Oliver Bertin has been a friend and Mariposa customer for more than 30 years. He’s also an award-winning journalist and editor, who covered the Tour de France in the 1980s. He’s published thousands of stories in The Globe & Mail’s Report on Business and wrote or edited news and features for legal, accounting, professional and consumer magazines as well as CBC online. Originally from the London, England, he’s been a passionate cyclist nearly all of his life.
You’ve been a keen cyclist for most of your life and a long time customer of the shop. How were you first introduced to cycling?
My first memory of cycling is crashing into the brick wall in front of my home in London when I was about eight. I seem to have survived because when I came to Canada I used to spend hours cycling around the driveway of our apartment building on a monster girl’s CCM that was so big my parents had to take off the saddle so I could reach the pedals. Didn’t bother me. I rode it anyway.
Many years later, in high school, I went to the local police auction in search of a new bike. I spied a tatty old bicycle covered in green house paint, but something about its lines stood out. I bought it for $26. Turned out it was a lightweight of indeterminate manufacture, with tubular tires, Campag Nuovo Record changers, Weinmann brakes and a Brooks leather saddle. I painted it silver, and it looked just like the Peloso in one of Mike Barry’s most recent Vintage Bicycle Features. It was the first bike I had ever seen, let alone ridden, with derailleur gears. What a marvel it was. I rode that bike all over Italy and England until I eventually sold it to a friend 20 years later.
Then came a lovely 1960s Pennine, a custom English bike from Bradford that I raced in Calgary and Toronto through the 1980s, and finally my current bikes, a Mariposa randonneur for pleasant long-distance riding, a Vitus 979 Cilo for going fast and a venerable Peugeot UO8 with three-speed Sturmey fixed gear hub for shopping.
You are not only one of Canada’s top business journalists but also covered bike races, including the Tour de France. Covering the Tour is a whirlwind of hotels, press rooms, traffic, etc, and I would imagine, it is unlike any other experience. While you were there, it was a great time for Canadian cycling as Steve Bauer was one of the best in the world. Do you have any fond, or not so fond, memories of your time over there?
Thanks for the compliment, but not quite true. I covered business for The Globe and Mail for years and that was a fascinating experience. But every business journalist needs an outlet, a fun subject to keep your enthusiasm up and your pencil scribbling. For me, that was cycling. I covered dozens of races in Toronto and drove the press car in the Tour de France in 1988 and again in 1989.
The Tour is indeed a fascinating and unique experience. I am still impressing hangers-on with my exploits on the Tour. But there were so many thrilling aspects that it is hard to describe them all in less than a book. I have to say that one of the enduring highlights was touring France, just about every town and every village and every mountain and every forest. I developed a huge passion for the country and its people. But I also had great fun driving a Citroen up and down those roads, around sharp S-curves down the sides of mountains in the Alps and the Pyrenees, from 40C in the valleys to the snow line at the top of the mountain passes.
Somebody once told me that the greatest thrill of being a French president is riding in a motorcade. It sounds silly but, believe it or not, one of the highlights of my tour was blasting down one of the grand avenues into Marseilles at 85 MPH, escorted by seven gendarmes on BMW motorcycles with their sirens blaring and thousands of people cheering as we passed. If only those spectators had know it was just me, not the French President, and I was rushing because I was late for the finish!
Another highlight was blasting down the 20-something switchbacks from the Alpe d’Huez, but that’s a very different story.
I did, of course, develop a huge admiration for the riders, and especially Steve Bauer and Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon and all the others. I’d have to say that I didn’t spend a lot of time with the riders. We knew most of the stars by name, and we nodded to them in the hotel dining rooms, hallways and parking lots, but they had more important things to do than talk to us.
We would, of course, grab Steve Bauer before a race and ask him how he was doing. And at the end of the race we would chase after him at the finish line, grab a few quotes and then run to write the story. By the time we had finished and filed our stories, he was in the massage room or having dinner or asleep upstairs. The Tour de France riders do not have a lot of spare time to chat with journalists.
