Randonneurs Ontario

Mike Barry interviewed by Grant Peterson

Grant Peterson: Well - it feels good to get past that nasty integrated shift issue, and I agree about the spares. Anyway, I'd like to know your thoughts on the American bike industry.

Mike Barry: In many ways it's its own worst enemy. For years it promoted pseudo racing bikes as being ideal for everyone and then moved to the other end of the spectrum with mountain Neither is ideal, but I guess it sells big numbers by creating fashion. It seems to me that if the industry promoted a bike that was light, comfortable, and safe, people would want to be regular cyclists and be inclined to leave the car at home-and in the long term the industry would benefit. They are coming a bit closer now with "comfort bikes" (what an awful name) but why clutter them up with suspension? There are not too many cobbled streets left in North America, so it's unnecessary. It just makes the bike more expensive, heavier, and ugly. In Holland and Japan, where the bike is still considered a legitimate means of transport. they have wonderful city bikes. Although I must admit the popularity of the big heavy Dutch bikes confounds me.

GP: I think the more citified people become, the more macho they buy. Rich people who work in the high-tech industry and whose professional lives are all about silicon chips and spreadsheets - and there's nothing wrong with that, and I appreciate and use the fruits of their labor and wouldn't want to do without 'em-but they tend to buy ultra extreme bikes, and wear ultra extreme clothing, to get a balance in their lives. The bike aids their fantasy, and where's the harm? The practical bike doesn't fill that need as well. The need isn't "safe, comfortable transportation in the down-town sector." So, I can understand it on that level, but I doubt there's a body alive who is any more repelled by their appearances than I am. So, Michael, what styles of bike do you like most?

MB: I don't have a favorite style. I really like fully equipped touring bikes, I love a really well put together road racing bike and I particularly like the older French-style city bikes. I dislike mountain bikes although I'm sure they are fine for what they are intended for. I dislike touring bikes with carriers and no fenders.

GP: Talk about how Mariposa started, and the name "Mariposa," which I think is the best name ever for a bicycle. How did you come up with it? I know it means "butterfly" in Spanish, of course, but I'm always curious how others come up with names.

MB: Well, when John and I were building in the basement, we were looking for a name that sounded European but had Canadian connections. Mariposa fits perfectly as there is a Mariposa county in Ontario and Steven Leacock, the Canadian humorist, wrote many books about a town named Mariposa.

GP: Have you ever built other brands?

MB: We have built a few bikes under the name Alcyon, a name I stole from the French. We used it on a few bikes we built from a mix of Columbus and Reynolds tubes. all good stuff but not complete sets so we didn't think we should put the Mariposa name on them. Now we use the Alcyon name on bikes made for us by other builders.

GP: How many builders has Mariposa had over the years?

MB: I think it is seven. Tom Hinton has been with me now for the last twelve years and does the majority of the building. Krys Hines built a few bikes a year or two ago.

GP: Aren't most Mariposas brevet bikes? And weren't you a founder of a randonneuring club in Canada, at some point? I don't know, I just heard...

MB: Yes, most of the bikes we build are randonneur or touring bikes. I think that is just because we have made a bit of a name for ourselves with the custom carriers. We've built all sorts of bikes over the years. but I like the touring/randonneur bikes, since they're more interesting and more complicated to build.
My ex-partner Mike Brown and I rode the Raid Pyreneen in 1981 and were then looking for a greater challenge. We thought of P-B-P. but to qualify one had to ride a series of Brevets (200, 300.400 and 600 km). There were no brevets organized on this side of Canada so we formed the Toronto Randonneurs and organized them ourselves. The problem was that we engendered so much enthusiasm in our staff at Bicyclesport that they all went to P-B-P and Mike and I had to stay at home to look after the store.

 Mike Brown and Mike Barry
With former business partner Mike Brown, left, just after finishing the Raid Pyreneen, a 444 mile (710km)
ride in France, over 18 mountain passes, and with 49,000 feet of climbing.

GP: When did you stop riding brevets?

MB: A few years ago. Maybe I will get back to it. but it takes a hell of a lot of time. I'm hoping to ride the Raid Pyreneen again next year. Now I usually go out on the Donut Run (A 100km training ride that starts in midtown Toronto at 9 AM every Saturday and Sunday) or for a leisurely ride on the tandem with my wife, Clare. I also ride my cyclo-cross bike in the park most mornings.

GP: Can you be honest?

MB: Sure. I think I usually am.

GP: Well then, I've heard that you're the world's foremost authority on wacky old derailleurs. Do you know anybody who knows more than you do about them?

MB: I don't personally know anyone who knows more about them, but I'm sure there are a good few people that do.

