Chalet stopped by Nomad Cycle in Long Island City, Queens for a very chalet conversation with with Damon Strub. Damon’s a modern day scholar of cities and bicycles so conversation went in many directions, from urban cycling’s slow mainstreaming, to architectural curiosities of New York, and the coming apocalypse….
We get the sense that you’re as keen on building a community here as you are bikes themselves. Can you define precisely the community you want to create here at Nomad?
Well I thought to start my own religious cult based on bicycles, desert and free love, and create a compound out in Bushwick somewhere. UFOs would be integral to the myth of course.
Until then, I see the shop serving as the neighborhood bar or the beer garden served in previous generations – the community living room. I think many people long for community more than anything. Maybe community is the wrong word here – “community” implies both insiders and outsiders. I would hope that the shop can transcend becoming just the clubhouse for a particular clique of cyclist but can be a place where all sorts of cyclist and proto cyclist feel welcome and where they can cross pollinate.
Naive probably, but can’t hurt to try.
And the role of Nomad outside the cycling community itself?
I notice that in most great bicycling cities, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, even Portland, there is not so much a “cycling community” distinct from the non-cycling masses, but cycling is an integral part of the entire community – it’s what normal people do. I hope to see bicycles shaping our urban infrastructure, and cycling enmeshed in our urban culture the way cars have been for the past eighty years. So, how do we push cycling to the point that it is not something “they” do – but something we all do? I think for one, we want to promote cycling as more than just a sport or a mode of transportation, it can be an integral part of an “urban” or “urbane” culture. Towards that end, we hope Nomad can be a space that can also promote other activities; say art events, musical performances, home brew tastes offs, meals. Who knows what else.
Also, I very much enjoy serving up that first cup of Kool aid. I know many people find cycling intriguing in concept but feel too intimidated to try it. I hope that Nomad can increase the number of and broaden the range of cyclists by being welcoming and encouraging to everyone no matter how new to cycling or how unconventional in their style.
We’re here in Long Island City, Queens, tell us, who, is the Long Island City cyclist?
His name is Ernie, I think. Seriously though, I’ve discovered that there are many more cyclist here in Queens than I had assumed, and they are very diverse in terms of who they are and the cycling they do. There are a lot of young, more or less affluent racers and recreational riders and, of course, the ubiquitous fixie crowd. But I’ve been struck by the number of hard-core commuters here, 365 day a year riders, yellow rain gear and all. You see them by the hundreds schlepping across the Queensborough Bridge every morning. All ages, ethnicity and sizes.
I’m guessing you were one of those commuting across the Queensborough in your previous life as an architect... What was the precise impetus for your transition to bike shop owner?
Well I’ve worked on bicycles and motorcycles since I was a kid. And for the past many years the shop and architect office were side by side; I’d sit staring at the computer screen 60 hours a week pining away to be over there working in the shop. After thirty plus years, the architecture had become a real grind. Although I dreamed of doing something related to bicycles, I had not at first considered running a bike shop; most of those I was familiar with did not seem like that much fun. However, two events inspired me. First, I met Joe Nocella, the owner of 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn. He quit a career in architecture to pursue his passion in bicycles – He has a great shop and seems to be very successful. I figured if he could do it, so could I. Second I discovered Look Mom no hands, a bike shop and café in London. What they said about what they were up to – building community etc. resonated with me. I knew right away that was the type of shop I wanted to create.
How does the creative process of bike building/maintenance differ to that of an architect? Seems like there is at least a little more freedom and autonomy in your current profession?
It’s not that I have a Howard Roark-like master vision. Collaborating and figuring out the client’s needs is part of the pleasure of design – both for buildings and for bikes. But part of the problem of architecture was that the projects required input from dozens of collaborators, many of whom, were not on the same page about the goals of the work. Everyone had their own agenda – usually that interfered with the quality of the work; government bureaucrats creating needless paperwork, contractors cutting corners, etc. I spent far more time herding the cats than designing anything.
You’ve been here in NYC for a while. How have you seen cycling culture change over that time?
I remember riding over the Williamsburg bridge back say 15 years ago and not seeing another cyclist. Now it’s a traffic jam in the morning. That’s fantastic. Cycling has certainly become part of the public discourse in NYC (and apparently in many other cities.) Right now it’s at the point cars were in say 1903, put up with but still more or less frowned upon by the masses, stirring up a lot of animosity, police harassment, etc. – but that will change with time.
What else is changing?
