Bicycle mechanic Juan Vicente Valerio used to call the bikes he repaired “airplanes,” and the cyclists who relied on his work and who knew him as their coach called him “Papá.”
On April 3rd, the 55-year-old died at Elmhurst Hospital, becoming one of the more than 13,000 New Yorkers who have been killed so far in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m going to really miss him. I didn’t let anyone touch my bike rather than him. He was really careful, the best mechanic in Queens,” said Dante Espinoza, 33, a deli man and one of the six members of the Chichilambos amateur cycling team. Valerio was their coach and mechanic. The team had a healthy sense of humor: "Chichilambos" translates to "fat boys" in Mixtec.
Espinoza said he texted with Valerio when he was in the hospital, but after a week Valerio was put on a ventilator, and stopped having the strength to respond. “I called him, but he never called back. On the next night, a friend told me he was gone.”
Valerio moved to New York City eight years ago from Mexico, and worked at the Hospital de Bicicletas on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. The shop is popular with professional and amateur cyclists alike, especially Hispanic immigrants from Queens, and Valerio was its most trusted mechanic. Cyclists would send bicycle parts from California for him to fix.
Claudia Corcino, the co-founder of the Latin American Cyclists group, which has around 500 members, says the work of mechanics like Valerio is crucial for a neighborhood where many people use their bikes as their main transportation to go to work. “The quality of his work was 100 percent perfect,” she told Gothamist.
Antonio Sanchez Martinez, 48, a restaurant worker from Corona who rides his bike to work in Manhattan every day, is also a member of the Chichilambos team. “It hurts us a lot that he’s gone. I myself am a survivor of the disease. I spent two rough weeks.”
El Papá would take especially good care of the expensive and delicate bicycles, but wouldn’t deny service for normal people who just wanted to fix their chains. He’d spend hours repairing bottom brackets, which are very easy to wear out. “You have to deoxidize it, take it, clean it, basically make a new one. It’s very complicated and takes a lot of time,” said Ronnie Perez, 39, worked with Valerio for two years.
Perez said he was also impressed with Valerio’s ability to fix old bicycles, such as 1960s models, even creating new parts from a piece of metal. He would transform $60-dollar bikes into elegant, $800 machines. “People would call something garbage, but he was able to give a second life to a bicycle or a bike part.”
Before moving to New York, Valerio spent two decades working as a mechanic for the Mexican Cyclists Federation, including the Olympic medal-winning cyclists Nancy Contreras and Belem Guerrero. His brother Manuel Valerio Belmont, 53, a bike mechanic in Mexico City, said that both men learned their craft from their father Manuel Valerio Gelista, who started riding as a bread delivery boy for his family’s bakery. Later, their father became a professional cyclist and created his own eponymous bike frame company: Valerio.
Gelista passed away during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and this changed the siblings’ lives forever. They shifted from aspiring cyclists—their father’s dream for them—to business owners. Today, the younger brother continues their store and factory in Mexico and was also a mechanic for the national cycling team. “I thank the people who helped my brother in New York, who cared for him, and everyone who had contact with him,” Belmont said.
Valerio lived alone in a rented room, and friends in New York have organized a fundraiser for his cremation.
Valerio’s 32-year-old daughter, Sarai Guadalupe Valerio Alvarado, lives in Mexico, was planning to visit her father in New York for the first time this year. The last time they saw each other in person was 14 years ago. She said he didn’t tell her he was sick in the hospital. “I think he believed he’d leave the hospital feeling well. I believe he never thought he’d become another victim of this virus.”