GP: Probably not in Canada, though. What is it about them that you like? Their simplicity?

MB: Yes, I do like the simplicity. It is a very simple mechanism that pushes a chain from one cog to another. Nothing complicated about that, but there have been all sorts of ways to do it. The Vittoria Marguerita of the late thirties was a wonderful example. To change gear the rider had to first move a chain-tensioning lever that was situated just above the chain-wheel. Then, while back pedaling. select one of three sprockets by twisting a knob which was fitted to the end of the chain tensioning lever, and then re-tension the chain before pedaling forward again. This wonderful device was produced in Italy and used by many top Italians. On the other side of the Alps in France they had derailleurs that were similar in operation to those that we have today. The Italians took no notice though and continued on right into the fifties with the Campag Corsa and Paris-Roubaix, both of which change while back pedaling.

The Trivelox was one of the few British derailleurs. The Brits tended to favour hub gears as they were very concerned about the chain always being in line. The Trivelox addressed this by moving the sprockets laterally instead of the chain. It worked very well and had one of the earliest cassette hub/sprocket arrangements. I've got quite a few rusty old derailleurs that one of these days I'd like to display somewhere, although probably few people would be interested. As you can see I could go on and on about this nonsense, but we shouldn't bore your readers.

GP: I think over the last 8 years we've built up their resistance to that, but anyway-function-wise, how do the old derailleurs compare with a modern Shimano? Let's say you were shifting both with friction shifters and using the cogs and chains that worked the best with them. I'm just wondering whether anything can equal or beat a Shimano.

MB: I've already addressed that. The old derailleurs cam't rnatch modern Shimano or Campagnolo, except perhaps the Simplex SLJ 5500. However, it is getting more difficuilt to find friction shifters that will work with the modern derailleurs. I say why bother, get Ergopower or STI.

GP: Any friction shifter will shift any modern derai1leur.

MB: No, there is not enough cable pull on the old friction levers to shift the new derailleurs over eight or nine cogs. One needs the newer larger-barrel levers and they are now almost impossible to get.

GP: That might be so with the old Simplex shifters, which have a 14mm diameter drum, but the Japanese friction shifters have l8mm to 20mm drums, and pull more. I'll send you some Silver shifters. In any case, the issue seems to be the closeness of the cogs, and the closer they cram them together, the better you have to be to shift without over shifting-but it ain't that hard, even with 9-speed. It's way easier with 8-speed, and a cinch with 7/6/5, as you know.

MB: I will give you that it is easier to shift with friction over 5/6/7 cogs but it is a fact of life, that it is now getting almost impossible to get 5/6/7 freewheels or cassettes. Why bother?

GP: Well, my personal "why bother?" point has changed over the years, due to the futility of finding a good supply of 12-28 6-speed freewheels, to name one example. Right now I've given up on 6, but haven't yet given up on 7. I'd love to see Shimano introduce a 6 or 7-speed cassette that fit in the same space as the current 8/9 models The cogs would be further apart, and some good things could happen with it; or it could fit into a smaller space, and wheel dish could be reduced. Either way, it would be good; but it won't happen, because it takes some effort to sell the benefits of fewer gears to a market which is wired to see it as a step backward, like introducing a new and slower computer chip. But a small percentage of riders would recognize the benefits and potential, and even though it won't happen, it would sure be nice it If did. I will donate $1,000 to that fund. The real problem, as I see it, is mostly the perception that friction is for cave men or rebels, and fewer gears is a step in the wrong direction. The reality, at least from my point of view, is that friction ought to be the default for anybody except racers - because it works so well and Is less finicky, and the idea of integrating shifters and brake levers just seems pointless, since braking and shifting are two completely separate operations. You hear the argument that now you can brake and shift at the same time. I can see how, once in a great while that would be beneficial to a racer, but only if other racers are doing it, and then only in a specific instance - like at the bottom of a hill, the road turns sharply and the finishing sprint is a steep uphill. Even then, legs beat shifters. So I still have to wonder what the benefit is, other than convenience for racers and manufacturers.

MB: I agree it is a convenience to racers, but see it as a benefit to all other cyclist. too. But I cannot see the convenience to manufacturers.

