Florencio Irizarry, or ‘Flo’ as most call him, is a continual breath of fresh air at Contender Bicycles. He offers a wealth of knowledge in mountain bike suspension work, as well as vintage bicycles and rarities alike. He is an asset to not just Contender as a top-notch bicycle mechanic but to the Salt Lake City community.
Flo has worked on bicycles in the Salt Lake City area for over twenty years. Despite experiencing a heart attack last year, he sees little signs of slowing down, whether it is a bicycle he is riding or working on.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Flo to discuss being called the ‘Bike Whisperer’, riding a bike on the bleeding edge, and finding value in life through cycling. Alvin Holbrook: I once read a Cycling Utah article that called you the 'Bike Whisperer'...
Flo Irizarry: I don't know when that happened or when that came out. They used to call me ‘The Doctor’, and I didn’t like that either. Basically I’m fixing your bicycle. It's weird.
AH: What is so weird about it?
Flo: I’m working on a bicycle, its nothing crazy. If anything, I think I’ve been lucky more than anything else. I've had a few things turn sour but more often than not I’ve been lucky to be able to help people out with their bicycles.
I think there’s definitely skill in making a bicycle work as well as possible, and there's plenty of skill that you acquire over time. You’ve been around long enough to acquire said skill. But it's a matter of time basically, and few are lucky to have had the time around bikes that I have. I work on bikes so often that things become comfortable, you shave time, and you know how to make things happen.
I think the biggest thing when I compare myself to other people who have been in the industry for as long as I have is that I’ve never lost my love of bicycles. For many it's work, but I’ve never been upset at bicycles as a whole. Individual bicycle-related problems sure, but bicycles continue to fascinate me. I go deep with that stuff. Modern forks impress me more than anything else out there. It’s a part that weighs a pound or less and it supports 200 lb riders that are in great shape, and when they crank the bike while picking up speed, the amount of force it has to manage is impressive. Its the leading edge; anything that a bicycle impacts, the fork takes much of that force.
AH: Do you have a preferred fork or design?
Flo: No denomination. Just about any (modern) suspension fork can do so much, and take so much force, and do so reliably for so long. Bicycles can go over 50 mph and to fly down a canyon at that speed on a bike with such a skinny tire and do it over and over again is amazing to me. I think it's the coolest component of the bike.
And telescopic suspension forks are incredible. They are incredibly adjustable, come in tons of sizes, and can take even more pressure from braking forces, suspension, everything. From a repair standpoint, we know exactly how they’ll react and different situations reliably.
AH: You say you’re thankful that you haven't lost your love and appreciation of bicycles. Is there a specific moment you can point to that defines that?
FI: Yeah, this morning. I rode in the snow and my bike went sideways a couple of times and people in their cars looked at me like I was crazy. But I recovered it every time, and it was fun! Every time something happens to me like that while I’m on a bicycle I enjoy it. And that same part of me makes me feel awful every time something goes sour on the bicycle too.
AH: I remember you were telling about a time when you were descending through a canyon on your mountain bike and you were passing road bike riders left and right.
Flo: That was totally out of bounds. But the bike was descending with such confidence that it was easy. Those moments where you’re at the edge and you make shocking things happen sometimes is another reason why I love bicycles. Perhaps you could do it with a car or motorcycle, but on an open road, you’re breaking laws. If you lose it, you’re not only hurting yourself but others too.
A bicycle, on the other hand, it's not unlike running. But can you imagine running at 50 miles an hour? Those little moments... We hope we can do those things again.
As a matter of fact, I was thinking today that I felt like I was back! I can throw my weight around, I can go through rough obstacles, sliding sideways, and using my body to get my bike to do what it needs to let me know that I’m ready to ride off-road again. Today was a good day. (Flo recently had a heart attack, and while his recovery has been remarkable, anything like that can set you back for a while in recovery.)
AH: A previous article also said that you were a messenger for a while in New York City?
Flo: No, I wasn’t. I hung with a lot of messengers. I didn’t have the time! I needed to repair the bikes, but at the time in the late ’80s and early ’90s messengers ruled New York City. There were the X-Men Messengers and others that were doing things on the streets for deliveries that were amazing. At least, until the law started catching up to them. Riding a track bike in the city, no brake, at full tilt was fun. But I did not do that for a living.
AH: As a kid was there any specific moment where you thought you loved bikes?
Flo: Honestly, not really. I sucked at bikes. I learned to ride a bike when I was nine years old and by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, motorcycles came into the picture. It took about sixteen or seventeen years later in NYC to ride bikes. And out of all the bikes, I started riding road bikes rather than a road bike.
Central Park is the spot, man. You can find all the terrain you’d find all over the US in Central Park. Loose sand, loam, sheer rock faces. All kinds of trails. And the urban environment itself is very fun. AH: So you moved to New York and you got into bikes? How did that work?
Flo: I started commuting. It took less time; the subway is like feeding time at the zoo. Riding was more enjoyable than sitting on the subway and from then on I started riding more than for commuting purposes.
Before bicycles, I was into dirt bikes. I liked riding in the dirt with a two-wheeler and I had friends who rode mountain bikes in Central Park and they told me I was going to love riding there. They were right! Mountain bikes to me are basically the same dynamic as riding a dirt bike, but you can get away with more stuff.
It's difficult for people who ride dirt bikes and not mountain bikes to understand. It’s not fun, they’d say. They’re not into pedaling. But pedaling is more fun, more rewarding, and better for everyone. In many ways, I think modern mountain bike design outclasses dirt bikes. And mountain bikes can often descend faster than a standard dirt bike; you’re not working against the weight, drag, or slower handling of a dirt bike, and you don’t have enough space for most dirt bikes either.
AH: How did you get into working bikes in NYC?
Flo: My old man used to have a motorcycle and bicycle shop in Puerto Rico way back when. I kinda grew up around that stuff, and never quite got out of it. I did time in the military, but my heart was always for bicycles. And fortunately, I really liked it.
You might have a rough day working on bikes, but then I remember, “Chill. You’re working at a bike shop." It escapes us sometimes. There are many things that are worse than that, and working on bikes should not be so negative. It's nice, like therapy for me. AH: Do you have any last things you’d like to say?
Flo: Ride. Ride forever. I almost kicked the bucket the other day, and I am so grateful because I am able to ride a bike. It was unfortunate, but the ability to ride reminds me of how good it is for everyone. Cycling is good, it's fun, and cycling is so green that riding bikes helps everyone out. Ride forever.