Explore downtown Calgary with the Rath Bicycle experience
Blue skies and sunny days are not a rarity in Calgary. As a result, there is an abundance of opportunity to trundle along the extensive cycle paths that interconnect the downtown and sprawling neighbourhoods. Christa and I recently had opportunity to enjoy a relaxed, yet rejuvenating, cycle along one of our favourite city cycle circuits, starting in the trendy East Village, passing the legendary Calgary Stampede grounds along the Elbow River, to the beautiful Reader Rock Garden. All this while comfortably perched atop 7-speed vintage cruiser bicycles and donned in trendy helmets, courtesy of Rath Bicycle.
We do love a good family story, and Rath Bicycle is one of them. The business was established in 2014 after owner, Tom Rath, a mechanical engineer, was joined by his son who, himself an avid cyclist, graduated that year with an engineering qualification. During this time Tom worked in a local bicycle shop to gain experience working on and repairing bicycles.
A reCycle lifestyle
It would seem that the Rath family has always been into recycling and reusing. With a German immigrant heritage, both Tom and wife, Lori, learnt from a young age to live simply and not to waste. This sentiment permeates the way they strive to do life now. The old adage that “bigger is better” could not be further from their desired reality, as they attempt to declutter their lives, seeking to downsize and live closer to the city centre where commuting and even shopping – by bicycle, of course – are easier. It’s this way of life that seems to undergird the ethos of the Rath family business’ use of recyclable materials and their efforts at reducing their contribution to the carbon footprint.
Unlike Europe, North America does not necessarily promote a cycle culture. Motorist-awareness and education of cyclists is negligible, while infrastructure doesn’t naturally facilitate use of pedal power around our urban centres. In Calgary, we are very spoiled by the foresight that our early city planners had to intentionally make allowance for an extensive interconnected cycle and pedestrian pathway system. The Bow River pathway, Mattamy / Greenway and downtown integrated cycle-paths are very obvious examples that make pedal-power commuting easily accessible to all Calgarians.
The Rath Story
The family-owned, family-run Rath Bicycle employs husband-and-wife duo, Tom and Lori. They are joined by their son, who assists with technical and business elements of the operation, and his wife, who does their photography and advertising. Between them, the two couples tag-team and cover for one another during business hours. They have elected to keep it as a family-run business, striving to maintain genuine interactions between themselves and their trusted clients.
Rath Bicycle have had a presence in the East Village since 2016, facilitating the promotion of active living and a different mode of transportation to the emerging East Village and downtown community. This was well aligned with the family’s love of cycle commuting. Despite living in the suburbs of Calgary, the Raths are gung-ho to park their cars and cycle everywhere as often as possible, eager to make use of the cycling infrastructure that the city offers. They are particularly passionate about the River Walk that many suburban Calgarians are unaware of or rarely use.
Initially, all advertising was by word of mouth. More recently, their clean and interactive website has given them more exposure and enhanced their business traffic.
What defines “vintage”?
Vintage bicycles are usually steel-framed bikes that are lugged. The most common of these are from the 60’s and 70’s, and are cruisers with the old Sturmey-Archer hub, in 3-speed or 10-speed. These bikes typically came out of England or Japan. “Why steel-framed?”, you might ask. Most of these bicycles were handmade, had a rich back-story, and required significant skill to braise and assemble.
Most modern materials of construction like carbon fibre, that may be more light-weight, cannot be recycled nor easily repaired. Vintage bicycles, on the other hand, were practically indestructible. Made of long-lasting, durable steel, the material can be refurbished. If irreparable, steel can ultimately be recycled, recovering the metal, rubber and many of the associated componentry.
There is a growing awareness amongst consumers – and bicycle owners are no exception – that the mentality of discarding the old and buying new is often unnecessary, when the old things can be returned to good service. When it comes to vintage bicycles, this certainly holds true. These bicycles were generally built better, had more class and were one-of-a-kind. These days, Rath clients are even bringing their old family bicycles to be restored. This eagerness to recycle is not a matter of affordability, but more about the recognized uniqueness of their vintage asset and the desire to minimize waste. And, more often than not, a bicycle is restored because it has personal significance for the owner and a story that begs to be preserved.
What does Rath Bicycle offer?
Rath Bicycle’s business model is disruptive, with their seasonal East Village container location open from spring through to the fall. Although the selection of stock that they keep on hand may appear limited, Rath Bicycle source unique equipment in keeping with their style. If you happen to like what you see, you can choose to buy and enjoy it.
Note that mountain bikes are not part of the Rath portfolio.
