There are certain stories that deserve to be told. This is one of them. It’s set in the capital of Spain, in the barrio Ventilla, far from downtown Madrid and its tourists, but in the authentic heart of the city. Higinio Domingo Perucha is its main character.
Words: Giulia Lacivita
Images: Antonio Bigarini
Perucha can be described as a craftsman, a frame builder, a welder, a racer or a teacher. It’s difficult to assign a label because he has been and continues to be all those things and much more. Today, at 80 years old, he still acts like a kid, jumping from one side of his atelier to the other while he works and teaches young guys who want to learn the tricks and the art of welding. Perucha is one of the last bicycle craftsmen left in Spain.
He learned the art of welding when he was 17. Racers have used bikes (and tandems) that Perucha built to win Paralympic gold medals in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, along with five world titles, a European championship and three Spanish national titles.
His innovations as a welder are world renowned. But what has impressed more is the enthusiasm that still shines when he holds a file in his hands. When everyone thinks that the only possible alternative is to throw away what is broken—whether it’s a bike or something else—Perucha repairs, builds, modifies and creates.
I spent hours listening to his stories and anecdotes about a life that has been full of emotion. And while I was listening, his hands never stopped working because, as he says, “the file cannot ever stop in the life of a craftsman.”
Like many of his peers, Perucha became a cyclist by chance, using his bike to go to work. “I started riding because it was the only way I could get around,” he says. “That’s how it all started.” He began racing as an amateur in 1953, and by 1957 he was a professional and won the Spanish classic, Madrid-Buitrago. From there, he went on to race in France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. But he hung up his cleats when he realized that cycling, rather than being just a sport “was becoming too much a money thing, and only business related.”
As happens in all great stories, when you think something has ended, the best has yet to come. This was, in fact, the beginning of a new and fruitful phase of his life. He did not let the bike go, but he only changed its point of view, the way to look at it and love it. Perucha went from being a racer to a mechanic in the 1980s —sometimes working for top Spanish pros such as Marino Lejarreta. But, once again, labels are not enough to define Perucha.
His life has always turned around bikes, as if the two were welded together. But Perucha has never stopped, has never looked at his life from a unique and static point of view. He has kept on rotating around it without ever leaving it, like a rim turns on a hub. Always turning. That’s how Perucha decided to found and start coaching the ONCE-sponsored Paralympic team, with which he obtained his greatest successes. He created extraordinary racing tandems that were about 12 kilograms (some 25 pounds) lighter than those of the times, ranging from classic steel geometry to innovative aluminum technology. Everything was done with his own hands, in his own atelier.
Perucha has changed and developed his art over time, becoming a welding master. The proof of this is not just to be found in his words and in the magazines he jealously keeps in the drawer between the hammers and the pliers. The real and living evidence is his beautiful and fascinating laboratory: the faithful guardian of his business.
The headquarters of the Club Ciclista Perucha is in the heart of Ventilla, between old houses and new massive construction sites. It’s a mystical place, where bicycles, tandems and tools of all types surround Perucha. This is where the maestro teaches many young people to weld and repair bicycles—the energy, the passion, the desire and the creativity are all still there, more alive than ever. Like the Newtonian body in the principle of inertia, Perucha is still in his lab creating and maintaining “its state of rest, or uniform motion, until a force acts upon it.”
“Everything has a solution,” he says. “As Napoleon said, nothing is impossible.”
This is what keeps the flame alive: the challenge, the dream. At the center of his laboratory stands the framework of a 10-meter boat in the middle of its building process. It’s a boat designed by him and built from scratch using only recycled and reinvented materials.
Unfortunately, right now, in the summer of 2014, his uniform rectilinear motion is likely to be interrupted. An expropriation order, issued by the municipality, is the force that may shift him. In 1998, Perucha had already been ordered to leave his house where his former laboratory was located, due to a restructuring of the Ventilla district. In 2003, he was forced to move to a building that belonged to his family. Since then this is where he shares his experience and his tools with any bicycle lover who goes there. But today Perucha and his Club Ciclista Perucha face a second eviction process. The reason for this is to give a new shape, a new face to the district. So there’s a risk that his lifework will lose its soul, along with the cooperation, experimentation and production of those rarities that Perucha keeps magically alive.
A spokesman for Dentera, a collective that has special interest in social and experimental works, states: “We want to document the life of Perucha through the development of a series of materials dedicated to him: a documentary, a website, a photo book. We believe in the richness of this experience. Domingo does not only spread the art of welding. He also teaches us to design and build our own tools. He teaches us to rediscover our abilities for self-sufficiency. We are aware that the industry has changed and evolved, but we believe that the work of a craftsman…respects the production network and promotes the development of a shared learning.”
In order not to stop the constant motion, the young Dentera collective has given birth to a crowdfunding project to obtain the financing necessary to allow Perucha not to close his magical place. At the same time there are other young collectives, like the Mutants, who are helping him, and working and learning from him. They believe in what he keeps on doing. But, unfortunately, Perucha has yet to win his battle, and those “external forces” are still trying to stop him.
Perucha says, “Who has just a single peso, wants to have two. Who has five pesos, wants to have ten. Who has 20, wants 40, and who has 50 wants 100. Everyone wants more. But I just want that people can keep coming here, so that they can gain experience. This is what I can give them: experience. Thirty years ago, someone told me, ‘Perucha, the file is done.’ But the file can’t and won’t ever stop working.”