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Manuel Cappel's Freedom Machines: making cycling in Toronto practical

When Manuel Cappel learned to ride a bike as a young boy growing up on Toronto Island, it opened his world. "I was amazed by the speed of it, compared to walking around," he says. "I could go farther and faster and still be home for dinner. It was a freedom machine."

Five decades later, Cappel, now an artist and the island lighthouse keeper, builds his own freedom machines. In his artist studio on Gibralter Point, he makes cargo bikes as well as bicycle trailers that liberate us from our dependence on cars to schlep groceries, packages and other sundries around the city. He draws on his artistry, a good sense of design,mechanics, and welding skills to create human-powered vehicles that can transport our stuff, and they're nice to look at too.
Cappel builds all sorts of vehicles from all sorts of materials. He creates trailers from long-discarded grocery carts that he has pulled from the city's ravines that attach to the seat post of the average bicycle. He has made trailers with small benches that act as toddler bicycle buses for a childcare centre on Toronto Island where private vehicles aren't allowed. And he has even made detailed, trailer-sized replicas of the ferries that travel between the island and the downtown ferry docks that also attach to the back of a bike, though he says these are more art than utility.
But the Cappel bicycle that is both practical and striking to look at is called the Long John, inspired by a design that is common in the Netherlands. Practical because it can haul a substantial number of packages (or perhaps an adult passenger) and striking because it is much longer than the average bike, as its front wheel is several feet out from the handlebars. In between is a flatbed, designed to carry cargo,making the contraption look slightly off kilter to those of us accustomed to the traditional cycle. The front wheel is also smaller than the back one, to make room for the flatbed and is controlled by a long arm that runs underneath the cargo hold.
There are few right angles on Cappel's constructions and he has had to make his own metal tube benders to help him form the steel. "I love shapes," he says. "I love a non-linear feel. So I try to bend everything and make it swoopy and round-nosed." One benefit of having curbed corners on a bicycle, he explains, is that if you do make contact with a car, the paint won't scratch as easily. His bikes also tend to have quirky flourishes, like a giant bell that looks like an antique doorbell or an old-fashioned horn with a rubber bulb that, when you squeeze it, produces a loud honking noise.
Once you've seen a Cappel Long John, you'll never forget it—and possibly lust after one too.
Cappel began making trailers and bicycles 25 years ago but his relationship to this mode of transportation goes further back. Ever since his parents gave him his first bicycle— -- it was red -- he has depended on pedal power to move around. Being an islander informs his special relationship with his bicycle. "All islanders treat their bikes like other people treat their cars," he says.
So when the second bike trailer that he bought from a friend was stolen, he decided to make his own. He bought a welder and put together a contraption of wood and steel. But seeing as no one on the island has room to store big items inside, his trailer rotted away quickly, battered by the weather. This caused him to amend his design and eliminate wood from his constructions, the first of many changes that, over the years, have improved his work. "It's been an on-going evolution," he says. "The last one I make is always my favourite."
He charges around $2000 for a fully loaded long john, with all the components a cyclist would need as well as being powder coated in a nice bright colour. So far, he's sold about eight of them in total, two to people who wanted to use their bikes to transport their dogs. His trailers require less work and cost around $300 but go up to about $800 if you'd like a lid on your box. Over the years, his customers have been mostly other islanders, however, some downtown dwellers do buy them too. He says those who seek him out are the people who would prefer a bike to a car in the urban core.
"Once again bicycles are becoming a freedom machine," he says.  "Because cars are rendering the downtown into a wasteland of traffic jams."

They know that all you need to get around town are two wheels and the love of a bicycle.
Sarah Elton is the author of the national bestselling Locavore: From Farmers' Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat. She lives in Toronto. Visit her online at www.thelocavore.ca.

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