MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

One Kirkland man’s passion for bicycles, history and community

Dec 20, 2023, 11:10 AM

bicycles kirkland...

Chris Sharp is passionate and knowledgeable about bikes from all eras, including a vintage Schwinn Corvette, and he's generous, too, donating bikes to kids in need. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio

A garage in Kirkland has been transformed into a magical workshop where a man repairs and restores bicycles for commuters and collectors – and for more than a hundred kids who needed transportation and also got connected to their community.

The holiday season is a time to feel nostalgic about all kinds of things from the past. Earlier this month, KIRO Newsradio visited a bicycle workshop filled with new and old bikes, including some that push all the right buttons for nostalgia for not only Christmas past but for America’s past and a level of mass-produced craftsmanship of not all that long ago.

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The workshop belongs to Chris Sharp. He’s in his early 50s and has been living and breathing bicycles since he was a little kid growing up on Rose Hill in Redmond. He’s worked in aviation logistics around the world – learning to speak Japanese and Arabic along the way – and spent many years managing bike shops before going into business for himself.

Sharp knows the mechanical ins and outs, and he’s a passionate and knowledgeable expert on everything from tires to saddles and everything in between. He’s also generous with his knowledge and eager to share his passion for how bicycles can change lives.

One of the bikes currently in the shop is a restoration project for a collector. It’s a Schwinn Corvette from the 1950s, bright red and swoopy in all the right places, just like a car from the same era.

Chris Sharp has an eye for details, and if you pay attention, the stories those details can tell.

“So check this out,” Sharp said, pointing to a protective metal cover on the right-hand side of the frame of the old Schwinn. “Somebody’s cuff wore the paint here on the top of the chain guard so much that the paint is literally gone, but the metal is not rusted; it’s like it’s polished.”

“And the other cool thing here is this ‘Schwinn’ logo in the ‘Corvette’ part of the logo,” Sharp continued. “I’ve been very carefully cleaning because this Schwinn in the Corvette is actually a decal, but if you see the pinstripes, [they] are actually hand-pulled pinstripes.”

“So the pinstripes were actually painted on,” Sharp explained, clearly appreciating the hand-made part of an otherwise factory-produced bicycle made in Chicago more than 60 years ago.

Are pinstripes difficult to paint?

“If you’re really experienced, you can do them pretty well, and they also sometimes have a form that you’d hold underneath your arm,” Sharp continued. “But I’ve pulled pinstripes on motorcycles and stuff and old vintage Harleys, and you do need to have a steady hand to do it.”

Chris Sharp’s secret tip for painting pinstripes?

“Take a deep breath, then breathe and pull the brush,” he said.

Sharp works on all kinds of bikes from across the spectrum: vintage, American, English, motocross, high-end custom bikes made recently in the States and store-bought bikes made in Asia. With decades of experience, he has longtime customers who will have new bikes shipped directly from the factory to Chris so that he can do the final assembly and fine-tuning.

Still, he clearly has a special love for those vintage American bikes, though he knows they’re not for everybody.

“When they find the right owner, there’s a level of appreciation to them,” Sharp said. “And it’s not just bikes like Schwinn, it’s the old Western Auto Supply Company bikes that were known as the Western Flyer” from an era when hardware stores and auto parts stores had much of the market for bicycles sold in many suburban and rural areas.

Mass-market American-made bicycles are a thing of the past, Sharp said, with most units now manufactured in Asia. And the local retail landscape has changed, too.

Sharp reels off a list of local bike shops that have disappeared over the years: Harold’s in Bellevue, Brian’s Bicycles in Kirkland, Bicycle Center in Tukwila, and even Redmond Cycle in the “cycling capital of the Northwest.”

Though those stores are gone, thousands of the bikes remain in garages and barns, awaiting discovery. Sharp says collectors still get a thrill from some of the features on the old bikes, and even casual enthusiasts enjoy looking at and admiring a bike they’ll never ride.

