Chocolate Spokes: A Film About Bicycles
Meet Gregory Crichlow, the man fixing bikes for underserved communities in Denver
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In early 2013, I walked into a tiny bike shop called Chocolate Spokes in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood because I'd heard that the guy there did solid and reasonably priced bike tune-ups. The shop sat next to a liquor store, was 375 square feet, and every one of those available square feet of floor space seemed to be taken up by a bicycle. The owner, Gregory, was an African-American man who wore a bow tie and a warm smile to work every day.
Since I was six years old, I’ve found that “Hey, you like riding bikes, I do too,” is a good enough reason to get to know someone, and Gregory and I talked. He had a master’s degree in architecture, and after getting laid off from a firm in 2011, he took the retirement money he’d saved and used it to open Chocolate Spokes, on a scrappy corner in a historically black and Latino neighborhood. He had a diverse customer base, from folks who rode Walmart bikes to day-labor jobs to young professionals who appreciated a good steel frame road bike for city riding. And he somehow made room in that tiny space to hand-build custom steel frames for anyone who could afford one. I couldn’t then, but Gregory worked on my 1989 Raleigh Team USA whenever I brought it in.
We always talked for ten times as long as typically necessary for two people arranging a bike tune or a new wheel, about politics, culture, racism, and the gentrification happening in Five Points. Gregory told me about seeing the building and thinking he could make a bike shop out of it, and how he and the landlord had brought it back to life from its recent past as an abandoned building where hard-up drug users had squatted. (The electrical box out front had been dubbed the “drop box” by crack dealers and their customers.)
One day as Gregory and I stood in the shop talking, a young man came in needing a flat tire fixed so he could get to work that morning and Gregory stepped out of our conversation to help him. Gregory whipped through the tube change in three minutes, and I noticed the young man was wearing an ankle beeper, the kind you get when you’re newly on probation or parole. Flat tire fixed, Gregory went to settle up, telling the young man it was $11. Dismayed and a little embarrassed, he replied that he only had $6 on him. Gregory hesitated for a half-second, and then said, “That’s okay.”
In 2015, my beloved Raleigh finally developed a mortal injury, and I needed a new bike. I decided to put my money where my mouth was, support a business I believed in, and I asked Gregory to build me a custom steel frame to ride around Denver and on bikepacking trips on dirt and pavement. After ten years of riding old steel bikes I’d bought off Craigslist, I finally had enough money to buy a new bike. I had also just bought a video camera.
I’d been working in adventure filmmaking but had never made one all on my own—I was looking for a story to use to teach myself to shoot and edit film. Chocolate Spokes was perfect: I was already visiting often to discuss my new bike with Gregory, and maybe he wouldn’t mind if I pointed a camera in his face while I was there? He didn’t, so I started shooting. And I took an introductory class to learn some basics of video editing.
Lots of people say you should approach your creative projects as gifts you make for your friends, and I fully endorse that idea. I also find that often times I end up being friends with the subject of the stories I get to tell, which is a wonderful side effect. No one sponsored this film, corporate or crowdfunding, so it’s just a portrait of a guy I now call my friend: Gregory Crichlow. I hope you like it.
Big thanks to Aidan Haley, Ian McLeod, and Hilary Oliver, who also took this on as a passion project.
Read more from Brendan Leonard at Semi-Rad.com.