the rubber sole of his Vans. It is truly a site to behold.
The high wheel continues to forge an effortless path through the crowd. “As soon as I got on it, it was like, ‘That’s beautiful,’” says Anthony of his Victor. “Like when you kiss somebody or give them a hug, and you know it’s awesome—it was like that.” He pauses. “It was an immediate connection.”
At this point, it seems relevant to mention that Curtis Anthony sports one hell of a handlebar mustache. He asks me to compare the curvature of his ’stache with the handlebars of his high wheel. They’re a perfect match.
We cross Falls Bridge and pick up West River Drive, which is closed to traffic today. Almost every cyclist we pass either knows Anthony, has bought a bike from him or stops to ogle the high wheel.
We bump into Joel Flood, another familiar face, near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Flood runs bikeville.com, Via’s blog, and accompanies Anthony to flea markets, swaps and sales to buy vintage inventory for Via. Like Anthony, he’s riding a bicycle that could be sitting in a museum: a 1961 Schwinn Paramount Tourist. “I love my bikes,” says Flood. “I feel it’s perfectly acceptable to ride these awesome bikes around the city. They were intended to be used, not coveted.”
As we ride along, Flood and Anthony point out bikes they’ve sold to customers over the years. It feels like they must be at least partly responsible for the high concentration of beautiful old bicycles in Philadelphia. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the van full,” says Anthony of the scene after the swaps. “We bring back huge loads at least a half-dozen times a year. We usually have 50 to 60 bikes—one time we had 71.” He pauses, thinking about the beloved van. “That almost killed Morrison.”
Flood rides ahead to Rittenhouse to count dogs in the park while we stop to sit in the grass by the river. An 1872 wrench falls out of Anthony’s pocket. “That’s a real wrench from the day of this bike,” he says. We talk about his first shop on Bainbridge, increased business from SEPTA strikes, solid rubber tires and single speeds. “With gas prices being so high a few years ago—plus parking being such a nuisance—people were finding out how easy it is to get around on bicycle,” he says. He also has a suggestion for making bicycling more comfortable in the city: “Surfacing the bike lanes would be a good thing.”
“Riding bikes just makes people happy,” he adds. “It makes them laugh.”
And, like a vintage gentleman, Anthony drops me at my front door on his way back to the shop.
Via Bicycles, a neighborhood bike shop with a vintage bent, is located at 606 S. 9th St. Visit bikeville.com.