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Racing or Commuter Bike Shop?

May 07, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Mellow Johnny’s, Lance’s new bike shop to open soon in downtown Austin will be both, approximately two-thirds for racing, one-third for commuting.

Having any bike shop mention the word commuting in their marketing at all is a big deal—and a very good thing, in my opinion. Having such a marquee store doing it is an even bigger deal, and an even better thing.

That said, another part of me thinks that high-end bicycle racing gear and commuter/lifestyle gear do not necessarily go hand in hand in the retail space. With two very different cultures, they are about as close to inhabiting two different, parallel worlds as you could imagine.

Think fast food vs. slow food.

Racing vs. commuting.

Apples vs. oranges.

There’s nothing to read into with those analogies—racing is not better than commuting, nor is the opposite true. I’m just picking some non-controversial concepts to demonstrate what I think is the cultural difference between these two types of bike use.

That said, bike shops chains like Performance Bikes seem to be able to sell to all sorts of bike folks, from beginners to not-so-beginners. My last three bikes came from Performance: one hybrid, one single-speed, and a road (racing) bike. I had a good experience every time I bought from Performance, and I’ve often gone back for supplies. There’s definitely something to be said for chain stores; they’re big, and they probably have what you’re looking for if you’re just a regular biker. I’m not sure how much places like Performance appeal to hard-core bicycle racers, though. Any thoughts?

The awesome Momentum magazine has Lance on the cover this month. Be sure to check out what Lance and others have to say about the new store.

(Hopefully MJ’s will carry Momentum. I’m not really into most of the bike-related mags I see on the stand at bookstores, but for whatever reason, Momentum applies to my world. The everyday bike riders I see in their pictures are the people I actually see on the streets every day. They’re just like me. I want Momentum on the magazine racks in my town.)

The Charlotte Observer has a quick piece on the steady pace of business, and lack of the commuter infrastructure use, at Black Sheep Cycles:

One might think with gas prices at record highs, more people would turn to bicycles for their commute, especially urban-dwellers living near uptown.

Not so, says Ethan Grossman, who opened Black Sheep Cycles three years ago.

Grossman envisioned his store as a social club, where cyclists could relax and watch movies. Two plasma TVs hang in the 3,300-square-foot shop, nestled off West Morehead Street in west Charlotte.

He also bought an espresso machine, expecting to sell lattes and other coffee drinks. The store offers showers for commuters.

That part of the business never took off. So the front of his store sits unused, filled with bike tires, sofas and armless mannequins.

The proper reaction is not panic, but rather a willingness to learn and adapt as necessary, if necessary.

As a bike commuter and potential commuter bicycle buyer, I’m not particularly interested in shopping for my commuter bicycle at a high-end bike shop. That’s probably just me, but that’s the way I feel. For instance, if I am going in to buy a Honda Accord, I don’t necessary want to go into a shop whose floor space is two-thirds BMWs, with only a one-third left for my Accord. That’s the practical aspect of my preference. But the other aspect—the cultural aspect—is just as important, if not more so. I don’t want to buy a “boring” commuter bike from someone who would rather be selling high-end carbon frame racing bikes. My perception may or may not be accurate, and it may or may not be shared by anyone else in the whole world. But I suspect that most potential commuter buyers would rather go into a bike shop where they won’t fear getting lectured about the necessity of having clipless pedals (more on perception). This has a lot to do with marketing. Mellow Johnny’s seems to be doing good work, so far, in being welcoming to everyone—racers and commuters alike—but I wonder if just anyone could pull it off, or if it requires a personality/celebrity like Lance to pull it off. What do you think?

I’m also hoping Mellow Johnny’s can do some kind of lunch event, where they invite the tens of thousands of local office workers to come over and have a look around, ask questions about whatever they want, check out the facilities, and so forth. It’d be cool to have a nice video up on the website that basically does a walk-around of the store and especially of the shower/commuter facilities.

I’ve met and/or know of some of the folks involved with Mellow Johnny’s, and I’m more than convinced that they are exceptional people and have their bicycling hearts in the right places. I’m just not so crazy about that 1/3 share for commuters. Hey, I’m not hating; I just want more and better for commuters, who have a great chance to help reshape society for the better, and to have a very large impact right now. I have tremendous love for commuter/lifestyle cyclists.

For the record, I want to see a full-on commuter bicycle shop in downtown Austin and in downtowns everywhere. I think downtown Austin and other large cities could support several full-service bike shops. And I wouldn’t mind having the bicycle community reach out to area gyms to do some joint marketing. Maybe bicycle commuters could use the shower and laundry facilities at local gyms, which are already established in the downtown core areas. Individual riders already do it; we should formalize it and make it easier for folks.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong about a “racing shop” being not the best match for a “commuting shop” in terms of retailing. (And it would not be uncommon for me to be wrong, of course.) But I do want to think about the big questions and be ready to adapt if the time comes to do so.

My message to customers and potential customers alike? We’re growing both sides of the business aggressively, and if things go well we may have separate full-on facilities for both: one focused on commuter/lifestyle cycling, and the other for racing cycling. :)

Springtime is here, and business is booming. If ever there was a time to be optimistic and try new things, it’s now.

A couple more pre-opening pics of Mellow Johnny’s:

…added the bottom three night photos, from tonight….a few hours before opening.

3 Comments to “Racing or Commuter Bike Shop?”

  1. Amy Walker says:

    Hi - thanks for the mention.

    Just wanted to send a note that Mellow Johnny’s bought a subscription to Momentum even before we talked to them about the story.

    I was impressed with this because they had heard about the magazine and thought it would be of interest to their customers. We are clearly NOT a racing magazine - and we’re not that big (yet!) so receiving a call from them let me know that they were genuinely interested in transportation biking and researching (and supporting) bike culture.

    Amy Walker
    Momentum Magazine

  2. Peter Smith says:

    Awesome, Amy!

    Thanks for the update. I hope they have the latest copy when they open on Saturday.

  3. dr2chase says:

    I think they need to push fat tires, not fixed gears. Fat, slick, thin-wall tires are a little pricey, but they roll well, take care of bumps, and (because they don’t fall into cracks) are safer around storm grates and roads that have been patched after utilities work. They also do reasonably well on sand and mud, because they tend to ride on top of it, not underneath.

    Also just returned from trips to NYC and SF, and of the many bikes I saw, far less than a majority were fixed-gear. The two major attractions of fixed gear are that there is less to break, and less to steal if the bike is left out.

    Cargo bikes deserve a plug, too — either an xtracycle, or Yuba Mundo, or Kona Ute, or (when they are back in stock) a Surly Big Dummy. Backpacks get old, especially in the Texas heat, and sometimes you need to carry a heavy load.


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