The Spike in Spoke Shops

Wheels waiting their turn to turn, at Danny’s Cycles. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

BY SAM BLEIBERG | Bike shops get us rolling. Whether they’re helping a beginner choose their first bike, keeping a trusty commuter on the road, or just serving as a quick pit stop for flat tires, a good bike shop can make getting around town a much more pleasant experience.

What separates a great bike shop from an average one? It has less to do with the price tag on the bikes than the knowledge of the staff — and their willingness to understand your needs. A bike shop should be sensitive to the customer’s budget and provide the best value solution. That’s why every shop featured in this article provides bikes at all almost every price point, from entry-level models around $300 and up to high-end models costing several thousand dollars. A great bike shop salesperson may even talk you down from a feather-light but uncomfortable racing bike to a workhorse that can handle Manhattan potholes on your commute up Eighth Ave.

Another key element of any cyclery is the mechanic shop. Depending on the significance of the repair, your safety may be in the mechanic’s hands as soon as you leave the shop. Don’t rush the magic! A busy shop will rarely be able to turn around a same day repair other than a flat tire or quick part installation.

Loyalty pays dividends with a neighborhood shop. If you become a regular, they may even throw some grease on the chain for free, or install parts you purchase there at a discounted price. Shops will typically be more than happy to order parts online that they don’t have in-store.

Almost every shop we visited cited the impact of the Citi Bike network as a boost to their business. Charlie, a manager at Danny’s Cycles, said he was not concerned with early warnings that Citi Bike would harm local bike shops.

“I thought, ‘This is only going to advocate cycling even further and get people’s butts on bikes.’ A lot of people who started on Citi Bikes got into cycling. They started riding around, and it became a huge part of their lives. There’s some that converted into hardcore riders,” he said.

If you’re looking to try out life on your own pair of wheels, or just get a neglected bike running again, make sure to check out these local institutions.

Bicycle Habitat’s Chelsea location has several customers who first got bikes there as children, and have returned to shop as adults. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

BICYCLE HABITAT | 288 Seventh Ave. | | This narrow space tucked away on Seventh Ave. is chock full of functional bikes and an impressive collection of practical accessories. The Chelsea location opened three years ago, but the original Soho shop has been around for over 40 years. Many customers have traveled Uptown with the shop, and some have become return customers after buying bikes during their youth.

“A lot of our customers from Soho moved up here. It’s like family with people who live or work in the neighborhood,” said Lia, who recently joined the Chelsea location. “We have lots of customers that came here and bought bikes as teens, and now they’re coming back as adults.”

The shop stands out by making an effort to promote gender equity in cycling and fostering a comfortable environment for women. In addition to sponsoring Women Cycling New York City, Bicycle Habitat ensures that at least one female employee works at each location, including in the mechanic shops.

“We have women working in all our shops. You don’t see women working in bicycle shops often,” Lia said. “It’s something you can feel. You walk into a bike store and the tenor is different. I can tell when no women work there.”

Bicycle Habitat sells a variety of bikes. “It’s about trying to find out what people need, which is not always what they think they want,” Lia said. “Sorting out what actually fits their needs best so they can be happier on their bike.”

Bronx-based Juan has ridden to work at Al’s for five years, developing expertise in repairs and an eye on cutting-edge road bike technology. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

AL’S CYCLE SOLUTIONS | 693 10th Ave. | | Al has held court in Hell’s Kitchen for nine years, after finding in refuge in cycling while growing up in the area. The shop has some of the most affordable options on this list, offering free lifetime adjustments on bikes above $300. Individual members of the staff have expertise on a variety of cycling disciplines, including old-school road racing, BMX, and modern cycling technology.

Juan has worked at the shop for five years through thick and thin, having been fired twice and quit twice (“I was the problem, but we worked it,” he noted). Juan takes a pragmatic approach to helping customers at different levels, whether they are new to the sport, or looking for a professional road bike fitting. He cites the shop as a place where newcomers can gain comfort with cycling.

“I hear people come in here that are twentysomething or thirtysomething, and they don’t know how to ride a bike,” he said. “They might start off doing spinning class. You have to get people aware of this mode of transportation.”

Juan also worries for customers’ safety, especially beginners. He rides frequently from the Bronx, and has his eye set on a top-of-the-line electric shifting road bike — but he understands the challenges of inexperienced riders.

“Some people can maneuver no problem,” he observed. “But for the general public, it’s best to put protected lanes in, especially now that you have a lot of people cycling.”

Tibetan prayer flags are just one of the features reminding customers at Zen Bikes that bicycles can provide peace of mind in addition to transportation. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

ZEN BIKES  | 134 W. 24th St. | |Zen Bikes has been a Chelsea institution for 18 years, named after the feeling that owner John believes best describes the sensation of riding a bike.

“We treat everybody the same, no matter if you’ve bought a bike here or not. You want them to feel comfortable,” says Jimmy, a longtime friend of the owner. “Wherever I shop I want to feel like this is a good place to hang out. And some of our customers are friends.”

Staff mentioned Zen Bikes sells a fair number of children’s bikes, which was rare in comparison to other shops in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. The store also welcomes dogs with treats and a K-9 staffer of its own.

As a shop far from recreational paths like the Hudson River Greenway, Zen Bikes counts a large portion of its customer base as commuters — about half.  One of the shops most popular offerings is a carbon-fiber bike with extra-large wheels originally designed for Midwest winters but equally prepared for tough city streets.

“[Biking] has increased both because of the bike lanes, traffic, train delays — stuff like that. I think biking is an easier way to get around,” says Jimmy.

Danny’s Cycles is transitioning to Trek ownership, and staff including Jillian (pictured here) plan to continue serving the neighborhood’s diverse ridership. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

DANNY’S CYCLES | 653 10th Ave. | dannyscycles.comDanny’s Cycles in Hell’s Kitchen holds the unique position of being a chain location that has retained its individual character over the years. The Hell’s Kitchen location was created six years ago from Metro Bikes, which had existed a block away for over 30 years. One longtime Metro employee still works with the chain to this day. Now, the chain is set to transition to the hands of Trek, the American bicycle manufacturer.

The staff expects to retain the same neighborhood bike shop culture that has kept the cyclery a neighborhood institution. Manager Charlie feels a special attachment to the working-class residents who the shop supports.

“Our customers are mostly blue-collar people,” he said. “The city isn’t cheap to live in. We’re empathetic to those people and we are those people.”

Another staff member, Jillian, echoed his sentiment.

“People that come in here are usually avoiding paying a monthly MetroCard. Biking is their mode of transportation. They rely on it. They use it to save money,” she said. “This shop feels very neighborhood friendly. Everyone that comes in here says they live two blocks away.”

In addition to the hybrids that are popular in stores across the board, as well as high-end road and mountain bikes, Charlie highlighted electronic pedal-assist bikes as a popular offering in the shop.

“The shop has earned the distinction of being the number one destination for electric bikes,” he noted. “It’s mostly people who want to make their commute easier or suffered some sort of injury and can’t bike like they used to. Then there’s the mom who wants to ride with her husband and friends who ride really fast, or the other way around.”

Charlie described the importance of lasting repairs, saying, “The last thing I want is people coming back” with an issue with an adjustment. He decided to pursue a career in the cycling industry after losing weight in his first job at a bike shop, and now looks forward to helping others improve their lives through cycling.

Jillian echoed the benefits to female customers of having a woman working the shop, and pointed out that increasing ridership among women poses a business opportunity for shops.

“There’s a bonding thing,” she said. “It’s maybe a little encouraging or pleasant to see, ‘All right, there’s an industry for us.’ ”

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