GP: Well, in 1987 Shimano and SunTour had big, bulky, 4-finger mountain bike levers, mostly slightly downsized versions of motorcycle brake levers. Dia-Compe had BMX-inspired 2-finger levers, which were smaller and lighter and worked as well. Well, the product managers were spec'ing the Dia-Compe levers on bikes that were otherwise all Shimano or SunTour (mostly Shimano, by that point), and it left Shimano and SunTour with mountains of unsold brake levers. The next year they both introduced integrated shifting in its Rapidfire braker-shifter combos. Integrated shifting didn't come about because riders were complaining about separate thumb-shifters (which still have a following). I suspect it came about largely because Shimano and SunTour knew product managers wouldn't give up indexing to use smaller brake levers. For them, It guaranteed that they'd sell a set of brake levers for every set of shifters, which of course is ideal. I'm not saying it has no benefit to racers, just that Its benefits to non-racers have been oversold.

MB: What you say about Shimano/SunTour may be correct. but I cannot see the analogy to the road bike systems. Before Rapidfire a rider could still change gear without moving his/her hand away from the brake lever. With Rapidfire Shimano just introduced a slightly different system. It did not alter the way in which the rider is able to ride. STI/Ergo enabled the road rider, for the first time ever. to be able to shift gears while out of the saddle with his/her hands in the most efficient position - on the hoods.

GP: You've got a point there, but I'd still like to see options. Anyway, Mike, you've said great things about the Simplex SLJ-500 rear derailleur, and I'm baffled. What's the difference, mechanically, between a Simplex SLJ-5500 and a Campy Nuovo/Super Record-or Gran Sport, for that matter? I always figured that the SLJ was Simplex's attempt to copy Campy, with an identical movement.

MB: The big advantage Simplex had over Campag was the spring in the upper pivot. This, of course, is now universal on all derailleurs, but Simplex had it fifty years ago. It keeps the pulley wheels close to the cogs and makes for much more efficient shifting. Campag stuck with the design that they introduced in 1952 with their Gran Sport model. The Record, Nuovo Record, Super Record and C Record were basically all slight variations of that basic design. However, when the original Gran Sport was introduced chainrings of 52/48T and sprockets of 14-24T were the norm. Because of the relatively close ratios there was not much chain wrap-up required, and the Gran Sport worked well-particularly compared with the other derailleurs of the day which were all of the transverse spring variety and the Campag was a deformable parallelogram. By the early seven-ties everyone was using 52/42 on the front, which required more chain wrap. Simplex had their deformable parallelogram derailleurs well-established and with a spring in the upper pivot they handled the extra chain wrap much better than the Campag. Simplex unfortunately got a bad name for themselves, not because they didn't make a good derailleur but because they made an excellent derailleur out of plastic and it was inexpensive. It was fitted to the majority of the "ten speeds" which were at the forefront of the bike boom of the seventies. Of course the cycling enthusiasts wouldn't buy derailleurs that were made of plastic and wouldn't buy inexpensive ones. The Campag. was very much more expensive and therefore must be better, or so the thinking went, and so the enthusiasts went for Campag. I contend that the Simplex Criterium was a much better derailleur than the Campag, but Campag outsold the Criterium by several hundred to one. Simplex had the bottom-end market sewn up with the Prestige model, though, and Campagnolo's feeble attempt to get into it with their crummy Valentino model wasn't successful. Later on, Simplex introduced the SLJ models, which were the same design as the earlier Prestige and Criterium. but without the plastic. In my opinion the SLJ is probably the best derailleur ever made, but it was introduced too late. Campagnolo had the high end market sewn up and Simplex could not get rid of their cheap derailleur image.

GP: Oh yeah. The spring in the upper pivot. I forgot about that, but I didn't realize it was such a big deal; now I know. Here's another question: If you were leaving on a 5-year ride on paved and unpaved roads and you couldn't replace anything except the normal wearables, which derailleurs would you pick? And shifters?

MB: It is very unlikely that many of us will do that although I'd love the opportunity.

GP: I understand that, but it's an IF question.

MB: Okay, then. If I was going on a trip to areas where I couldn't get spares or couldn't get them sent in, and there aren't too many places left like that, I'd probably choose Simplex SLJ 5500 with the wonderful Simplex retro-friction downtube levers. I have thern on my touring bike now although I should probably change to Ergopower, but the bike was built in 1981 and I don't want to mess with it.

GP: What about the rest of the bike?

MB: I'd use 26" wheels with smooth treaded 1.5" tires. I would of course have mudguards (fenders), front and rear carriers, and generator lighting. Pretty much the touring bike that I have now except that now I have 700C wheels. I think that the 26s would be a bit more durable for such a trip, and it would be easier to get spares.

GP: The look of bikes and parts matters to you, I imagine. Well, I know. What do you like and dislike?

