My first introduction to Handlebar Coffee, in fact California, on an unplanned stop off wasn’t the first time it had flashed across my radar, that was my wife Sarah stumbling across them in a lifestyle magazine back when we lived in the UK then a related self guided bit of internet wanderlust around a place that had history for her, and my family but not yet me. I didn’t make the connection until we stood outside it, dear friend Jeff my local host/ guide / caffienator deciding to fuel us up before heading north to ride up the known Gibraltar Road climb and broaden my fledgeling Californian knowledge as much as possible in my short time here. This is where my bike was built to live but it was thousands of miles away missing out.
Introduced to Handlebar Coffee Roasters’ parents Aaron Olsen and Kim Anderson I was left to a holy trinity of caffeine, cake and picture editing while Jeff had to go to his studio across town to carry on his prime job as a functioning local photographer instead of his temporary host and guide role and later that day riding partner.
Putting together visual stories of the last two weeks that ranged from the desert in Arizona to snow capped Colorado and literally everything in between seen from a passenger seat lasted about half an hour before the real life stories of transient coffee dwellers migrated through the tables around me took precedence of my focus, attention and then pencil. I’m definitely a believer in the every day can be as interesting as the blockbuster story and this was a people watcher’s paradise. Interesting points of view and tear sheets of actual lives were projected together as snippets of parallel lives flashed a page of prologue in front of me then closed leaving the building and continuing the story blip-vert at a time to passers by for the next hour, likely to have ten alternative endings to each story recorded by the time they reached home.
I met interesting people that day I spent in a cafe too. There was the woman that knew the same squares I remember fondly from childhood summers spent in Tuscany. The Man that worked with some of hollywood’s greats and had produced a show he flattered me by assuming I was too young to know, The Brady Bunch. And then there were the cyclists. Many many cyclists. Obviously being a cafe with a genuine pro-cycling bloodline directed that but it is interesting to me that while there once were destination shops for cyclists to flock to, drool at and leave with a trinket and perhaps a friend to ride with in future, now even in the internet age, there is still the hook of meeting and greeting in the flesh, comparing machines and drinking refreshment that there was in 50’s car culture. Perhaps without the drag racing but the ethos remains the same. Chat rooms are and were a thing yes, but nothing really compares with getting an increasingly unpronounceable drink with friends in the flesh and spinning freewheels leant against your table for ideas rather than swiping left on your lap.
Once the hubbub of breakfast had died down and been delivered to workplaces around the village, and it had started to feel like a village locally, Handlebar Cafe had been left to the lifers like me sat down and plugged in for the long haul. It was about this point I remember being taken for a tour of the establishment by it’s dad. Former pro-cyclists Aaron and Kim had started this local pub of a cafe back in 2011 after a natural end to a comfortable career in the saddle across the globe. It’s usual now to see a high end coffee outlet tie in with a local cycling culture and pair up with it’s tribes to create union in subculture, but back then it was fresher approach for the cycling family to the usual hope a cafe would have a visible lamp post to lean £30k of bikes against.
Obviously the smell of coffee is a known stimulant suggested by estate agents to sell houses, but coffee roasting takes the idea and turns it up to eleven. I have spent a few hours now in the close proximity to machines preparing coffee beans for their end users and it’s the kind of smell you hope won’t wash out of a T shirt and doesn’t wear off a memory.
I wouldn’t say I know my beans when it comes to coffee like perhaps I knew my Kodak film grains of yesteryear and as much as it would be easy to categorise the contemporary volume of coffee experts as know it all’s, but I can recognise when a combination of passion and skill collide and out comes a subtle feed of power up material engaging in sound but gentle in arrival with confidence stamped by aroma to make handing over your hard earned both a part of the pageant but also simply worth doing. The 1980s TV ad’s where instant coffee making man in the kitchen faked steam whooshes and splutters in order to authenticate his abomination to the easily impressed date in the living room kind of sums up where making coffee both needed to be socially and found itself thirty years later. Just like knowing who made your expensive, chosen, loved bike frame by hand and how long it took them to do it adds authenticity and feeling to an otherwise automated, robotic, efficient but soulless procedure of most bikes’ creation devoid of humanity, the pomp, hiss, steam and early victorian-like mechanisation of the espresso machine creates theatre worthy of this nectar of the cycling gods. Watching it recreate each time isn’t like pressing a button and waiting for a cup to drop holding your awakening to go, it’s a sensual drama played out in front of you out of proportion to what is produced in your honour but a welcome ingredient of it nonetheless.
Watching the focus of hands opening valves and turning levers shrouded by tiny pockets of steam and escaping heat in front of you while talking in a clear voice over the whooshes and drama, similar to the Emerald City behind the curtain scene from The Wizard of Oz is like seeing a circus of steam and sound performing for you, just in front of you in exchange for one of your coins. You even get a doggy bag at performance’s end with a dribble of nectar captured in a small paper cup.
A message of delay for my picking up saw me seated back at the front line starting to write up the story of the previous couple of days road trip North up the centre of the country before I flew out to the west before flying east to London then south to home in the mediterranean. My words and memories became constantly interlaced with other people’s stories as they wandered past to the door and in the end I decided to pick up the camera having a rest at my feet at record what a morning in Handlebar coffee looked like. The couple on the window seats dreaming, the faces queueing for their place in this ritual as a small part of their own bigger picture that day, the reappearance of the boss with fresh roasted bean the next round.
It seemed a good time to ask if I could make the portrait of these two local dignitaries and we stepped outside to where new friends of old friends were having a pre ride watering before heading into the backdrop hills nearby. Click, click, done, my escort Jeff arrived in a 1983 Porsche 911 fitting to what I’d imagine a Californian dream life ought to shape up like and off we went, cameras and computer stuffed in the back in front of the boiler room in the boot. After this afternoon’s appointment with pedals, the next photographic stop would be Aaron Stinner’s handmade Frameworks down the road tomorrow hastily organised earlier by new friends I would see there at work and play the next day.
My first and to date only experience of California had lived up to it’s ‘paradise’ billing by friends but the part that most struck me was feeling included by this community of a ‘village’ after only a day and not being treated like the outsider with a strange dialect I in fact was. That and being picked up from the airport in a classic Porsche and blasting past Hollywood greats’ palm tree lined mansions like a scene from an 80’s movie before meeting new colleagues at yet more photo studios in this town creative that would go on to become friends that could keep me in caffeine thousands of miles away hospitalised in France years later after just one ride together years before. On reflection I was probably still in culture shock on arrival in California from what later would strike with me as my kind of America – The America of the road movie – New Mexico, but I was made to feel so at home here by relative strangers that I can’t help thinking I will return. With bike rather than camera.