Ye Olde Bicycle Place and Café

6792 University Avenue, La Mesa

Oh, boy. A red and white Western Flyer. My childhood dream. And wow. Right next to it the monster I've always wanted to conquer: a six-foot-high 1898 penny-farthing bone-shaker.

Here I am, in the wilds of, what? Rolando? La Mesa? Got ejected from the 7B, 'cause this is the end of its line. Still gotta meet with Hank in La Mesa, but hey, till the 7 proper comes, time to investigate two low-roofed shops across the road. Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe, and...Ye Olde Bicycle Cafe. Whoever heard of that?

I hike across the road and come into, wowsie! A little...museum stuffed with ancient bikes. Everything from that 1890s penny farthing to a Gormully and Jeffery "Rambler" tandem, also from the 1890s, where the woman rides in front and the man steers from behind, to a bicycle for three that the Three Stooges rode in a movie.

But the thing that really gets me, looking at a rack of bikes from 1910, 1920, is how similar they are to today's bikes. Frame, tires, spokes.

I see this gal glance my way. Oh, yeah...I'd forgotten. They do food, too. She's standing behind the counter at the cafe part of the room. I thread my way through a bunch of comfy settees and carpets where folks read and play chess and use the free computers. The walls are green and salmon and display sexy 1920s French posters. Naked women riding bikes. Ooh-la-la. Plus French music. "A Man and a Woman" is playing. You realize how Euro the biking thing is.

"What's the deal with the museum?" I ask the gal, Vanessa.

"The owner, Dave, has been collecting bikes forever," she says. "He wanted to show some of them off."

The menu's up on a blackboard. They have mainly smoothies and drinks like blackberry green tea or organic coffee. But there are plenty of basic eats, too. I order a small coffee. It's organic but still only $1. The food's a list of toasted paninis or cold sandwiches. Mostly $3.50. They're named after bike races. The less famous the race, the simpler the sandwich. Like, the "Rosarito-Ensenada" is cheese and tomato; the "Tour de Cure" is turkey, bacon; "Midnight Madness" is turkey, ham, and cheese. The "Tour de France" is ham and Swiss on a croissant (it's $3.95), and "Tour d'Italia" ($4.50) -- this looks like a possibility -- is, well, loaded. Salami, pepperoni, ham, cheese. and other fixin's, including a pot of marinada. They also do a couple of gooey ones: the "Tandem," "a gooey double-decker peanut butter and jelly"; and "Critical Mass," peanut butter and banana on a bagel.

So, basically, we're talking toaster-oven/microwave cooking here. But being able to munch sandwiches in a museum ain't bad. I ask Vanessa for the Tour d'Italia. I notice they have a special too, a chicken and wild rice soup for $1.95. "We also have a Full Meal Deal," says Vanessa. "Any sandwich, chips, and soda for $4.50." Even with the Tour d'Italia. What's more, she agrees to swap out the chips and soda for the soup.

By the time she brings it over five minutes later, I'm chatting with the man himself, Dave. He collects bikes, repairs them, sells them. "I started this when I bought three brand-new bikes for my kids," he tells me.

I chomp into the panini. It's good, crispy-toasted oatnut bread packed with ham, salami, lots of onion and tomato, and generous doses of mayo and mustard. The wild rice soup is almost a meal in itself. Plenty of rice and carrots.

"Then, all three of those bikes were stolen," says Dave. "So I found old ones and fixed them up. Pretty soon I was doing it for the whole neighborhood." He ended up turning it into a full-time business. These days he sticks with secondhand and repairs, because "so many new-bike stores are going out of business."

Outsiders don't realize it, but bike pedalers are the original greenies. They collect around Dave's because he gets it. That's why he wanted to start his cafe. "This was my dream," he says. "I've been doing bikes for 27 years, and for 20 years I've wanted a hangout for all the ecominded bike types who come to my store." Three and a half years ago, he opened up. "Because this was the other thing: I wanted to start a bike museum. I collect bikes. I have about 1500 of them right now. I have a Wright Brothers bike that the Smithsonian wants..."

I finish up the panini, listening. It was delicious, just stuffed with great salty salami and the other meats. Even without the added bonuses of Dave, Vanessa, the bikes, the settees, the carpets, it's one helluva deal.

Turns out Dave's from Guam. He was a little kid during World War II, jammed in a jungle POW camp for his first four years. He remembers the Japanese guards beheading one prisoner every day, because nobody would tell where they were hiding an American radio operator named Roy Tweed. "Roy Tweed survived," he says. "But at the cost of many of our lives. I still have nightmares."

Whew. By the time I get up, it's 3:00. I've got to get to that trolley station. Dave invites me to come back for a bike ride. "We do one most days, to Point Loma or Oceanside."

"Uh, do you do them to the La Mesa trolley?" I ask. "Be quicker than the bus."

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