Ben Kamenjas, owner of Cicli Spirito in St Leonards, is as passionate a bike enthusiast as you’ll ever meet. And he considers the Creative Precinct where he works to be a “mythological place right under everyone’s nose”. His story is compelling…
I grew up in the far western suburbs and as a kid my bicycle was a form of freedom. An adventure machine, which could take me on trips over the hills and far away (well, at least till it was close to getting dark and time for me to be home). First BMX bikes, then European racing bikes, road & track (velodrome). There definitely wasn’t much of a cycling scene in my ‘hood & in some way I guess it offered a sense of dissociation that appealed. I adored the way the bikes looked, and the whole culture was literally from another planet. I was a terrible racer (never trained) but obsessed about the bikes.
I finished school, moved closer to the city to study and later work. My passion for bikes lingered but in the background. I’d worked most of my life in hospitality (bars and restaurants) in Sydney and then London and New York. It was in New York City that the ‘bike bug’ bit again and bit hard. I needed to balance my night time existence with a wholesome, healthy daytime recreation. I’d realised that in the middle of a bustling city there were plenty of places to ride and places close to the fringe of the city to escape to. In warmer months, cycling in Central Park in the middle of the night was like a private oasis. A place where riding a bike felt like a million miles away.
My obsession with bikes turned into also tinkering with them. Fixing them up, helping friends buy them, making sure they had a cool ride. My apartment filled up with bikes and all my spare time was spent rummaging bike shops, looking for vintage parts and going to swap meets. The internet happened and that opened a whole world of possibilities. I started sourcing rare and hard-to-find parts, selling them, and making a little money on the side. When I say “making money” … that means I bought and sold bike stuff to buy and sell more bike stuff. Part dealer, part hustler, part addict. Immersed in this journey I became an expert with classic and vintage bikes (mostly racing bikes) from the 1930s to the late 1980s. The newer stuff also appealed and I was familiar with that as well but something about the timeless lines and shiny parts on hand built steel frames always drew my fascination. Who doesn’t like shiny?
By accident I found internet forums with other bike nerds, and my username or nom de plume, ‘Spirito’, kind of stuck. When I’d meet forum people in person or at bike events they would refer to me as ‘Spirito’ (not by my real name Ben). I guess when it came time to start a business the name Spirito seemed a natural choice as it was more famous than me.
The bike obsession grew into more than just a hobby. No longer satisfied with fixing them I set out to learn how to make them. Part engineering, part metallurgy, part biomechanics. There’s no specific school to learn to make bicycles in the traditional way so I’d visit and glean info from famed (and usually ageing) artisanal bicycle makers in Europe, North America and Japan. Learning the old ways. Traditional bicycle frame building is something of a dying art. It takes more time, skill, the materials are more costly per bike but there is something of a renaissance for them. I enrolled in TAFE to improve my welding skills and started collecting all the tooling and fixtures. During that time I worked for Deus Ex Machina (Darlinghurst) and then Woolys Wheels (Paddington) which gave my a wider perspective for all types of cyclists and the local bicycle market.
But, I always knew I’d have to start a business on my own. To maintain purity of concept and absolute quality, doing throngs right … no excuses, it takes however long it takes. I can build/assemble bikes from all eras, restore paintwork to better than original, build wheels and braze/weld/fabricate steel bikes by hand. Almost all the work is custom, and requires a high level of skill, not just pulling things out of a box. I’m not forced to churn product or sell stock on hand. Everything I do is in collaboration with my customer, the goals are only limited by their budget. I help make their bicycle dreams happen. I felt the traditional model of bikes shops weren’t able to cater for those (who like me) obsessed about their bikes. My customers are young and old, from all walks of life, some race at elite level and some barely even ride but they all share the same fascination for the worlds most beautiful machine, the bicycle. In essence, my workshop is a home to all bike nerds.
Cyclists north of the bridge are perhaps the fastest growing in number in all of Sydney. They usually travel further distances when commuting, and many cyclists from all over Sydney head to rides through to the Upper North Shore National Parks, Northern Beaches and Hawkesbury area. Managing the stairs on the harbour bridge is still quite a trial and in general the cycling infrastructure lacks cohesion and dedicated planning through different councils. The general congestion and traffic angst is certainly something of an issue for many, but every bike usually means one less car and Sydney will perhaps one day be as cyclist friendly as many other bike cities around the world.
I needed a space to have a proper workshop. Somewhere to build and make things, unlike most retail stores that churn through mediocre, mass produced bicycles. Having a space that was a little outside of the box would be best in terms of keeping my overheads low but also allowing me the freedom to be creative, to dream and be able to produce finer products that took time, and were of higher quality. In my search I found Brand X and in turn their collaboration with TWT in forming the Creative Precinct was exactly the environment I needed. Being surround by artists, musicians and other creative industries seemed like a perfect fit, and together with my little workshop brings life to what was a mostly empty and drab laneway. The look and feel I decided upon was something like late 60’s industrial Milan, like a proper old school bikeshop where the owner of the shop, was also the guy working inside and making high quality race bikes. That romance is something essential to how I work… it’s the Spirit or vibe of how things were done. Hence Cicli Spirito .. or Spirit Cycles in Italian. The bikes that roll out of my workshop are far more interesting and varied than any other bike shop in Australia, possibly the whole Southern Hemisphere. Bicycles that people dream about.
The concept of the St Leonards Creative Precinct is a breath of fresh air. The precinct means a multitude of creative industries and artists have access to affordable spaces, somewhere where they can create and be altruistic to their art/profession, blossom and grow and dare, make a few mistakes or think outside the box. That seldom happens in Sydney as often the cost to entry for such businesses/industries is often too high to take chances or risks. TWT themselves are also quite unique in that their approach and enthusiasm for arts and creativity is a way of introducing themselves to the neighbourhood. It is a kind of gift or genuine spirit, and that has been fostered throughout the Creative Precinct and local community. There is now life and colour and energy in what was previously empty buildings. The Creative Precinct has been a long needed lifeblood or elixir, not only for myself but for others too. It’s quite a rare community.
The interaction with the artists and different business owners is invaluable. It’s like an investment in ideas and idealism. We feed off each other. The locals and people who work close by also feel the charm and energy. Whether they stop by to admire the artwork on the street or drop by the workshop to check out what’s happening. To hear them ask “You actually make the bicycle ?” as if nobody expects anything to be made locally anymore.
From a business perspective I’ll be focussing the next few months on stretching my muscles and bringing more of the ‘hand built’ ethos to the fore … building the bicycle frames to order, using traditional methods and made out of high quality steel tubing. Like getting a suit made to order – being measured for size, then discussing materials and use, and of course colour. Bespoke. Then I order materials, design the frame and get to work. 6 to 8 weeks later my customers can pick up their bicycle, custom built and tailor made just for them. Unlike any other. Built right here in St Leonards … or San Leonardo as i like to call it. A mythological place right under everyone’s nose.