We, of course, had the evening to ourselves. We would find our hotel, sometimes nearby, sometimes far away. We had a chance to wander around the town, to chat with townspeople and have a nice dinner with our friends in the press corps. We would grab whatever gossip we could and file it away for later use. Then top up the Citroën gas tank, unpack our suitcases and off to bed.
Who was the most interesting character you interviewed while following the professional races?
That’s a tough one. There was one Belgian rider who was so high on adrenaline he would punch out somebody every day, including his coach. He was, um, interesting. Compared with him, Steve Bauer was a breath of fresh air. A genuinely pleasant Canadian kid from Fenwick, Ont., and a nice guy to be around. Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon were both formidable presences. Fignon would glare at us through his spectacles, saying nothing; Hinault wouldn’t even see us. We didn’t dare get in their way. Sean Kelly was a monosyllabic Irishman. You’d ask him a question and he would nod. Not ‘yes’ or ‘no’, just a nod. It used to drive the radio reporters mad because they need the audio.
I remember chatting with Sean Kelly one morning as he waited for a start. Most of the other riders had flashy lightweight, aerodynamic bicycles, but Kelly had what looked like a bog standard Raleigh much like the top of the line amateur bikes you could buy in Halford’s. I asked him about it and he grunted: “It’s about the man, not the bike.” It was the longest sentence I had ever heard him say, but it was revealing. Years later, I learned that his bike really was special. It had come out of the Raleigh Race Shop, but was painted just like a consumer product.
Some of the old pros would drop around, full of bonhomie like the Queen on a Royal visit. Eddy Merckx was long-retired by then and seriously overweight; Raymond Poulidor was a friendly guy but I was too much in awe to chat with him. Instead, I would chat up the bicycle mechanics after the race as they washed the bikes, oiled the chains and pumped up the tires. They knew exactly what was going on and would be more than willing to tell us. Great fun.
What are you favorite qualities in a cyclist?
It’s not something I think about very often. If you ask one of the Old School French journalists, he would put his hand on his chest and say: So and so “has a heart like a lion. He is a champion.” I guess that sums it up.
Which cyclist do you most admire? And why?
One would be tempted to say Eddy Merckx because he dominated the sport for so long. He was the Cannibal who wanted to win every race and usually did.
Greg Lemond won the Tour while I was there, but he didn’t stand out. He was a mid-20s skinny kid from somewhere in the U.S. mid-West. He was clearly more than capable. He did win the Tour three times after all, but we soon forgot about him.
In my era, I would have to say the most impressive cyclist was Bernard Hinault because he had such a presence. When he was in the room, everybody just sat and watched. He was a formidable guy who controlled the room and everybody in it. He wouldn’t talk to us, he didn’t need to. He knew we knew he was there.
How did you first get to know about Bicyclesport and Mariposa Bicycles?
I used to ride my bike to work every day winter and summer from the Beaches to The Globe & Mail. It was an easy jog up to Bicyclesport at King and Jarvis, an easy place to drop in to chat and buy an inner tube or something. The three Mikes – Barry, Brown and Miller– were always pleasant and knowledgeable and ready to help. And the shop was so elegant with its carpets and wooden displays and shiney bits and pieces.
How old is your Mariposa? Where did you buy it? What do you like most about it?
Late 1989. It was one of the last bikes built by Kerry Mews at the shop on King St. I bought it many years later from a second hand shop. It was tatty, with rusty spokes and plastic mudguards that didn’t fit. But it looked so good, I had to have it. I checked to make sure it wasn’t stolen, I waited for the day after a mega snow fall and negotiated a good price.
What do I like about it?
My kid who has six modern bicycles, made of carbon fibre, steel or aluminum, finally deigned to go for a ride on my Mariposa, sniffing at something that old. He came back an hour later saying: “This bike is SO comfortable. Mike Barry knows how to build good bicycles.” My kid was right. Mike really does know what he’s doing.
Certainly, my Mariposa does attract attention. At races or rallies, I get a constant stream of people who come by and say: “Wow. What a neat retro bike” usually accompanied by such comments as: “Did you hear? Mike Barry is back in business!” People especially like the Simplex retrofriction shift levers on the down tube and the deep blue paint, and they lovingly caress my Rhode Gear leather handlebar covering.
I went to the Scandinavian furniture exhibition at the Gardiner Museum last week. It occurred to me that Danish furniture is very much like a Mariposa: Elegant, sophisticated, under-stated and functional. It doesn’t shout at you like a Cervelo. It just does the job in the best possible way.
The bike is so tractable and comfortable. I can ride it for six hours without getting tired. It goes in a straight line, holds its course and steers well. It is especially comfortable on a long ride or on trails through Toronto’s ravines. And it can carry a lot of luggage.
Only one criticism. The wide 650B tires don’t accelerate or corner like my Cilo Vitus 979 and it is nowhere as fast as my son’s race bike. But what’s the rush? When I go for a ride, I like to look at the trees and the scenery and smell the air and listed to the birds. That, after all, is what it is all about.
Do you prefer to put your head down and roll fast on main roads or explore the city and country? What about the rough stuff?
I rarely put my head down and roll fast. I do chase streetcars and commuter bikes, but I generally try to stay off main roads. I usually ride solo because I like exploring on my own. As for rough stuff, my randonneur bike is definitely not a cyclocross jobbie. Mariposa makes lovely cyclocross bikes, but my randonneur bike is better suited for scenic roads under the trees….
What is your favorite cycling route? I don’t ride with a GPS, all I need is a paper map in my handlebar bag and a goal. I cannot just go for a ride. I need a friend or a church or a village or a scenic spot or a cafe to visit before I turn around and return.
I do all the charity rides I have time for. I often ride to my kid’s house in Whitby or to a friend in Caledon. I live near U of T (University of Toronto) so I often head up through Prospect Cemetery and the moraines northwest of Dufferin and St. Clair. I’ll often cut through Taylor Creek Park or the Don Valley or the Humber River Trails on my way to somewhere else.
I go to the Isle of Wight in England a couple of times a year. That is glorious cycling country, with lots of narrow lanes and trees and bushes and cycle paths that parallel the main roads. Lovely. And given a chance, I’d take the bike to rural France or Italy for a really nice holiday away from the traffic and the big cities.
But I need a goal. I cannot just go for a ride. I need a somewhere to visit before I turn around and return.
Do you prefer to stop at a café for snacks or carry food in your back pocket?
I take water with me, and stop in a café for lunch. I’ll often come back in a GO train because that means I can cycle twice as far as I would normally be able to go.
What makes you happiest?
Perhaps cycling from my kid’s house in the Isle of Wight to Ryde or Yarmouth, then taking the ferry over to the mainland to visit friends or museums. Or chasing castles and monasteries. I just like riding the bike in pretty spots.
Oliver’s lovely Mariposa with new mudguards, tires, front spokes and shiney new hubs and rims.
Mike Barry hand made Touring/ Randonneur model with 650B wheels
No. 8951 so built in late 1989, by Kerry Mews, one of his last at Bicyclesport at King St. and Jarvis in Toronto, Canada.
Seat tube/top tube: 54 cm/55 cm
Weight: 25 pounds with leather saddle, mudguards
Saddle: Ideale 92 Diagonale gents randonneur, honey, big copper rivets
Stem : Cinelli 10 cm
Handlebar tape: Rhode Gear one-piece leather, sewn on
Seat post : SR Laprade micro-adjust
Brake levers: Campagnolo
Head set: Stronglight
Brakes: DC 700 centrepull braze ons
Hubs: Maillard / Helicomatic
Rims: Weinmann 650B
Tires: Grand Bois Cypres
Sprockets: Helicomatic six-speed 13-28
Crankset: Sugino 170 mm
Front derailleur: Suntour GX
Rear derailleur: Campag Veloce
Gear levers: downtube Simplex retrofriction
Pedals: Campagnolo with Christophe toe clips
Lights: LED battery lights
Mudguards: Honjo hammered
Handlebar bag: Gilles Berthoud
Rear saddlebag: Carradice NELSON LONG-FLAP, LARGE / Brooks IoW medium tool bag