Finding Tommy Boy

Words & Photos || Gary J Boulanger

Listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s ‘Jazz at Oberlin’ while eating a chicken wrap on Air Canada flight 758 to Toronto, it strikes me that I’ve somehow become a bit cultured since relocating to the South Bay of Mountain View, California seven years ago. In 2006, I was working alongside Tom Ritchey with Project Rwanda, before the advent of the iPhone and iPad. Toronto native Michael Barry, whom I was scheduled to interview last week, was racing for the Discovery Channel Cycling Team. The following year meant a change for both of us: me to as its U.S. editor, and Barry to Bob Stapleton’s T-Mobile team after five years under Johan Bruyneel.

I also met the elder Barry, who prefers Mike, a former bicycle shop owner and frame builder, at the San Jose North American Handmade Bicycle Show. He was there as an admirer, roaming the halls with Douglas Brooks, a friend and former customer of mine when I worked at Rivendell Bicycle Works in the mid 1990s. Barry’s Mariposa frames predated the current youthful handbuilt craze by decades, with their steel forks, chromed lugs and pinstriping. Barry raced road and cyclocross in his native England before finally settling in Toronto in 1968, laying a foundation for his son to build upon 25 years later. I first learned about Mike in the pages of the Rivendell Reader in 2003, in an extensive interview with Grant Petersen.

My objective in visiting the Barry duo? Find out how strong the cycling bond courses through their veins, as both men tackle retirement from their chosen professions. It’s only fitting that I’m reading the latest issue of Rouleur on my iPad at 35,000 feet above the clouds, a magazine that conjures up professional cycling both in front of and behind the scenes, something I’m keen to unearth from Michael. In addition to having raced all three Grand Tours, multiple Olympics and several world championships, he’s also an accomplished author and writer, publishing Le Métier (with Rouleur Books) and several articles for Bicycling, VeloNews, and the New York Times.

Barry the younger has been lying low since retiring from the pro peloton last September following a crash-marred final season with Team Sky. His quiet retirement was rattled by the October 12 USADA Reasoned Decision regarding Lance Armstrong and his nefarious doping practices, which included sworn testimony of Barry’s doping with the US Postal team. I interviewed Michael for my blog prior to his 36th birthday in December 2011, and enjoyed our interaction. In January 2013, I spoke with two of Barry’s former teammates, Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie, with whom the Canadian trained in Girona, Spain, home base for dozens of North American pros. Our discussions centered not on doping (that topic had been flogged repeatedly in both the cycling and general news media, and both men were sanctioned), but on the family cycling bonds Vande Velde and Hincapie shared with their fathers and siblings.

I booked a flight to spend a few days with the Barrys in Toronto.

Cranes, cranes and more cranes

My flight arrived at Pearson International Airport (code YYZ for you Rush fans) on a densely clouded rainy Monday. Mike picked me up in his blue Volkswagen Passat station wagon, and we crept through the snail-paced traffic on 401 toward my cheap hotel near Cliffside, although in hindsight I would’ve preferred something near the Upper Beaches. He explained the rampant construction throughout Toronto, which apparently has more cranes in operation than all the major North American cities combined. It looked like a sci-fi movie set. Understanding a fellow cyclist’s need for nourishment, Barry asked if I’d like to share a meal. The only decent place in the vicinity of my hotel was a Tim Horton’s, so a Tuscan chicken panini with mushroom soup and a coffee it was before retiring. It would be my first of two visits.

Immigrants, bike messengers and coffee shops

After a day spent interviewing father and son at Bicycle Specialties for a future Paved print feature, and watching the Toronto International Track & Field Games with Mike and his grandson Liam, I met Michael for a bicycle tour of Toronto. The ride wasn’t strenuous at all; in fact, it was most enlightening from a historical standpoint, as Barry provided an educational narrative the entire time. He pointed out the various locations where his father’s bike shops were throughout the years, including the site of his youth race series, also organized by his father. He rode his Team Sky-issued Pinarello, and loaned me his Pinarello cyclocross bike, fenders and all.

Michael is a map man, not reliant on a GPS, which meant our ride meandered a bit at first. After trying to stick to the waterfront trail alongside Lake Ontario, we visited the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, located at the eastern end of Queen Street and at the foot of Victoria Park Avenue along the shore of Lake Ontario in the Beaches neighborhood. The Art Deco style structure was constructed on the former site of Victoria Park, a waterfront amusement park that operated until 1906. Construction on the plant began in 1932 and the building became operational on November 1, 1941.

The building, unlike most modern engineering structures, was also created to make an architectural statement: the interiors are just as opulent, with brass-handled doors and rails, marble entryways, and vast halls filled with pools of water and filtration equipment. The plant has earned the nickname ‘The Palace of Purification’, and is part of the narrative of Toronto author Michael Ondaatje’s work of historical fiction, In the Skin of a Lion. The book spun a tale of the wretched conditions of working men and women in the Toronto of the 1920′s.

”Toronto is a city of immigrants,” he told the New York Times in September 1987, the year In the Skin of a Lion was published:

”But there is very little official history about who they were, what their lives were like. I didn’t want to talk about politicians or historical figures. I wanted to talk about the people who were unhistorical – all those invisible professions that lay behind history.” A self-acknowledged slow writer, Mr. Ondaatje took eight years to finish his second novel. ”I write very freely,” he said, ”but then do a lot of rewriting to alter it, change it, dip it into other colors.” Having also worked as a documentary filmmaker, he defends his method of weaving many stories together simultaneously by comparing it to similar techniques in the visual arts and contemporary music. ”The novel has been quite slow in picking up what the other arts are doing,” he said. ”For years they have been doing things that are much more suggestive, much freer of chronological sequence.”

His more popular novel, The English Patient, was published in 1992, and an Academy Award-winning movie was made in 1996.

Ondaatje is a frequent patron of Jet Fuel Coffee Shop in the Cabbagetown neighborhood, which he referenced in his 2007 novel Divisadero. Jet Fuel owner John Englar also sponsors Canada’s longest-running cycling team, and was a pioneering Toronto-based alley-cat organizer and bike messenger in the 1980s.

From whiskey to Hollywood

The 2015 Pan American Games are coming to Toronto, and much of the lakefront construction is due to the event. After riding along the developed lakefront, bar-to-bar, Barry, himself a 2000 PanAm athlete, asked if I’ve seen the movie Tommy Boy.

“Seen it?” I said with a smile, turning to look him in the eye. “It’s a family favorite!”

In 1832, William Gooderham and friend James Worts opened a whiskey distillery on the location of their already successful Grist Mill on Toronto’s banks of Lake Ontario. Being in a prime shipping position on both the lake and adjacent to The Canadian National Railway mainline, Gooderham & Worts became the largest distillery in the world by 1860, producing over two million gallons a year of Canadian Rye Whiskey.

After weathering the Ontario Temperance Movement and U.S. Prohibition, Gooderham & Worts remained North America’s leading producers of rye whiskey, until selling the company in 1923 to a rival company that remained in the location until the 1990s, when it became known as the Distillery District.

Abandoned for nearly a decade, the Victorian brick buildings of the former distillery attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. With over 800 film and television productions, the Distillery District became the number one filming location in Canada. I instantly recognized the area which was converted into the Callahan’s Auto Parts factory for ‘Tommy Boy’, Peter Segal’s 1995 masterpiece, co-starring Rob Lowe, Brian Dennehy and Bo Derek.

In 2003, the former distillery of Gooderham & Worts was redeveloped into a community of retail shops, restaurants, and galleries dedicated to art, culture, and entertainment, much of which, I’m sure, was based on Chris Farley and David Spade’s performance.

Ed. Note: Boulanger’s full-length feature story on the Barrys, Vande Veldes and Hincapies will appear in Paved this fall.

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