Located in the East Village along River Walk, near the George C. King pedestrian bridge that straddles the Bow River at St Patrick’s Island Park, their 20-foot by 7-foot neon pink steel container houses up to 20 bicycles. Included are 12 rental bikes and one model of city bike that are of the step-through (traditionally for women) or step-over (traditionally for men) configuration. They also showcase up to three exquisitely restored vintage bikes on display and available for purchase.
It’s not unusual for new, unsuspecting clients to visit the East Village, happen upon Rath Bicycle’s iconic pink container, and leave with a restored vintage bicycle. Tom tells the story that in the years they’ve been doing this they’ve only had one complaint. A concerned customer contacted Tom after buying their new masterpiece in a quandary, asking “Tom! Do I ride my bike? Or display it?” Tom’s response was, “You do both!” New vintage bicycle owners often become fast friends and return regularly to talk shop and share their cycling experiences.
There are three primary facets to the Rath’s business: rentals, restoration and sales.
The Rath’s cycle rental segment has taken off and has been very well supported by both locals and visitors alike. While the emerging East Village hospitality industry is a significant source of their customer base, locals who find themselves downtown from their suburban neighbourhoods have become equally strong contributors to their rental customer base. After all, who wouldn’t want to be seen riding one of these vintage-like gems along Calgary’s pathways?
“Retrospec” is a dealer operating out of California who manufacture and supply exceptional quality vintage-style bicycles that fit the desired Rath Bicycle style. These bicycles, available in step-through and step-over format, are used by the Raths for rental and are also available for sale.
All bicycles are fitted with full fenders, chain guards, spring-cushioned seats, 7-speeds, a rear bracket for carrying items, and an easy-to-use combination lock for securing the bicycle should you need to do that during your ride.
The upright city cruisers are ultra-comfortable and easy to manoeuvre. The 7-speed gearing system make them simple to adjust and provide a more than adequate gear ratio for the relatively flat downtown cycle routes.
Rentals from the East Village location close before sundown, so no headlights are necessary.
Trendy helmets can be rented for a nominal fee and are recommended for your outing.
Bicycle rental rates are very attractive and affordable.
Hours of operation may vary. Where they indicate that they are “open by appointment”, this means that customers can generally contact Lori or Tom who will endeavour to be available within an hour to rent you a bicycle if they are not on site at their pink container.
Bicycles can be rented for private functions including wedding photo shoots and special events.
Consult their website for updated information.
Rath Bicycle offers a restoration service. Here, your vintage bicycle will be completely stripped down, cleaned and rebuilt from the bare frame using your existing parts or restored and salvaged parts where necessary. If paintwork is required, Tom is able to blend and colour-match paints to restore them to their original look. Scratched and damaged labels will likely be left as-is because these tell a story and contribute to the vintage authenticity of the original bicycle.
An extension of the Rath’s recycling philosophy is expressed in the vintage leather bags, complete with stitching and buckles, that Tom has purposely designed to compliment the vintage look and fulfil a practical need. These quaint bags, sold separately, attach to the rear of the saddle and can be used for storing tools or small personal items. And, of course, each unique bag is constructed entirely from recycled materials.
The exceptionally well-maintained fleet of “Retrospec” rental bikes is sold off to the public at the end of the rental season. This sales event is well-worth looking out for, if you’re in the market for one of these bicycles. But be warned: bikes typically sell within a week.
Assembled bikes – whether of the rental style or a meticulously restored vintage model – can be delivered to your home within Calgary. A full warranty is included with your first year of ownership.
Repair services and tune-ups
Rath Bicycles has invested a significant amount of money in education, equipment and imported tools.
A basic bicycle repair service is offered at the East Village pink container site, pending Tom’s availability. He has a tooling and bike stand in the shop and is able to do anything from rim repairs to brake adjustments.
Explore and enjoy
A downtown cycle is never a solitary endeavour. We were joined by dog walkers, pedestrians, fishermen, running enthusiasts, urban gardeners and fellow cyclists along our route. We bumped into old friends and eyed out new places to explore on our next downtown adventure. We checked the river for signs of wildlife and avoided the geese and goslings who pepper the pathways of the East Village. As we cycled back to Rath Bicycle, under blue skies rapidly darkening to a drizzly Calgary evening, we were reminded again of the beauty of our city and the joy of being part of a community awakening to the splendour of Spring’s restorative warmth. What better way to experience this revival than from the seat of a classy, vintage bicycle!
The Raths are such a personable couple. They clearly love engaging with clients who seem to quickly become friends. Says Lori, “The best part of the business is the people. I’ve never had so many hugs in my life. Bicycles are just a happy thing.”