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Q&A: Bike Shop The Musical!

Out on Main Street, nearly 90 percent of local bike shops in the United States are owned by men. But off Broadway in New York City, “Bike Shop The Musical” is a one-woman show.

Inspired by the rich cycling experiences of Liz Barkan — a former bike messenger, bike shop owner and spinning instructor — the fictional play follows the journey of Bobby, a female bike mechanic who works in her grandmother’s shop and is not only fixing flats but piecing her life back together after a tragic accident.

To learn more about the unique show — which invites attendees to park their bike onstage to be part of the set — and the inspiration behind it, I spoke with Barkan about her background, the evolution of the show and her thoughts on women and cycling.

On becoming a bike messenger right out of high school
I needed to get a job — I had to put self through college — and I didn’t really have any skills. But I rode a bike. So, like any 17-year-old, I thought, I’ll get a job as bike messenger. I didn’t tell my mom, but one day she saw me riding. She was thrilled. (Sarcastic laugh)… There weren’t a lot of women bike messengers; but there were a handful. You had to be really tough. You had to work harder than anyone else there to get street cred. For years, they called me a rookie — but not guys coming in after me. I was still the rookie even though I was doing something like 25 or 30 runs per day.. But it was a fun job. I enjoyed it.

On opening a bike shop
I got really burned out. I did it or 4 years but after three or four major snow storms you get a little bit… disheveled. I was falling asleep on clients’ desks (laugh) so my boyfriend and I opened up a bike shop. It was in this neighborhood called Fort Green, and, at the time, it was very underdeveloped. There was nothing there… but I was 21 or something and very arrogant and I was like “I’m going to get this bike shop; I don’t care if it kills me!” We had it for five years — but we got held up a lot. We had really good customers and it was hard to close, but it was at a time when the neighborhood was going through major changes and we were sort of caught in between.

Transitioning from the streets to the spin studio
I was also a racer — I was the New York state road champion for a season. But I had a very bad bike accident. In the Empire State qualifier I got hit by car riding out to Long Island and ripped all the ligaments in my left knee.  I got back on and raced, even though I had no use of my left leg. I even made a break from the pack on one leg. But then I realized I was going to kill everyone around me and not live myself, so decided to hang up my cycling cleats and go into something different. So I went into the fitness industry. It was one year into teaching aerobics at Crunch that a guy walked in with these bikes and said, “Hey, I have this new class; are you interested in doing it?” It was spinning, which had never been done before. Of course, I said, I’m interested, and was one of the first spinning teachers in New York City. Back then, the bikes looked really different — they had downshifters!

Taking her bike story to the stage
It didn’t start [with me thinking I should write a play]. It was that people would say, “What do you do?” and I said, “Oh well, I teach indoor cycling, but I used to be a bike messenger and race bikes and I owned a shop…” And they’d say, “Well, you’re an actress — why don’t you do a show about that?” I didn’t know people would care, but the more I told people what I did that was their reaction. So first I did a 10-minute, one-person stand-up monologue and people really liked it. At the time I was doing something called street theater at this amazing political theater in New York called Theater for the New City. After a show, I was talking to the artistic director and I told her about my concept for a play and she said, “Why are you doing a play? You’re a singer. You should sing! If you write a musical, I’ll produce it.” I had never written a show before, so I realized that I needed to get collaborators…[Click here to read more about the talented team]… It was really a melting pot of talent.

And it’s not just a show for people who ride bikes. It’s a metaphor for getting back on a bike, getting back into life after something not so great has happened. If you are a bike centric person like me and have a passion for bicycles, this is definitely a show for you. I do build a bike on stage. I’ve got a wheel I’m truing. I play six characters, and actually the woman who opened up the shop in the show is my grandmother. She opens it in 1936, and she’s fresh off the boat from Ireland. It’s a very strong female-based show.

Do you ever think about opening a bike shop again?
Oh no, been there done that! (Laugh) I’m only moving forward. But a very, very dear friend owns a bike shop here in Brooklyn and he’s given me every bike on my stage. It’s one of the main reasons people love our set — it’s amazing. His bike shop is called NYC Bikes and they build their own frames. When I’m backstage, I often hear people saying, “Oh, these are beautiful!” Each bike has it’s own personality; it’s a big cornerstone of the show.

How has the bike scene changed for women since you had your shop?
Oh, it’s very female now. Here in New York, I sometimes think there are more female bikers than male bikers. And so many women are riding track bikes, which makes me smile. I remember years ago you could barely get a girl on a 3-speed and now they’re riding fixies. The other thing is that I have women — and men — come up to me after the show and say, “I want to ride now. You made me want to ride my bike.” And that’s what the show is about — it’s a metaphor for getting back on your bike. It’s based on a tragic accident that happened with main character and it’s all about her getting back on her bike. When people come up to me after a show and say, “I was rooting for you to get back on that bike,” I know I’ve done my job. And a lot of women say, “I want to start riding; do you think I can do it?” and I say, “Yeah, of course!” In fact, a woman came in the other day and asked if I could do a repair [on her bike]. Unfortunately, I don’t think equity rules allow that!

On getting more women riding
I think partially it’s a confidence issue. I’m going to be honest; I don’t think everybody is meant to ride in the city streets. But who says need to ride in city streets? You can go to Central Park or Prospect Park. You can get on the subway go up to the Cloisters in a more rural area. There are plenty of places. And also there are so many wonderful cycling clubs, places and places like Velojoy[.com] that can get you into the right place for you… As a woman who owned a bike shop, I also think one of the biggest problems that constantly happens is women not being fitted properly on a bike. I remember the first bike I had and my inseam is 31 and that first bike was 53 centimeters. I didn’t know! Nobody told me. It wasn’t until I became a bike messenger and the guys were like, “Hey, we need to tell you something: your bike isn’t the right size.”

Click here for more on Bike Shop The Musical.


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