“There were all sorts of great stuff that you would see out of these eras of bikes,” Sharp said, pointing to the Schwinn Corvette and another model called the Schwinn American as just a few examples from that time. “You’d have headlights that were like powered by a D-cell flashlight battery, that was a really weak little light, but it’s still kind of this cool chrome torpedo that rode on top of the front fender.”

And while restoring vintage bikes is just a portion of his business, it’s obviously one of the most enjoyable parts of the job for Chris Sharp.

“It’s really neat when you can resurrect something like this,” Sharp said. “Or at least get it into a state of preservation where it’s going to be safe and preserved and enjoyed, either visually or ridden.”

Part of Chris’ love of the old bikes is clearly an appreciation for the fact they’re American made, and that they represent an amazing level of craftsmanship not really seen nowadays in mass-market industrial goods.

This love might also be described as “generational.”

“For a lot of us, especially people our age, we grew up in the era of American suburbia, where it was a normal thing on the weekends to go ride your bike with your friends, turn the TV off, go spend the weekend out on your bike,” Sharp said. “And for a lot of kids growing up in the United States,” Sharp continued, a bike “was their first taste of self-determined kind of freedom.”

“It also gave kids a sense of ownership, a sense of pride. You took care of your bike, it was your transportation,” Sharp said. “I remember being as excited for my first bike as I got for a car.”

Though decades have passed since Sharp first felt that “self-determined freedom” courtesy of a bike, he can attest that this concept has not gone away.

During the pandemic, a lot of out-of-commission bikes were finding their way to the shop Chris was working at then as trade-ins. With a little elbow grease and maybe a few new parts, he could make those trade-ins as good as new.

Around that same time back in 2020, he noticed a group of neighborhood kids riding their bikes around near where Chris lives. School was online, so kids were out and about during the day with not much else to do.

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In the group, he also noticed a new kid who had recently moved with his family from the Middle East.

“But I always noticed he was running behind the pack of kids on the bikes,” Sharp said because the boy had no bike.

At the bike shop he was managing before starting his own business, Sharp said he “was always getting these bikes turned in from people who were pulling bikes out of the back of their garage. So one day, this little blue Trek BMX bike comes in, and it needed grips and it needed a tire because, you know, kids skid.”

He replaced the grips and tire and made sure everything was in working order.

“And I walked over to the kid’s house that night and just knocked on the door,” Sharp said. “And the dad at first was like, ‘What?’ and I explained to him in Arabic that I was ‘the Bike Fairy,’ and I gave his son a bike.”

“The kid’s eyes got huge, and the rest of it kind of snowballed from there,” Sharp said.

It snowballed because Sharp witnessed first-hand the power of a bicycle to improve somebody’s life, and he decided he could make that happen again.

“I watched the neighborhood kids teach that kid how to ride a bike,” Sharp said. “And when that kid is learning how to ride a bike, well, then he’s also learning English, and he’s also getting friends.”

“And then, when the schools reopened, it turns out like half of those kids that he had been riding around with all through COVID-19 were his new classmates,” Sharp continued. “So I got to see that little bike actually help integrate a kid into his new life here.”

“Seeing that, it just kind of was like, ‘Ok, let’s do that again,'” Sharp said. “And so I just kept getting bikes from the bike shops I worked at and restoring them.”

“The little red Giant there in the stand,” Sharp said, pointing across the frames and tires and tools piled in the magical workshop, “that is the 104th bike that I’ve done since 2020, that’s going to go to a kid.”

More on biking in WA: Dangerous drivers create difficult commute for Seattle biking community

While that Giant or Trek or other modern bike may not have hand-pulled pinstripes or a chrome torpedo light, there’s a good chance that somebody’s pant cuff might wear the paint off the chainguard just the same.

Sharp’s Cycle Works is open by appointment only; search Facebook for “Chris Crash Sharp” and send a direct message to get in touch.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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