Hey, Can You Fix This?

Thomas MacMillan PhotoAn unusual sight caught Ben Schomaker’s eye on the corner of Orange and Cottage: a bike mechanic with an old three-speed up on a stand, at work replacing a derailleur cable.

Schomaker, who lives nearby in East Rock, quickly stopped and got a price quote. He needed the same work done on his Cannondale road bike. He said he’d bring his bike later.

“That’s how it works,” said Joel LaChance, the bike mechanic, as Schomaker stepped away.

It’s chance encounters with East Rock passersby that drive LaChance’s new plein-air street corner bike repair business.

Three mornings a week for the past couple of months, LaChance. who’ll be 60 in August, has set up shop outside the Orange Street Market and the Orange Street Liquor Shop. He wheels a wagon—emblazoned with “The Goatville Cyclesmith LLC, A Shade Tree Mechanic”—packed with bike tools from his home three blocks away on Bishop Street.

On a recent afternoon, as he worked on a 1973 Huffy Escape, LaChance described his new mechanic business as a wayto keep him busy in his retirement. He was a teacher at the Benjamin Jepsen school for 10 years, until last year.

His retirement job is a return to his earlier life in New Haven, when he ran the Cycles LaChance bike shop on Chapel Street. One year, the Special Olympics came to town, and LaChance was tapped as the bike mechanic for the competition. He figured out a way to pack up all his bike repair gear into a portable unit for the Olympics.

“I learned you could do anything remotely,” he said.

Traveling as light as he does means he has no overhead, almost literally. (Friday was the first day he packed an umbrella on his cart, to keep the hot sun off him while he works.)

The best part, LaChance said, is “the fellowship.” People stop to talk to him on the street, intrigued to see a mechanic set up under a tree. “They never see anyone do something like this.”

Claudia Tatinge Nascimento (pictured), a Wesleyan theater professor, passed by and greeted LaChance, who inquired after a job he’d done for her—helping her attach a bike-lock clip to her Cannondale.

She said she’s a fan of street corner bike repair. It’s more convenient to wheel her bike from her home on Lawrence Street than to pack it in her car and haul it to a bike shop, she said.

Tom Bowery, who owns the liquor store, said he also approves. LaChance helps attract business, he said.

A clerk ringing up customers at the market said she just enjoys watching him work, and she’s not the only one.

“Our customer response has been lovely,” she said. “It makes it feel like a family on the street.”

LaChance said it’s true that people do stop and simply watch him repair. “It’s like street theater, a little bit,” he said.

LaChance said he’ll be on the corner in fair weather Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. until it gets too cold to work outside.

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posted by: anon on August 4, 2011  4:49pm

Awesome - and great for local business!

posted by: Nathalie on August 4, 2011  5:56pm

You go, Joel! I told you your Cinzano umbrella will be a hit!

posted by: Ben on August 4, 2011  6:02pm

Goatville Cyclesmith can also be found that the Upper State Street Farmer’s market on Saturdays from 10-2 where it all started.

posted by: Ray on August 4, 2011  7:57pm

Joel is the coolest guy on Orange Street. Honest, a great mechanic, fair, and he has a nice smile. Buy him an ice tea and sit down and learn something!

posted by: jcp on August 4, 2011  9:09pm

I remember him on the corner of Brownell and Whalley.  30 years ago.

posted by: permits? on August 5, 2011  9:14am

Does he need/have a permit to be able to do this?

posted by: jane schwinn on August 5, 2011  11:39am

Joel is the best bike repair option in New Haven. I took my bike to the Devil’s Gear for a simple repair (needed a new cord thingy for the gears) and asked politely if there’s any chance they could do it right then, and they laughed at me, and said I should be grateful if they could do it within 24 hours. 24 hours would have actually been more than ok, as I’d been riding this thing with the faulty cord for half a year at that point, but I didn’t appreciate the ‘tude so I said sayonara! Rode up to Orange street to get a nice sandwich and there was Joel, who did the repair on the spot in 20 minutes, and tuned up my brakes as well, all for the bargain price of $10, and a humble, friendly attitude to boot! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK, JOEL!

posted by: anon on August 5, 2011  12:03pm

Jane, I disagree with you that local bike shops are surly, but you have a great point that New Haven needs more options for quick and cheap repairs in its neighborhoods.  With the number of cyclists in New Haven going through the roof, hopefully we’ll see more local entrepreneurs plying the streets.  I think that repair stands would do well on the Yale campus and in the Westville village. 

Perhaps the libraries, fire or police stations in the neighborhoods would be willing to host bike maintenance workshops a few times per year too and pay mechanics to come out.

Many of these repairs can be done with some basic training and simple tools too - Devil’s Gear and other places offer good classes on bike maintenance, and there are great books out there on bike repair too.

posted by: dumb larry on August 5, 2011  10:21pm

Three speed hubs have internal gears and would thus not use a derailleur. Derailleurs are used when the sprockets (gears) are outside the hub and need a mechanism to move the chain from one sprocket to the next. A three speed hub does use a cable, however, that pulls a rod in or out of the axle of the hub to change the internal gear mechanism.

And I think it is great that Mr. LaChance is fixing bicycles from a vendor cart. Cycles LaChance used to be one of CT’s finest shops and is now occupied by Hull’s Art on Chapel near York. In fact, the old sign is still there but now has the Hull marquee.

posted by: Bill Saunders on August 6, 2011  2:19am

My bicycle is 25 years old.  I have done very little work on it over this time period.  It continues to shift, brake, pedal, and roll. 

More serious cyclists don’t like the minor clicking of my de-railure. 

C’est la Vie.

posted by: David Kahn on August 9, 2011  9:15am

Hi Jane, I’m the General Manager at the Devil’s Gear and I apologize that you were treated with a bad attitude. That shouldn’t happen, and in general I think we manage to provide friendly service, but it sounds like we fell short when you needed help.
In any case, we agree that Joel is a great guy doing a good job and providing a valuable service. The easier it is to be a bike rider in New Haven, the happier we are. And that Cinzano umbrella is awesome!

posted by: Nathalie B on August 9, 2011  12:51pm

David, Thanks for your post and disclosing your identity. I have to say Jane was not the first person to notice a bit of attitude at the new store.  It happened to a few people I know, including myself. We all love to be able to ride in New Haven, and we are all grateful that people like you and Joel are around to make it possible.  Not all of us are training for the Tour de FRANCE, so just try be patient with us all.  Have a nice day. And yes that umbrella is awesome!

posted by: David Kahn on August 9, 2011  1:51pm

Nathalie, thanks for the feedback. I’m sorry to hear that you and others have not been treated with patience and respect. I’d very much like to hear about this kind of stuff when it happens so that we can address our shortcomings. We’re committed to being a friendly and welcoming shop. My email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and I’m always open to feedback.