I find that transportation modes and the character of the built environment are intertwined. The transportation mode drives the shape of the built environment; the endless sprawl and bland mindlessness of suburbia are a result of and integral to the automobile and the auto-based world view of the 1950s – and took over 70 years to create. So far, the bicycle infrastructure we see is just a thin shellacking over an infrastructure and world view that is still completely based on automobiles; a stripe here, a sharrow there.
But it’s a start. What I find more encouraging is that more and more the high rise urban luxury apartment is becoming the split level ranch of our era, the “urban lifestyle” is in, not just in New York, even Paducah has urban lofts and bike lanes. This is good. I find dense urban living better for many reasons. I think the days of the automobile are numbered – and bicycles are perhaps the best alternative for the dense urban future – aside from walking.
So what do the next few decades look like?
Well my wife assures me that the end is nigh, the fall of western civilization is imminent; global warming, etc. I hope so. What we built for ourselves now pretty much sucks. A little turmoil and anarchy should be a lot more fun. I’m starting to stockpile bikes. So after the fall, when internal combustion devices are rendered useless, I’ll have the transportation market cornered – and become filthy rich.
What are your favorite buildings within cycling distance of this city?
My favorite building in New York was Broken Angel on Downing Street in Brooklyn. It was a life-long project of artist Arthur Wood – and fantastically creative. The city harassed him constantly. Early on, they said he could not occupy the building since its fire exits did not meet code. So fine, he just removed all the floors – it was a big open space, six stories tall inside. A fire several years ago pretty much ruined it.
Of the capital A architecture projects, I’d say the Lever House. It was designed by SOM and built in 1952, the first international style high rise in the US. It’s a masterpiece of modernism –it spells out the entire story of modern aesthetics, far better than all the millions of “modern” towers that followed.
What is your ideal bike?
I dream of one bike that can do it all. That is, perform perfectly for every type of riding I can think to do – from fast road riding to single track to touring. And it has to look kick-ass while doing so. Of the dozen or so bikes I currently own, the one that comes closest is a cyclocross bike custom built by Brooklyn framebuilder Jim Nachlin. It is lugged steel, has conservative road bike geometry, a nice soft ride and fits like a glove. I can even fit it out with pannier rack and go touring if need be. The Campy record groupset is bullet proof. And it looks great; nothing gratuitous – every detail is purposeful; one color and no flashy decals or decoratively embellishments.
As a trained architect, is there a part for a bicycle you find the most pleasing aesthetically?
No – I tend to want the parts to add up to an integrated whole. And that whole have a consistent statement of what it is. But then again, god is in the details. At first glance, that De Rosa might not seem that much different than a Schwinn Varsity. But on further inspection you can see the care and creativity that went into every bit, from the hand filed lugs to the beautifully forged Campy crankset. It was not just another dumb commodity but made by people who care and who strive for greatness - and it shows.
Also, I’m stuck in that outdated preference of functional aesthetics – the look of the bike should symbolize its functional efficiency – nothing gratuitous. The traditional steel triangulated frame is a perfect example – refined to the essence of the task at hand – and beautiful as a result. Some monocoque carbon frames achieve the same beauty, the flowing curvaceous form expressing how the material transfers that load.
Oh, and top tubes should always be horizontal.
What is your favorite ride - where does it go, what does it pass?
We often ride up around New Paltz. My rides up there often include heading up Gilford road, then highway 44 to Minnewaska state park. It’s a good 3 mile climb. Then, a three mile gravel path through the park to Lake Awosting – beautiful and usually deserted. Take a nice swim, then it’s a three mile descent back down to Gardiner for dinner – a perfect day.
Your favorite street to ride down in Manhattan, Brooklyn & Queens. Why?
I like discovering unloved streets off the beaten path, Review and Rust in Maspeth, Queens for example, so ugly they are beautiful.
Ideally, what do you eat and drink at the end of a ride?
Well depends on the time of year. In the summer, it’s hard to beat a big slice of watermelon – wash that down with an icy cold beer and you are all set.
If you could ride one place in the world, where would that be?
Well it’s hard to narrow it down to one place. High on my list is to ride and eat and drink my way across France – do one of the traditional diagonal routes – and aim for a great restaurant every night – spend maybe a month doing that. Guess I’m more interested in traveling amongst people and cities than schlepping through the wilderness.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?I’ll be that old crank in soiled clothes sitting on a stool in the corner of the shop ranting and holding forth about the good old days. The new shop management will just say “oh don’t mind him, he’s harmless” and “he actually used to be a pretty good mechanic back in the days
A little turmoil and anarchy should be a lot more fun. I’m starting to stockpile bikes. So after the fall, when internal combustion devices are rendered useless, I’ll have the transportation market cornered – and become filthy rich.