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The Love of His Own Excellence

Daniel Vojtech, Old Bicycle

Daniel Vojtech, Old Bicycle

This Saturday I went looking for a new bike and set out for Frederik’s, one of the oldest and most knowledgeable bike shops in Athens. Located at the back of a gloomy stoa at the corner of Patision and Stournara and grimly lit in icy fluorescent light, the high-ceilinged, narrow L-shaped shop is unprepossessing and anything but inviting. It could have been a betting parlor or hardware store. But there are bikes everywhere: a row outside the shop, others set out on the shop floors, still others in a cramped stuffed-to-the-gills loft built above the shop. Not just bikes but bikes to be, since the shop also custom-builds cycles. There’s probably an order to the display of goods, perhaps similar to the logic with which we organize our kitchens, but it’s not evident to the uninitiated.

The shop is named after its owner, a wiry short sprite of a man of indeterminable age with a full shock of graying hair and the extremely lean body of a long-distance cyclist. He moves at twice the velocity of an average man. And he does always seem to be moving, as if his body had an attention span measured in seconds not minutes. He ricochets through the shop, checking a repair made by one of his acolytes (“shop assistant” doesn’t really convey the deference they show him), meting out a piece of advice to a prospective buyer, barking out prices and bike reviews and warranties. He is the shop.

I went up to him and told him why I had come. After a quick battery of questions about why I wanted a new bike, delivered presto with an undertone of impatience (it felt somewhat like an appointment with a renowned neurologist, the kind that doesn’t give receipts) he showed me a bike in the loft and then another one downstairs in a nook off the repair bench—a beautiful, carbon-forked and wonderfully light Specialized Allez.  And then he left me there and moved on to finishing a tire replacement that one of his minions had started.

“Left me there” has a ring of abandonment but that’s exactly how it felt. I didn’t know what I was expected to do. Take notes? Finger the derailleur? I felt as if I had arrived at a party where I knew no one and the host, after greeting me and showing me where the bar was, flitted off to check the amuse gueule and give instructions to the waiters.

However daunting my initiation to Frederik’s was, I’ll probably buy my bike there. His prices are good, and I know that that if I ever need him to deal with a wheel that’s become laterally out of true, he’ll take care of it, probably leaving another potential buyer in the lurch to do so. I’d been to Frederik’s before to get the clamps on my biking shoes adjusted; he did it for free.

His shop will become yet another landmark on my map of the city, another rare find where expertise and the delight in craftsmanship assure me that there isn’t an item in the shop that’s of shoddy quality. The bike shop will join the ranks of places like the Pnyka Bakery on Petraki Street, which makes the best stone-ground whole-wheat sourdough bread in the city (their flour is ground at their own mill!) and the Greek Record Club (the hauteur of whose staff make Fred’s seem like a teenage sleepover with your cousins), a wine shop run by a pair of brothers on Metsovou, the tiny Italian tavern Maltagliati with its marvelous homemade pasta, and a dozen or so more places whose staff exude an almost tangible and highly contagious pleasure in the goods they make or sell, and places where the craftsman’s pride, his “love of [his] own excellence” (Augustine) is not only evident but wholly justified.

Connoisseurship has a bad reputation these days as elitist, but informed and discriminating taste, instilled with passion, is worth seeking out. Especially when you’re about to shell out €1400 for a bike.

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