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Mike Barry.Walter Lai

Mike Barry, an Englishman who helped inspire the growth of long-distance cycling in this country and sold hand-built bicycles to many of those who took it up, has died at the age of 80.

The transplanted Londoner expected Canada to be a short way station, but ended up calling Toronto home for five decades. Along the way, he amassed a vast collection of bicycles – and was still getting out on them this past fall, his family said. He died of cardiac arrest Dec. 29, after a series of medical complications.

Matthew Pioro, editor of Canadian Cycling Magazine, called him “the father of modern cycling in Canada.”

Mr. Barry was co-owner of the Toronto store Bicyclesport, a local mainstay in the era before the city became rife with high-end cycling gear. He was later the owner of Bicycle Specialties. Along the way, he helped found the club that became Randonneurs Ontario, members of which consider a 200-kilometre outing a short bike ride.

But his strongest influence may have been as a standard-bearer for bicycles that looked as good as they rode.

“There have always been beautifully made tools, and making a tool beautiful doesn’t make it work any less efficiently, it just makes it more enjoyable to own and use,” he told Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works in California, in an interview published in 2002.

“Cheaper, less well-finished tools often do an equally good job, but they are not so enjoyable to own and use. If you’re really enthusiastic [about] cycling or wood work or whatever, you just get more enjoyment from having really nicely constructed equipment.”

Two bicycles from his workshop were immortalized in artwork by the artist Greg Curnoe, who died while riding one of them, including a piece now owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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Mike Barry riding his bicycle in the Bagshot Scramble (a UK race) in the late 1950s.Courtesy of the Family

Mike Barry was born in south London on March 13, 1938. He started cycling by the time he was 10 and later raced bicycles for the Royal Air Force team as part of his national service. He came to North America in the mid-sixties and, after working in several cities, settled in Toronto.

In 1972, he married Clare Lapp, who he now leaves, and they had a son, Michael Barry, who went on to race bicycles professionally and now runs the family shop with his wife, Dede Barry – herself a former racer.

The elder Mr. Barry had worked initially as a spectrometer technician before turning his passion for bicycles into a business. Starting with a bunch of surplus bicycle parts purchased for a song, he launched the bike-building company Mariposa in 1969 with a friend, John Palmer.

The company’s moniker, which means butterfly in Spanish, was chosen to evoke a touch of Europe while also referencing Canada by borrowing the name of Stephen Leacock’s fictional town.

Over the years, about half a dozen different frame-builders worked in the Mariposa workshop, painstakingly creating more than 2,000 bicycles, Mr. Barry’s son said.

“The bike business is a tough business, so he just kept at it and really believed in it,” Michael said. “He didn’t make a fortune doing it, but he certainly left a legacy in that he introduced a lot of people to bikes.”

Among them was Michael himself. In the early 1980s, when he was 8, Michael joined his father in France for a trip by tandem bicycle from Grenoble to Marseille, including the famed Tour de France peak Mont Ventoux.

“It was really on a lot of levels a life-changing trip and made me want to go and race in Europe and see more of that area,” said Michael, who eventually rode for the top squads U.S. Postal Service and Team Sky.

Although Mr. Barry also sold lower-end bicycles, the Mariposas were built to order – a frame alone ran to several thousand dollars – and the waiting list could stretch longer than a year. And while the bikes were custom-designed for the buyer’s body shape and riding style, Mr. Barry had a vision that he would only modify so much. If a prospective customer wanted something he didn’t think was suitable, he was willing to lose the sale.

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Mike Barry riding in Wimbledon in the late 1940s.Courtesy of the Family

He could seem an anachronism. He never found an appreciation for mountain bikes, which he said were “ugly, the bicycle equivalent of the SUV," even as they took over the cycling market. He didn’t see a reason to wear a helmet when riding. He urged serious cyclists to install fenders at a time when most expensive bikes weren’t built to allow them. He stuck with high-end steel as carbon-fibre frames became ubiquitous.

Mariposa customer Oliver Bertin remembers admiring a racing bicycle given to the younger Michael Barry by one of his teams, only to have the father sniff disapprovingly. “It’s carbon-fibre,” Mr. Barry said. “Steel is better.”

Although Mr. Barry did build racing bicycles – his first frame was for the track and later efforts included radically shaped time-trial bikes – his love was for classic lines. And this was part of the appeal for a certain kind of buyer. He built a loyal customer base among those who preferred a time-tested approach to bikes, enthusiasts of an aesthetic that carried echoes of the French touring bicycles of the 1960s and ’70s.

The resulting bicycle frames were not the lightest available – this reporter can attest to the weight penalty felt when riding a Mariposa in the mountains – but they were responsive and durable, and predictable when descending at high speed. The slight flexing of the steel meant they lost a bit of efficiency, but it also helped make them comfortable, a key factor when riding very long distances.

These were routes Mr. Barry sought out, including one in 1980 when he and his Bicyclesport co-owner Mike Brown had work to do near Philadelphia and decided to make a 1,600-kilometre ride of it. The round trip from Toronto took them seven days.

The next year, the two men cycled 720 kilometres through the French Pyrenees, doing the ride in October because they couldn’t get away from their shop in the summer. Their friend Bob Zeller drove a support vehicle and remembers the roads being icy and the cyclists lashed with wind and snow. Hotels they had counted on were closed. Mr. Barry arrived sick at the start and got progressively worse.

“He was just drained, absolutely drained, to the point where I really thought that his heart would just stop,” Mr. Zeller said.

“Of course … he lived to tell the tale, but that’s how ill he was. And the reason that’s an important story is it shows the courage he had. He was not going to give up.”

The two men did the route in 76 hours, including all their time off the bike. Then, seeking a new challenge, Mr. Barry set his sights on the doyenne of amateur long-distance cycling, the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris. The 1,200-kilometre event is run non-stop, meaning the clock keeps ticking during any eating or sleeping breaks cyclists might take, and requires a series of long qualifying rides called brevets.

At the time, there was no sanctioned club in Ontario to run these brevets. So Mr. Barry and Mr. Brown set one up and mapped out the requisite rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres. In the end, though, Mr. Barry was unable to take the time to do Paris-Brest-Paris, which he never rode.

But the club he helped start – which now operates as Randonneurs Ontario – has flourished in the decades since. It has qualified 150 people for PBP over the past nine editions of the event, many of them completing it repeatedly.

Although Mr. Barry stuck to shorter distances in his later years, his family says he was cycling until nearly the end of his life.

He rode 40 kilometres last September at the Growling Beaver Brevet, an event put on by Bicycle Specialties. And his family said in a public notice of his death that until his final weeks, the octogenarian was still cycling a favourite local route – a round trip that could range from 60 to 120 kilometres, much of it on gravel roads – from near the Toronto Zoo to a bakery in Goodwood, Ont. “As always, he ordered tea and an Eccles cake.”

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