One of my favorite studios is Velosmith in Wilmette, Illinois.
I’ve always been a nut for great retail operations. In junior high it was hobby shops. High school and college was music stores and record shops. Next came book stores and bike shops. My love for them is the love of potential. Inside each of those places are models to build, books to read, records to hear, drums to hit, bikes to ride—good times waiting to happen.
I’ve gotten harder to please, though. Most record stores don’t carry much that I want to listen to, unless I’m in the mood to fill my back catalog of Led Zepplin or Deep Purple. Book stores? Seems all the titles I go looking for I can only locate on Amazon. As I don’t play the drums anymore (God, how I hear their siren call) and haven’t the slightest interest in building models, that leaves bike shops. And the bike shops that most excite me are the studio operations. Small in scale, precise in product lines, manned by consummate technicians and providing the ultimate in service. They are the purest example of what I was taught the best in bike retailing should offer. Pick your lines and go narrow and deep.
I’ve visited fewer than a dozen studios, though not for lack of trying. I simply haven’t made it to some of the markets where they exist. However, the studios I’ve visited, as different as they are in expression, they all sing the same song, and if you’ve ever heard Miles Davis’ version of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” then you know just how diverse interpretations can get.
First and foremost, I like studios because they’ve taken a stand. That is, they’ve drawn the proverbial line in the sand to say, “This is what we’re about.” Their product lines are few, their stock, light. Further, they usually don’t have the capital to deal with one of the big bike companies. They are retail insurgents.
Most studios I’ve visited have three, maybe four different bike lines, max. They have one or two clothing lines—three if they offer a shop kit. Same goes for shoe lines. The fitting area is always integrated into the overall layout of the space, rather than a corner of the shop where a rack of clothing can be rolled out of the way while one of the wrenches sets up a trainer. That’s one of the biggest signifiers of a studio—they celebrate optimal fit.
This weekend Bike Effect in Santa Monica celebrated its one-year anniversary. Derrick Lewis from Rapha came out to show two new films from Rapha, one “The Rapha Continental” which showcases the far-flung exploits of the Rapha Continental team, and the other on Dario Pegoretti, called “D’Acciaio” (of steel).
As part of the celebration surrounding the studio’s one-year anniversary and expansion into a neighboring suite, Bike Effect hosted a Rapha Gentleman’s ride. Unfortunately, on the descent of Las Flores Canyon Road, one of the riders, Robert Hyndman lost control of his bike and crashed. He lost consciousness in the crash and died a short time later at the hospital. His brother, who was on the ride, told Bike Effect co-owner Steve Carre that Robert died doing exactly what he wanted. He was an avid rider and loved riding the steep roads around his home in Orange County
Mentioning the death of a rider in a piece ostensibly about studios and not meant to be an obituary or other tribute to a fallen cyclist might seem a bit odd, but to me it helps to confirm one of the best features of studio operations. They don’t so much have customers or even clients as extended family. To succeed, they are required to help build community, however they define it. News of Robert’s death shifted the mood to a much more somber tone for the Saturday evening reception, but it got people talking about what they valued, how much cycling mattered in their lives and how many of them hoped they could be so lucky as to go doing their favorite activity.
Most people in attendance that night hadn’t been on the ride. I’d missed it because I’m still recovering from that damned flu. I’m well enough to be out, but the cough tells me I need to keep my feet off of pedals. And even though we hadn’t known Robert, if he was on a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride, then we had a certain measure of the man. He was one of us. Our hearts could wrap around his family’s loss and envy his brother for all the rides they’d shared. Somehow, we struck a balance, celebrating both a business and a life we believed in. Somehow, the intimate space allowed us to discuss how the possibility of death is a risk we accept every time we throw a leg over the top tube, but the tone was neither callous nor resigned. It was simple acceptance. As we often say: There but for the grace of God go I.
Because the ingredients that go into a studio are as varied as the books on a shelf, it’s impossible to say what is necessary to make such an operation a success. Is it the service? Certainly in part. Is it the knowledge base? It helps. Is it the coffee? Can’t hurt. I think the real key is what I just mentioned—community. In creating a space that caters to the lifers, we’re more likely to bond with it. Such a small operation is all-in. It’s a position most of us took years ago.