MB: I like bikes to look as if they have been designed as a whole unit, rather than with add-ons. There is nothing worse than a racing bike with a Blackburn rack held on with clips, and mudguards held on with Zip Ties, which I know you like to champion.
I do not like Aheadsets and bolt-on stems. For 100 years we have been able to adjust the handlebar height by simply loosening an expander. tapping it down and setting the height. Now we have to, at best, juggle around with a bunch of spacers or worse get a new stem. It just doesn't make any sense except perhaps when one is trying to get the weight as low as possible. We built one Mariposa with an Ahead, and that was for my daughter-in-law, Dede Demet Barry. We used it so that we could use a carbon fork with a carbon steerer. I must say that it went against the grain. but it did reduce the weight of the bike a fair bit.

GP: That's interesting, but let me defend Zip Ties. I see them as mechanical objects of a clever design and almost unlimited uses. On modern bikes, with modern brakes and dimensions, there are times when Zip Ties make the difference between fenders fitting and fenders not fitting. It's a sidepull world, and when you have short-reach sidepulls, regular fender mounts don't work. You can snip and grind and modify, and if you have no family life and lots of time, you can do a fair job of fitting fenders on some short-reach road bikes, but most of the time they just won't go. Also, for me, there is a perverse (not perverted, just perverse) pleasure in using Zip Ties to fit plastic fenders onto an ultra-expensive road bike that won't take them any other way. It's sort of like putting a pair of cheap sneakers on a high society lady so she can walk through gutter-barf without getting her feet mucked up. Except the Zip Ties are so inconspicuous, at least from 10 feet away. They're cheap problem-solvers. and I'll defend them to my gravel But I know what you mean, of course.. so let's get on. What decade in the past sixty years was the best for bicycle style? And in which country?

MB: I think bike styling was fine until mountain bikes came in and influenced almost everything else. It is a fact that there was a definite geography of bike design. Each country in Europe had a distinct style but most of this distinctiveness is being lost now. The mountain bike rules along with McDonalds.

As far as racing bikes go I would say that the best are the late seventies. early eighties Italian bikes. I don't think there is anything to compare to those except perhaps a Richard Sachs of the same period. Paint, decals, chrome. The Italians seemed to get it all together.

The best touring bikes were definitely the sixties-seventies French bikes. Herse, Singer, Routens were all excellent and I base a lot of what we do with Mariposas on their design.

City bikes, again I give it to the French. When the Brits and almost everyone else were building all heavy steel city bikes the French were building light frames with mostly Dural components. Even the fifties-sixties French department store bikes were very well designed with decent alloy fenders, 650B wheels and built-in generator lighting systems.

The Italians had some very nice ones, too. I have a couple of really nice Olympias from the seventies which are beautifully made. The earlier Brit city bikes were very good but they never did get around to lightening them up. The Raleigh three-speed could have been excellent had they used alloy components. There is no doubt that the quality of the Raleigh really dropped off around 1960 when Tube Investments took them over.

GP: Did the style evolve and then devolve? Talk about things like how styles evolve, and what the influences are. Which countries' styles do you prefer? Characterize styles from the following countries, in five words or less, and just so we don't go on forever, limit it to "city bikes."

MB: I will refer only to "around town" city or commuter bikes, or whatever you want to call them-the bikes that most people should be riding.

England: Heavy. not too innovative after the fifties.
France: Excellent. Light, well designed. Crummy paint.
Italy: very good. Some English influence. Rod brakes, full chain cases, but generally much better built than English.
Germany: Generally heavy Not too well designed.
Holland: Heavy, well built. probably good for the terrain and climate.
N. America: It is difficult to think of a true American bike other than the balloon-tire monsters. They were not really bikes intended for adults but toys for young people to use until they could afford cars. There three-speed Schwinns and the like, but they were based on English design and style and had most of the same deficiencies the Brits had.

GP: How have racing bikes changed over the years, in terrns of style?

MB: Well. I don't think they did change too much until recently when we started getting sloping top tubes, fat aluminum tubes etc. Certainly not aesthetically pleasing. I cannot irnagme that in thirty years people will be collecting sloping-top tube Giants like they are now collecting the Italian bikes from the seventies.

GP: The touring bike seems to be more stylish, and certainly more interesting in many ways than the racing bike.

MB: I'm not sure that I would say "stylish" is the term, but a good touring bike can be more interesting than a racing bike. There are far more opportunities for the builder to show off his ideas. This is also true with the really good city bikes. A city bike should be something that one can commute on, day in, day out, in all weathers. It will have many of the features of the touring bike but without the wide range of gears. I think that hub gears make sense, but unfortunately the ratios on most of the hub gears tend to be too widely spaced.

GP: You must have some strong feelings about the American influence on bike style.

