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 was 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% off, “and maybe I’ll throw what’s left in the lake,” said Mattei.
Employees taped up signs this week and made a small chalk drawing of Mattei, his white hair flying in all directions, on the board outside the store. It’s a relatively quiet ending for a store that has long been beloved for its vintage bikes — and for pairing Chicago kids with their first bikes.
“Most people started making one when they were kids,” Mattei said Monday. “You can walk around the block, away from your parents and into a neighborhood you’ve never seen.”
Mattei rushed to grab an inner tube.
“Bicycles are freedom. What’s not to like?” he said.
The more than 40 vintage bikes that Mattei displays inside—a lesson in cycling history since the 1800s—are not and never have been for sale.
“I can go all day saying this ain’t shit,” Mattei said. “Every bike has a story.”
Mattei owns an Italian Frejus bicycle raced by American Jim Murphy in the 1960 Olympics – Murphy’s water bottle still in the center rack.
There’s a late-’60s tandem race bike, chrome-plated and designed by Sante Pogliaghi, an Italian craftsman known for making his own lugs.
Cycle Smithy has a gas-powered bicycle from Caproni, an Italian manufacturer banned from building fighter jets after helping Benito Mussolini during World War II.
An early ’50s American bike has a chunky green exterior, “adorned to look like a fantastic kid’s motorcycle,” Mattei said.
Mattei also bought a purple Paramount bicycle used by Frank Schwinn Sr., a Chicago cycling pioneer who “rebranded the bike as an adult hobby instead of a laughable kid’s toy,” Mattei said. In a car-centric America, Schwinn made the Paramount a hit, “engaging virtually every Hollywood star,” from Clark Gable to Bob Hope, to give the bike a more sophisticated look, Mattei said.
In the early ’70s, cycling was booming among young people, and Mattei was “running away from Northwestern”, he said. The bike shop startup had “a lower entry gate on 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 racing on the first floor. The shop’s name comes from Mattei’s friend, “who got screwed well in ‘Nam” but found a fresh start as a blacksmith, he said.
The business grew “with the continued evolution of the product, from mountain bikes with front suspension, rear suspension, front and rear suspension and disc brakes; aluminum mountain bikes instead of steel, then carbon fiber,” Mattei said.
Mattei rushed to a 1985 Bridgestone Blouson bicycle 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 at Cycle Smithy with bikes. “His father wanted him to make a living in the real world,” Mattei said.
Mattei flipped through the catalog and asked the well-connected kid if he could hook up the shop with Jackets — a Japanese bike that hadn’t been introduced to the US market, Mattei said.
Mattei had a Bridgestone jacket in his store window when a photographer from Playboy Magazine walked by.
“They were shooting the Christmas issue, which always featured the ‘cool stuff’ a young man in town should buy as gear,” Mattei said. “Five words in Playboy Magazine changed my life.”
A full page of the store’s window display in Playboy—”Bridgestone Blouson, Cycle Smithy, Chicago”—helped Mattei sell the bikes when the store took off.
Cycle Smithy set trends for cutting-edge bikes, but never turned down a broken bike, said Earl Russell, a repairman who has worked for Mattei for nearly 50 years.
“The bikes kept us busy,” Russell said.
In recent years, there’s been a shift to e-bikes, while manual bike technology has “calmed down after so many advancements,” Mattei said.
Mattei went for an 1898 bike with hard rubber tires – and a frame “with the shape you and I still ride today”.
“Bicycles will always be an elegant machine. They are particularly suited to the energy and geometry of our body,” said Mattei. “The length of our legs, our arms, our torso, the way we bend and flex, the power we produce. The bike, in its ultimate form, maximizes our ability to travel.
Mattei pointed to a biker riding in front of Cycle Smithy.
“They’re designed to work for us,” Mattei said.
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