LINCOLN PARK — Cycle Smithy has been helping Chicagoans find the perfect bike for 49 years — but the shop will close in September.
Owner Mark Mattei, 71, said it’s time for him to retire. He’ll let the lease run out on the business, 2468 1/2 N. Clark St. In the meantime, everything’s 30 percent off, “and maybe I’ll throw what’s left over in the lake,” Mattei said.
Employees taped up signs this week and did a small chalk drawing of Mattei, his white hair flying in all directions, on the board outside the shop. It’s a relatively quiet end for a shop that’s long been beloved for its vintage bikes — and for pairing Chicago kids with their first bicycles.
“Most people started riding one as a kid,” Mattei said Monday. “You can ride around the block, away from your parents and into a neighborhood you’ve never seen.”
Mattei darted away to grab an inner tube.
“Bikes are freedom. What’s not to love?” he said.
The more than 40 vintage bicycles Mattei displays inside — a history lesson in cycling since the 1800s — are not and have never been for sale.
“I can spend all day talking about how these aren’t crap,” Mattei said. “Every bike has a story.”
Mattei owns a Frejus Italian bike steered by American Jim Murphy in the 1960 Olympics — Murphy’s water bottle still in the center holder.
There’s a tandem racing bike from the late ’60s, chrome–plated and designed by Sante Pogliaghi, an Italian craftsman known for making his own lugs.
Cycle Smithy has a gas-engined bike by Caproni, an Italian manufacturer banned from building fighter planes after aiding Benito Mussolini in World War II.
An American bike from the early ’50s has a bulky green exterior, “ornamented to look like a fantasy kid’s motorcycle,” Mattei said.
Mattei also bought a purple Paramount bike used by Frank Schwinn Sr., a Chicago cycling pioneer who “rebranded biking as adult leisure instead of a laughable child’s toy,” Mattei said. In a car-centric America, Schwinn made the Paramount a hit, “hiring virtually every Hollywood star” from Clark Gable to Bob Hope to give bicycling a more sophisticated look, Mattei said.
By the early ’70s, bicycling was booming among young people, and Mattei was “flunking out of Northwestern,” he said. Starting a bike shop had “a barrier of entry lower than this floor,” and Mattei set up his first spot at 2441 1/2 N. Clark St. in 1973.
Cycle Smithy moved to 2468 1/2 N. Clark St. in 1978 and sold slot car races on its first floor. The shop’s name came from Mattei’s friend, “who got banged up pretty good in ’Nam” but found a fresh start as a blacksmith, he said.
The business grew “with the continual evolution of the product, from mountain bikes with front suspension, with rear suspension, with front and rear suspension and disk brakes; mountain bikes made out of aluminum versus steel, then out of carbon fiber,” Mattei said.
Mattei dashed over to a 1985 Bridgestone Blouson bike by supercar designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, its sleek frame hanging from the ceiling.
In the mid ’80s, the son of a Bridgestone executive from Japan came knocking on Cycle Smithy with bicycles. “His dad wanting him to earn his chops in the real world,” Mattei said.
Mattei flipped through the catalog and asked the well-connected kid if he could hook the shop up with Blousons — a Japanese bike that had not been introduced to the U.S. market, Mattei said.
Mattei had a Bridgestone Blouson in his store’s window when a photographer from Playboy Magazine walked by.
“They were shooting the Christmas issue, which always featured the ‘cool stuff’ a young man about town should buy as their accoutrement,” Mattei said. “Five words in Playboy Magazine changed my life.”
A full-page spread of the store’s window in Playboy — “Bridgestone Blouson, Cycle Smithy, Chicago” — helped Mattei sell out the bikes as the shop took off.
Cycle Smithy set trends for cutting-edge bicycles but never turned away a busted one, said Earl Russell, a repairman who has worked for Mattei for almost 50 years.
“Bikes have kept us busy,” Russell said.
In recent years, there’s been a shift to electric bikes, while technology for manual ones has “calmed down after so many advances,” Mattei said.
Mattei made a beeline to a bike from 1898 with hard rubber tires — and a frame “with the form that you and I still ride today.”
“Bikes will always be an elegant machine. They’re uniquely suited to the energy and geometry of our bodies,” Mattei said. “The length of our legs, arms, torso, the way we bend and flex, the amount of horsepower we put out. The bicycle, in its ultimate form, maximizes our ability to travel.”
Mattei pointed at a biker riding across the street from Cycle Smithy.
“They’re designed to work for us,” Mattei said.
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