MB: Well. in recent years American influence has meant mountain bikes and as I've already said, I'm not too enthused about them. Why anyone would ride big knobby tires on anything but the muddiest of conditions, I do not know. They just soak up all of one's energy and have no practical value at all for most of the people that ride them. Straight bars are, of course another backward step.

GP: Not many people know this, but you have the distinction of being the guy who.. .how do I put this.. well, the last woman to win a major race on a lugged steel frame did it on a Mariposa. Tell that story...

MB: Alright. My son Michael, who races for US Postal. is married to ex-World Junior Champion and multi-US National Champion Dede Demet. They both rode on the Saturn Team together. Dede retired from racing after the 2000 Worlds to go back to University. She still kept fit by riding in the mountains and running and skiing. She even rode a few races in 2001 and rarely finishing out of the top three, despite taking a heavy schedule of courses. Michael was to be riding the US Pro Championships in Philadelphia in June, and Dede thought she'd like to race in the women's event. But she had to be on a UCI team, so she shopped around and Team Talgo offered her a spot. They asked her to ride the World Cup race in Montreal on the weekend before Philly. She had already asked us to build her a bike and now the pressure was on to get it ready for Montreal. Tom did a great job and she picked up the bike a few days before the World Cup. The bike turned a few heads before the race but attracted a lot more attention after she came across the line alone to take the win. I'm sure that it was probably the only steel bike in the race and certainly the only lugged steel bike. We got quite a bit of publicity from it. TV commentator Curt Harnet gave us a wonderful plug on national television.

 Mike Barry in 2003
Mike Barry in 2003.

GP: You like lugs. What is it about them that you like?

MB: Aesthetically they are so much more pleasing than tig welding. I also like bronze welded bikes for their very clean appearance. but overall I think lugged bikes look the best. I don't think they will make the bike any faster, or be stronger, or go up hills easier but as we know there is much more to a good bike than a bunch of pipes welded together.

GP: I think a lugged joint is stronger, and there's lots of evidence to make that case, but well-made frames these days don't tend to break at the joints, anyway (and poorly designed lugs on badly built frames is not a good combination, either. Anyway, it's hard to find lugged frames these days. But Marinoni, in Canada, still makes a lot of them, don't they?

MB: Until this year Marinoni were still making lugged frames but now they have dropped them completely. Last year they built a batch of lugged cyclo-cross Alcyons for us, but refused to do it this year. They told me a lugged frame just takes too long to build compared to a tig frame, and they have so much work building their own tig steel and aluminum frames, that they were not willing to spare the time for us.

GP: Sorry to hear it, Mike, but it's happening all over like that these days. What do you think is the future of bicycle frames? Will lugs completely die off?

MB: Lugs will almost certainly disappear completely from production bikes. It is only guys like you and me that will persevere with them. There will always be a demand from the real enthusiasts, but the demand decreases every' year. Fortunately there are far fewer guys building with lugs so we are kept busy and will continue to be, I think, for the foreseeable future.

GP: What do you think the bike of 2010 will look like?

MB: Well, 2010. that's only eight years away. I think 99% will be aluminum and made in the Orient. The traditional spoked wheel will have been almost completely replaced by odd spoke patterns that go way out of true if a spoke should break. I think the MTB will have had its day. I think that people are at last beginning to realize that it is not ideal for the use most people put it to. I'm sure that some marketing whiz will come up with some equally inappropriate bike. I hope that the recent fad for suspension is gone and I the think that it will be.

GP: Talk about your business, Bicycle Specialties. Is it a retail store or a manufacturing business, or both? How did you start it, and all that?

MB: In 1972 1 started a shop in downtown Toronto called Bicyclesport. My original partner in Mariposa, John Palmer, wasn't interested in the new venture, but another ex-Brit. bike racer, Mike Brown joined me in partnership. Bicyclesport flourished in the bike boom of the seventies and although I say it myself, I think it was one of the best bike shops to be found anywhere. We moved to larger premises in 1980 and this turned out to be our downfall. The whole operation just got too big with fourteen employees at the peak. Mike Brown quit and went back to England in 1985 and in 1989 I pulled the plug. I started Bicycle Specialties the next year with the resolve not to allow it to become too big. The most employees that we have had since is three. My original intention was to build Mariposas and sell oddball parts, but we did get almost back into a regular bike shop for a few years. We closed the retail shop last year and now work out of an industrial unit. The internet has opened up a whole new market and keeps me too busy. It doesn't leave enough time to work on the Mariposas so we may have to get another person. At the moment it is just Tom and me.

GP: Well, Michael, thank you for taking the time for this interview, and for being a strong and positive influence on me personally, and on Rivemdell. It's easier to dig in your heels when you know other people who smarter have done it before, and are still doing it.

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