This article didn’t get published in June due to an email mix-up – we apologize to Lola! Here’s the column for your enjoyment…
A doctor who makes house calls? For you, dream on. For your bike, a dream come true.
Meet Robert LaBonte, owner of the Springfield Bicycle Doctor (www.spfldbicycledoc.com ), one of Enos Park’s newest businesses. And yes, he’ll drive his ambulance… er, van, to your house to fix what ails your derailleur. If the mobile surgical unit isn’t enough, he’ll pick up then return your bike, trike, recumbent or tandem. His ‘hospital’ gleams with lots of white paint and well-scrubbed floors. A nice touch of class is his operating room with a red Oriental rug beneath the stand where he hoists bikes for repairs. Those who’ve been to R&M Cyclery will recall the rug from LaBonte’s tenure there.
The Springfield Bicycle Doctor is located at 1037 N. 5th which you’ll instantly recognize as soon as I tell you it’s that cute little building by the tracks that was a real estate office for so long. It had been a gas station—rumor claims a Standard station—in the Route 66 days when the peaked roofs of Storybook style were all the rage. I’d wanted to see the inside of that building for two decades; our blue house on 4th Street backed up to it, and I was always curious. I recently got the grand tour of the 900 square feet and saw the original sea green tile in the restroom (yep, it was a filling station alright in the once upon a time) as well as the brightly lit bike repair area, complete with newly installed tubes to bring daylight into the shop. The front area has bicycles for sale including LaBonte’s eco-friendly bamboo bike that he crafted. Soon he’ll offer new, used, and custom bicycles.
The website says,
“We stock selected items for sale… the products are chosen for quality and value. We may not have a wide range of items, but those chosen are the best for the money. Robert is old school, so you will always find wool clothing and steel framed bikes. He loves to custom build a bike for a client – choosing the components and assembling them into a one of a kind bicycle.”
LaBonte is also central Illinois’ only owner of a Philwood spoke machine which can manufacture any size spoke in seconds. That’s particularly good news for people who need wheelchair repairs or have awkward sized contraptions. He writes of custom wheel building that, “We really love to build wheels… it’s a combination of art and science. One takes a rim, a handful of spokes, and a hub to create a thing that will carry you for thousands of miles, which is kind of amazing!” The shop also has a variety of tires and can get bikes (or wheelchairs) back on the road quickly.
In person, Robert and his wife, artist Cyd LaBonte, both glow with delight, telling how 5th Street sidewalks have a river of people flowing along back and forth from North Grand’s businesses. Many have stopped into the shop before the official May 1st opening. “The neighbors, they’ve been just great,“ they told me. “We’ve gotten such a warm welcome.” They mentioned that EPNIA’s Steve Combs had been by to take photographs and that the Bike to Work Day ride had gone well.
Why did they decide to locate in Enos Park? Robert said he’s always loved the building. Also this area of town is under-served compared to the number of bicycle sales and service shops on the west side. “Kids come in here,” he said, “kids who might not have a way to get out to Scheels or whatever.” Robert chuckled, “Often they want BMX stuff. We’re not that kind of shop but we’ll try to get in some products that they’re looking for.”
Across Rafter is a brick carriage house where the Springfield Bike Kitchen is gathering volunteers and rolling toward opening this summer. It’s the LaBonte’s community bike repair shop where people can become members or purchase a day pass to use tools and get advice on bike repairs. Their self-description at http://springfieldbikekitchen.wordpress.com says:
Individuals who are unable to pay the small fee for access to Bike Kitchen services will be offered opportunities to volunteer in exchange for access. As the Bike Kitchen grows, Robert plans to develop a Build-A-Bike program for at-risk youth. Build-A-Bike programs provide apprenticeships that teach both mechanical and problem-solving skills, while encouraging tolerance for diversity by exposing youngsters to the diverse population of Bike Kitchen users.
Robert and his volunteers look forward to becoming an integral part of the Springfield cycling community, “Making Springfield a Better City…One Bicycle at a Time.”
Kevin and I have known Robert and Cyd for many years through the Springfield Bicycle Club. Cyclists do crash and the first two questions out of members’ mouths tend to be, “How is he?” quickly followed by, “How’s his bike?” St. John’s and Memorial can take care of the cyclists, but the Springfield Bicycle Doctor is ready to heal the bike, too. That Robert’s Bike Kitchen is also repairing some urban ills makes me as happy as… well, as happy as finally getting to see the inside of that little white building!
Lola Lucas is the author of At Home in the Park: Loving a Neighborhood Back to Life, about Springfield in general and Enos Park in particular. You can find it at Amazon.com & other online booksellers.