Friday, October 17, 2008

The Best Bike Shops stir emotion

From Key West to Kaanapali, I’ve been lucky to ride raging roads and trick trails. Along the way, I’ve been to a few bike shops…okay quite a few. On vacation, I frequent bike shops like an old lady visits candle shops. Out off all these bike shops, only a select few strike an emotional chord with me. It’s tough to describe, but when I think of A Racers Edge (now Colorado Freeride) in Breckenridge I can almost hear the shop dog panting as I throw a stick into the parking lot bushes and he dutifully retrieves it for the umteenth time. There are some places I’ve been to where I haven’t felt an affinity for a shop, Park City Utah for example. I could stare off into space and recall the vistas from the Mid Mountain trail for hours, but none of the shops there stir my emotions. There are unique places like Poison Spider in Moab that are unbelievable cool shops and have been listed as a best bike shops, but not for me. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time there to get “the feeling.” On the other side of the handlebar, there are shops on this list that aren’t in anyone’s top ten cycling vacation locations, like The Pony Shop in the northern suburbs of Chicago. That’s where my wife bought her first boutique mountain bike, a Breezer Thunder.

I really didn’t have any criteria when this article came to mind. I literally scribbled out this list in less two minutes on a Post-It-Note. It was not agonizing in the least, all top of mind. More often than not, it had nothing to do with brands, funky logos, cool names, bike types, prices or selection, even though I purchased something at every one of them. For some, the reason they are on my list is due to their incredibly personal enthusiastic warm friendly and genuine customer service. That goes a long way with me. I bet if I walked back into Bike Barn in Phoenix, Mary the manager would remember us. Atmosphere seemed to be a close second. Even if you’re not a cyclist, just sitting on the porch at Colorado Freeride in Breckenridge after a ride along the Ten Mile Range’s Peaks trail would be a leave a long lasting almost mystic memory, like a golfer in the Augusta clubhouse looking out at the 18th green after a great round. For lack of a better term, an edge of uniqueness nostalgia and/or history seemed to take third. Durango Cyclery has all three.

Wiliamson Bicycle Works: Madison WI
With a sign like that you think it was a bar. It is Madison, Wisconsin after all, home of the Badgers, where I first dated my wife. Named after Williamson Street, Willy Street defines downtown Madison and, like an isthmus in itself, divides the city from lake Monona. Just a long block or two away from the West Washington location, on Saturdays there’s a farmers market around the state capitol square with the capitol building as a majestic centerpiece. This shop is a destination. It’s right off the lakefront bike path and has a beautiful view from the back lot, even in winter when the lake is frozen over and speckled with ice fishing shanties. It’s boutiquey, lodgey, warehouse-ish. I can’t quite put my finger on it. There’s something artistic about the multiple levels and old world Wisconsin hand crafted wood interior that just feels good, like a bike humidor. Lean your bike against the building, crack open a Coke and a Snickers and enjoy a Wisconsin summer day on the lake.

Durango Cyclery Durango, CO
When I first visited Durango, we stayed with former mechanic Greg Jadrych. I think he works for a survey company now. We became friends after buying a Breezer Thunder from him when he worked at The Pony Shop outside of Chicago. He acted on his cycling dream and moved to Durango. We still exchange Christmas cards. While Greg turned us on to the shop, it wasn’t only his hospitality and generosity that leaves a warm spot in my heart for Durango Cyclery. Look at the photo, just like Colorado Freeride in Breckenridge, you wonder what or who resided there before being a bike shop. Another part of it was their bumper sticker that read “Friends Don’t Let Friends Ride Junk.” It’s been well over ten years since I’ve been there. I don’t remember any memorabilia on the walls, but you could just feel the presence of the talent that has walked through the door race-day morning. Lastly, it’s in Durango. You know what’s wrong with mountain biking in Durango? Not a G-D thing! To this day, I can vividly remember a fireroad descent Greg and I raced down in the mid 90’s. At the bottom, Greg and I spit on our rims. It sizzled with the heat built up from the hairy downhill. Yeah, rim brakes. Later that day, I’d discover that the braking surface had actually worn thin and cracked under braking heat. I was only days into a 3 week trip which would take us through Moab and wrap up with the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival back in Wisconsin. Greg opened up the shop after-hours and sold me a new wheel for the rest of the trip. I still have the hub from that fried wheel. All those memories rest on the dusty rafters at Durango Cyclery.

