The whole bike picture

Bryhanna Greenough takes her bike to rehab.

Of all the artists to exhibit in St. John’s, Michael Flaherty is probably the first to arrive by bike.

In May, Flaherty left Vancouver and set out on an 8,500 kilometer solo journey across the continent as part of his Bicycle Rehabilitation Project. Stopping in galleries in Seattle, Victoria, Edmonton, Minneapolis, Kingston and Sackville, Flaherty has been offering a free fix-it service for bikes along the way.

When I spoke to Flaherty by phone, he was in Sackville, New Brunswick. A university town with no bike shop. The closest one is in Moncton, a 30-minutes car ride away.

“So,” he says, “all of these people were saying ‘oh, we’re so glad you came!’”

One person who came to the gallery had a flat tire—a very common problem—and said she had been looking all around but couldn’t find anybody in town able to help her repair it.

“It’s my third day here,” Flaherty says, “so there are 10-15 bikes waiting that people have brought in the last two days, and five or six bikes that are done and ready to be picked up.”

Although before heading on the Bicycle Rehabilitation Project Flaherty did cycle around 40 or 50 kilometers a day, he says he didn’t do much other special training before setting out to cross the continent.

“You don’t have to be really fit to ride a bicycle,” he claims. “You just need to not hurt yourself.”

He’s travelled just under 7000 kilometers so far, and hasn’t had any breakdowns or accepted any rides.

“The first two or three hours of every day are so exhausting, but then something just kicks into your body, and after I get past two o’clock in the afternoon the only reason I stop is because the sun has gone down,” he says. “You get such an energy rush you feel like you can go all night.

“But then when I wake up the next morning I feel like shit.”

And why stop in galleries along the way? What does bike repair have to do with art?

He prefers to think of the project as a whole: the tour, his website, interacting with people along the way, and, of course, stopping at galleries and fixing peoples’ bikes.

Flaherty, who is originally from Newfoundland and worked at the St. John’s Craft Council Clay Studio for three years, sees similarities between being a ceramicist and repairing bikes.

“Craftspeople work with their hands and make everyday objects like pottery and textiles. I’m working with everyday objects, sort of in that tradition, but obviously not quite in the same ways.”

I asked him for a simple trick to help keep a bike working well.

He says, “keep it clean.”

“Just spray it off really well with soap or just water, but soap is great to get the grit and grime out.”
Mud and sand causes the bike to deteriorate quickly, he says.

He suggests using some soap and water or just blasting away the grit and grime with a hose. Keep everything well-oiled and wipe away any excess oil.

“There are so many really simple things people can just do themselves,” he says. “I feel like I should be teaching bicycle repair and maintenance workshops too.”

He says he’s been toying with the idea of making his website more of a resource for bike repair information, but hasn’t had the time.

“Maybe it’s something I can do at the end when I’m not so busy pedaling or doing shows and stuff.”

En route between galleries Flaherty carries roughly 35 pounds of gear which includes a sleeping bag, tent and repair kit. A box is mailed ahead with extra supplies from gallery to gallery.

“It’s become a real lesson in minimalism and that becomes a part of the project too.”

“Riding my bike I’m sometimes alone for two or three weeks by myself, just camping every night, going across. It’s very contemplative and tiring for my body. Then I arrive in the gallery and I’m on the go, working really hard and being social. It goes back and forth between a really solitary experience and a really social experience which suits my personality.”

Michael Flaherty expects to arrive in St. John’s on September 28 and, rather than dipping a wheel into the Atlantic, he invites friends and enthusiasts to join him for a Critical Mass bike ride (they usually happen at 6pm at the Colonial Building in Bannerman Park.) Keep an eye on Flaherty’s website, ­bicyclerehabilitationproject.com, for details.

Opening reception and artist talk is on September 30 with free bike repair happening From October 1 – 14 (afternoons.) Drop off your bike!

Illustration by Kira Sheppard.