The first thing you notice when you step into the workshop is the boat, 32ft long and 15ft to the top of its mast. It takes centre stage in the only squatted workshop in Madrid where you can get a bicycle frame designed, built and repaired. The boat was handmade inside the room, in much the same way that little model ships are magicked into glass bottles, as a labour intensive way of resisting eviction, executed with a healthy dash of humour.

This is the second boat that Higinio Domingo ‘Perucha’ made over the years; the first was a 75-footer built in the seventies for a private owner, which is still sailing the high seas to this day. But it is not for boats that Perucha will be remembered. He was and is a pioneer of bicycle building.

At 79 years old, after a whole life lived in the cycling world, Perucha had to squat his workshop as a result of the political corruption that sent Spain spiralling into one of the worst economic recessions in its history. Nowadays, many professional shops send Perucha the bikes they cannot fix.

He was born in Chamartin de la Rosa in 1934, and still vividly remembers it as a place surrounded by countryside. Nowadays, far from being a little village outside Madrid, it has become one of the many ‘barrios’ inside the city known as ‘La Ventilla’. The original workshop and shop were destroyed by order of the council and his land was expropriated for development. So he decided to set up his workshop anew in one of the new development’s empty premises, which had been allocated for shops and business. Despite having the original documents proving that the land has belonged to his family since 1924, Perucha still has to fight an endless bureaucracy with repeated trips to court to reiterate his claim.

He and his family survived the Spanish civil war there. He can tell you stories of foraging and hunting to survive those hard times. He was once knocked off his bike by a tank – he still has that day’s ruined cycling jersey hanging on his wall. Even though he’s retired, his open workshop remains an important part of the cycling community, a place for him to share the kind of knowledge acquired from 60 years in the business.

He doesn’t just practise and share his welding skills, but also teaches anyone who’ll listen how to design and build their own tools and replacement parts, so that they too can build and repair bicycles. Thus, he empowers others to rediscover their capacity for self-sufficiency, contributing to the collective intelligence. His aim is not to make a profit, just to help the cycling community.

If a piece is out of stock or doesn’t exist he can figure out a way to sort the problem straight away, from making track dropouts out of a solid block of aluminium to fixing a treadmill for a gypsy man (to train roosters for cockfights, of all things). “No one leaves without their problem fixed”. It’s just his way of doing things, helping and teaching anyone who needs a hand, six days a week. The work is mostly unpaid, though sometimes he’s rewarded with a donation or a drink at the end of the day.

Perucha’s teaching is traditional, coming from his training as a tool-and-die-maker [a specialist machinist who makes tools used in manufacturing processes]. No angle grinders or cutting corners when Perucha builds a frame. The only power tool used on a new frame is a drill. Seeing a man his age – and only a whisker over 5ft tall – still working with such energy, gives a glimpse at what it means to really love your job. If you don’t hold a file properly he’ll rib you for it and shove you off the vice to show you the right way – what he calls ‘playing the violin’ with the file in his hands, all the while whistling or singing happily. Often we watch him bending tubes, and he always brazes without safety goggles. Sometimes I can’t help but say “Perucha, if I took you back to Britain you’d have a queue of people wanting to learn from you”.

Some call him ‘the last craftsman in Madrid’. He constantly shares his stories and shows you photos of his inventions and adventures. His career in professional cycling also began in an unusual way. Cycling home from work when he was just 16, Perucha encountered a professional cyclist training on the road. So he decided to ride alongside, and they did 200km that evening at the same speed. Quite a commute. At 18, Perucha himself turned pro.

He moved to Paris and, after taking part in the Tour de France, decided to do some bike touring around Switzerland. There his life took another turn. His bike was stolen at the door of a café in Geneva with all his savings hidden inside the handlebars, his clothes and passport in the panniers. Forced to start a new life there, he got a job as a mechanic. Thanks to this he met his wife, Consuelo, another Spanish émigré in Switzerland. Years later and with a new family, they came back to Spain to keep living and working around bikes. He was also sports director for teams including ONCE, and TEKA in the glory days of the late 80s, when Klaus-Peter Thaler won the cyclocross championships.

His experience, inventiveness and the diversity of his creations have taken him from designing bathroom fittings to creating irrigation systems for the Sinai desert. His anecdotes seem drawn from several lifetimes.

Thanks to his supporters and a crowdfunding campaign, €10,000 was raised to help Perucha’s legal battle, and a documentary is being made about his extraordinary life. The future of his workshop remains uncertain but for the time being, Perucha still opens his doors six days a week. And when he closes up each evening, everybody has the pleasure of taking a glass of wine and sharing a good time with Perucha, Consuelo and their friends.

From everyone who has had the privilege of your company and your experience, here’s to you, Perucha.

Words Francisco ‘Paco’ Serrano / Photography Stefanyia Gutovska & Produce Dentera / Illustration Stefanyia Gutovska

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