On first meeting, Sean Papenfuss locks you with a steely gaze. His build is strong and imposing, he radiates a confidence that tolerates no bullshit. When he starts to talk it can be disconcerting as a playfulness comes out. He is that cheeky wild kid in school that everyone loves, you know the kid that has no fear and jumps off huge walls? The type that acts now and deals with the consequences later – that’s the type of energy Papenfuss emits. Here’s a random piece of information the surname Papenfuss is a German name and means priest foot.
‘We were the bane of the UCD security guards lives.’ Papenfuss started off skateboarding when he was thirteen but, ‘kept falling off my skateboard and realised that I would be better off on a bike.’ So he jumped stairs, jumped off roofs, skidded across ledges – all on his bike. He also had accidents on his bike like when his tooth went through his lip. Or when in later life he crashed his motorbike at Harold’s Cross, ‘a car just came out of nowhere.’ But that didn’t stop him from getting on a plane the next day to Australia to work in the outback. Papenfuss has no fear, he just always gets back up.
‘I left school when I was eighteen and moved to Barcelona. I needed to leave Ireland and experience life.’ Papenfuss got a job working as a mechanic in a bike shop whilst over there as trying to get a job as a mechanic in Dublin meant ‘your brother’s cousin has to be related to someone’s left shoe.’ Basically nepotism was rife so like many before he plied his trade abroad first.
So then began several years of traveling, interspersed with flashes of time back in Dublin where he was a courier. He took the Trans-Mongolian Railway which follows an ancient tea-caravan route. He got on at Moscow went through Siberia and stopped at Mongolia. The only motivation with his exploring was to experience life as he said earlier.
When he got to Asia one of his standout adventures was when he got a boat from Shanghai to Japan then cycled from Kyoto to Tokyo. He fell in love with China and ended up spending five months there. The countryside was mind-blowing and the people, ‘are honest and down to heart, they are just awesome.’ They are tenets of character he tries to emulate.
Papenfuss lived in Australia for two years. He spent months in Queensland working in cattle stations, building roads and welding. He also couriered in Sydney, a city that was ‘horrible to cycle in.’
‘I always returned to bikes.’ He was sure that he would stay out in Australia but his love of two wheels pulled him back to Ireland. Papenfuss didn’t have a grand plan with goals, tactics, strategies and all those corporate buzzwords that are perceived as modern symbols of guaranteed success. What Papenfuss has is a strong instinct and he’s let it lead the way. At that time it was telling him to start something in Dublin. He hasn’t tried to analysis it so that he can get maximum return on profit, that’s just not him.
On his return home he had a series of false starts that would make most people just give up and settle for any job. He opened a business but it didn’t work out so he started working in another bike shop and assembled bikes also. He found the work uninspiring so on a whim he decided to open his own business. ‘I got a little hot headed and went on Done Deal, saw a unit for rent and went and opened my shop that night.’ That’s Papenfuss, he doesn’t put up with an unsatisfactory situation instead he changes it. ‘Sometimes I get a little out there but it works for me.’
He’s three years in his shop, The Bike Institute on Dorset Street. It’s reminiscent of the barber shops in The States that act as community focal points such as this barber shop in Harlem that NPR chronicled. All through the day kids from the area cycle in to have a chat. Their small bodies struggling to balance the weight of their bikes as they try to make themselves look bigger, they want to be taken seriously. They observe, inquire and love the fact that they are treated as equals.
It’s like stepping into someone’s home, his dog Einstein sleeps in his bed by the door, stirring every so often to investigate new visitors and then wanders off quietly to nap once again. ‘I got him on Paddy’s Day from The Dog’s Trust, I remember that because I took him to the pub,’ he laughs.
There is a steady stream of customers all day, business is good. But Papenfuss is quick to point out, ‘we love bikes. A lot of people are getting into bikes because they think there is a lot of money to be made. There’s just too many bike shops and not enough business to go round.’
There are so many nuisances to bikes, you have to be crazy about them to figure out the problems. ‘A lot of bike shops send their difficult cases to us and get us to train their mechanics which we really enjoy as it keeps us on our toes!’ The only time he got annoyed with a customer was when he insisted that he, ‘adjust my brake pad 4 degrees anti-clockwise,’ he rolls his eyes recalling it as the mechanics in the shop laugh.
For someone that is just twenty-seven years of age he’s already achieved great things, his next adventure is to open up a mechanics school and is currently looking for a unit.
In 2012 he met his girlfriend Kim and in 2014 they had their first baby. It’s not uncommon to see Papenfuss recommend bike pumps to customers as he holds his one year old aloft in his embrace.
‘I thought I’m going to ride bikes loads when I get a bike shop but that’s not the case, we’re just so busy.’ His bike of choice is a mountain bike but all that’s changed with the baby, ‘I’m getting a cargo bike so I can put the baby in front but it’s going to be a fancy one with nice hydraulic discs,’ he smiles.
‘The cycling infrastructure should be safer for kids, taxis are inches away and buses come up too close. I was cycling with the baby the other day and a bus pulls up and beeps at me. He tells me to get off the fucking bike! That’s just fantastic, great job lads!’ If he was to hold a city up with a good biking environment he gives Barcelona a shout out, ‘Amsterdam is just too boring to cycle in.’
When asked what was the scariest thing he ever did, he said after having a baby, it was ‘when I swam daily in Sydney harbour unaware of the sharks!’ That image sums up Papenfuss. His fierce passion for bikes and for human decency helps him float above the fickle players that try to mirror him but aways fall up short.
You can check out The Bike Institute here.