Purple turns green on city streets

Arriving in Whitehorse, I knew I’d need some wheels to get around town and better venture into the wild, beautiful mountains the Yukon is…

Arriving in Whitehorse, I knew I’d need some wheels to get around town and better venture into the wild, beautiful mountains the Yukon is famous for.

Unfortunately a car was out of my price range. So were most bikes — being a recent university graduate meant carrying lots of debt and little cash for modes of transportation beyond a bus pass.

Then I discovered Philippe’s Purple Bikes.

I went to look into getting a bike of my own from Philippe Leblond at his shop, Philippe’s Bike Repair, on 508 Wood St. and waited patiently for my turn to talk to him as he dealt with a long line of customers.

He was frantically selling bikes, repairing them, and dispensing cycling advice in both English and French.

The back yard of the shop was absolutely full of the skeletal remains of old bicycles, like some mysterious place where old bikes go to die and be reborn.

The shop spilled out the front door onto the lawn where a sign asked that visitors “please excuse the reno and general entropic state.”

LeBlond has been repairing bikes in Whitehorse for 14 years now and has been renting his Purple Bikes for five.

These ‘Frankenbikes’ — made from bits and pieces of decrepit old bikes donated to Leblond by their former owners, and assembled with just the right mix of skill, perseverance and luck — can be acquired for a mere $100, are maintained free of charge and can be returned for $50 at the end of the summer.

Not a bad deal.

The idea, which Leblond has had for some time now, was inspired by Amsterdam’s famous White Bicycle program, which has been running since the 1960s.

This unregulated community bicycle program, and others like it, involve scattering bikes around a city or campus, unlocked, to be used by all and sundry.

It’s a convenient, environmentally friendly mode of public transportation.

Unfortunately, many programs grapple with theft and vandalism, and Leblond’s initial attempts were no exception.

In ‘96 he gave it a try with some white bikes in Dawson, but threw in the towel when many ended up being stolen.

Not discouraged, he tried again in Whitehorse (what better place for a white bike program?) but most of the bikes lasted no more than a week and ended up being destroyed.

The third time’s the charm, however, and the Purple Bikes seem to be a much more prudent project.

The deposit insures that users take more care to lock up the bikes, and Leblond is able to pick and choose who gets to ride his creations.

He had some reservations about equipping me with one.

Young men tend to wreck bikes, he said.

But he quickly gave in.

I picked out my purple bike from the small pile remaining. It was the last machine with front suspension.

Leblond thinks that he has 25 to 30 Purple Bikes on the road right now, but has no way of knowing how many will eventually come back.

Whitehorse benefits from the project.

The bikes are great for transients, such as myself; good for the economy, as people become more mobile and employees are better able to get to work on time, and, of course, they’re environmentally friendly.

I asked Leblond if he thought he’d be able to receive a grant for this service he’s providing.

“There’s money out there,” he replied, at home in the chaos of bike parts and tools that is his shop. “But there’s a lot of paper work. Anyways, I don’t need it. I just need more help putting them together.”

He’s currently looking for bike mechanics, but decided not to hire me: while replacing a flat tire on my bike, I put the wheel on wrong.

“Besides,” he continued, “I find things get done better if you do them yourself.”

I wheeled my new Frankenbike out of Leblond mad laboratory in which it was brought to life, and peddled around some to test it out.

It definitely isn’t the prettiest bicycle in the world, but it will get me from A to B, and a lot faster than walking too.

“So, why purple?” I asked, just before I left the shop.

“Well, it’s a pretty uncommon colour for a bike,” he answered, smiling.

“And it’s my girlfriend’s favourite.”

Chris Oke is a freelance writer living in Whitehorse.