Bike Barn Phoenix, AZ
Mary, the shop manager pictured left, is an angel. Maybe it’s because she, like myself, is originally from Wisconsin that I will always remember her. She is by far the best bike shop manager/employee ever. I’m not kidding. If you own a shop, work at one or aspire to, it’d be worth the plane ticket to Phoenix to visit her and take notes. To steal a line from Mad TV, she takes customer service to a “ho-nutha-level.” I’ve only met the woman once. She oozes enthusiasm, kindness and generosity. After being completely turned off by a complete a-hole running an office park outfitter operation on the northwest side of town, I set out to find another shop. Sorry. Vacation time is too short to deal with a-holes. Bike Barn is kind of in the hood of Phoenix. The building looks like a little red barn, albeit urban. It’s worth the extra few stoplights and traffic jams to seek it out. In my search for a shop to rent from, I popped in a great little triathlon shop a few miles away from Bike Barn. Since they didn’t rent mountain bikes, the clerk knew right away to call Mary. Thinking ahead, Mary asked the guy at the Tri shop for our sizes over the phone. When we got to Bike Barn, maybe 20 minutes later, our bikes were all set up except for the pedals. That’s trust. That’s how you make customers for life, before you’ve ever even met them. Her level of energy and interest in her customers still confounds me.

The Pony Shop Evanston IL
I’ve probably only heard the bell on the door of the Pony Shop ring a handful of times when we lived in the northern suburbs of Chicago, near Northwestern University. Up until this point, I’d owned exactly two heavy-ass mountain bikes, a yellow splash painted Trek 830 and a used Proflex 853 with a Girvin flexstem. I distinctively remember oogling an Independent Fabrications in the window of a shop in Highland Park, but it would be another ten years til I would own one. The Pony Shop is where my wife bought her first boutique bike, a blue and white Breezer Thunder with XT and no suspension. It cost over $1200, still a lot now, a fortune then. Greg (mentioned above in the Durango Cyclery segment), was the person we bought it from. One day when we brought it back in for service to fix noisy brakes, Greg gave us a tool he had created. It was a spoke. One end was bent into a “U-shaped” handle. The other was sharpened and tweaked at a 90 degree angle. It was a brilliant tool to clean the tiny rocks and rim debris out of the brake pads. It’s still in my tool box and I recently used it on my cyclocross canti’s. Like the Breezer, and my fond memories of the Pony Shop, I will keep that freaky homemade tool forever.

BioWheels Asheville, NC
Nothing against the Cincinnati BioWheels which I race for, BioWheels-Asheville feels like home base whenever we travel to Pisgah, ride the Blue Ridge Parkway or venture into Brevard and the trails at Dupont. Their first shop resided at an old service station complete with the bay holes in the floor where car mechanics used to change oil. To have a bike shop there, it was almost a bizarre way of recycling or flipping the bird to the automobile. Recently, owner Matt Johnson, acted on his quirky dream of recycling, decided to move the shop and renovate a delapatated downtown Asheville building into a green bike shop. Solar panels, recycled materials, the works went into the new shop. It’s beautiful and would make Al Gore proud. Green and healthy, the name BioWheels just fits. And BioWheels fits perfectly into the grassroots (dare I say hippy dippy?) nature of Asheville. There’s that feeling again. One fourth of July, after an afternoon ride at Bent Creek we returned to the shop, climbed up a ladder, and sat on the roof to watch the fireworks. When was the last time you did that at a bike shop?

A Racers Edge Breckenridge, CO
When I sought out a photo online, I realized that “A Racer’s Edge” in Breckenridge must have changed hands or names to Colorado Freeride. I might have to return. But, from the looks of the picture, the buildings and the parking lot are pretty much the same. It’s made up of what seems like three or four buildings put together over the history of the town. I wonder if the shop dog is still there? That thing would chase sticks forever. While the service, employees and merchandise at the shop were good, the business itself isn’t why I feel an affinity for this place. It’s something about that dog, changing in the gravel parking lot, the annual end-of-summer tent sale, the downtown location and the fact that nearly every ride I did from that shop ends with a seemingly eternal downhill. After a ride up Bankers Tank, I distinctly remember taking off my helmet, resting my rental against the building, sitting on that little porch and gazing at the mountains that encircle the town while sipping a dusty water bottle.

No comments: