Roadside Assistance

F rom a distance, Joel LaChance’s umbrella-topped cart parked at the corner of Orange and Cottage Streets might be mistaken for a hot dog stand. But get a little closer and, instead of ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, you’ll see wrenches and pliers and a pump.

For the past decade, LaChance has set up his mobile bike repair shop, The Goatville Cyclesmith, on this East Rock corner and fixed customers’ flat tires, slipping gears and squealing brakes en plein air, mostly without appointments. “I’m like street theater out here,” says LaChance, who’s been known to take a bent wheel over to a city bike rack and slip it between the bars to get the necessary torque.

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As we stand chatting on a humid June day, a man rolls up with a little girl in a jogging stroller. “Hey, how’s that workin’ out?” LaChance asks. “I love it!” the man replies, adding that the jogger’s front wheel just needs a tweak; it’s drifting to the right. The girl climbs out, and La Chance kneels down to make what might be the quickest repair in history.

Strollers, lawnmowers, snow blowers—LaChance has repaired them all. “Anything with tires and wheels,” he says. This would make a good tag line, I comment, but LaChance has a better one: “Fixing flats and raising spirits.”

His own spirits were raised the first time he tried a road bike. He’d just graduated from high school in Detroit, where he’d spent his time hanging out in the metal shop. At home, he’d learned from his father, a General Motors machine repairman, how to use tools and fix household appliances. But instead of pursuing a similar career, he decided to join the Marines. Just before he left town, he took a ride on a friend’s new bike. “It was the first bike I had ridden with dropped handlebars…and I was smitten,” LaChance recalls. He went “slaloming through the neighborhood.” As soon as he could buy his own, he did. With his education in simple machinery, he “understood it immediately.” After the service, in college at Northern Michigan University, “I was the bike guy,” LaChance says. “There weren’t many other people riding bikes then… It wasn’t in fashion.”

Even after becoming “the bike guy,” LaChance’s career in bikes didn’t get rolling right away. First, he tried construction in Florida, where hardly anyone else was cycling. Then he came to New Haven to catch up with a woman he hardly knew. When that romance ended, she left, and he stayed, having fallen in love with New Haven’s bike culture.

That twist of fate led to another: LaChance essentially inherited a bike shop from its owner, who could no longer run it. “The gentleman said, ‘Well, you know, I think you’re a good risk, and I’ll take a chance,’ and I was in business.” LaChance later moved that shop from Whalley Avenue and Brownell Street to Chapel Street (now Hull’s Art Supply & Framing) and changed the name to Cycles LaChance. For a few years, he operated a second location in Cheshire.

Ultimately, selling and fixing bikes was more a labor of love for LaChance than a decent living. After a decade in business, he closed the shop and spent another 10 years teaching elementary school. Then, when he was ready to retire, he thought back to one of his favorite experiences as a bike shop owner: running the repair station at the 1995 Special Olympics. Held in New Haven, the games included a wide array of cycling events. “These athletes, very few of them, are avid cyclists,” LaChance says. As a result, many of their bikes needed work. “They came from all over the world, too, so there were a lot of different brands that we weren’t familiar with. So, it was a lot of problem-solving, but it was wonderful.”

Upon retirement, LaChance figured New Haveners could use the same kind of help. He got himself a Worksman industrial tricycle—a cargo bike traditionally used to move quickly through large factories—and built a custom storage box/work bench to mount in front of the handlebars. The big umbrella and a repair stand fold up, and at the end of the day, LaChance rides his repair shop home to the barn apartment he shares with his wife, Jane Hindenlang, on Bishop Street. He also has a workshop there, where he does some repairs and stores extra parts.

On the street, LaChance’s stock includes about eight different sized tires and several boxes of tubes. Another repeat customer rolls up with his second flat tire of the season, attributing it to some kind of karmic message. Or maybe he just wasn’t keeping the tires inflated properly. He’s in luck, and LaChance has the proper tube. The repair only takes about 10 minutes while the cyclist hangs out on the patio at Enoteca Cassanova, chatting with old friends he hasn’t seen in awhile. Then he’s off again. LaChance glances up at the cloudy sky, then checks the weather forecast. One drawback of the mobile business is it’s weather-dependent.

Despite the recent quarantine, with sunny days, business is picking up. But COVID-19 shut down the plans LaChance was most excited about this spring: the introduction of a bicycle curriculum into New Haven Public Schools via a pilot program at East Rock Community Magnet School. “It’s common practice in Europe and Asia,” LaChance says. “They recognize that bicycling is an essential skill for people in cities, so it’s become my mission to see that it becomes part of the curriculum in the public schools.”

East Rock second-graders were to have had six days of bicycle instruction—five of them in the school gym on helmet sizing, getting acquainted with the bike and skills training and, on the sixth day, a five-mile ride through their neighborhood. LaChance’s ultimate dream as both a cyclist and a former educator is not only to expand the program district-wide but also to include modules in kindergarten, sixth grade and high school, based on a program in Washington, DC. Now he’s uncertain when or even whether the cycling curriculum will launch.

What’s fairly certain is this: If you’ve got a bike that needs repair, you can ride or drive it up to the Orange Street curb on a sunny day this season, and LaChance will take care of it.

The Goatville Cyclesmith
Orange St and Cottage St, New Haven (map)
Mon, Wed, Fri 11am-5pm; Sat morning-ish; and by appointment
(203) 907-9526 | Lachancej2@gmail.com
$40 per hour plus parts
www.goatvillecyclesmith.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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