The Adventures of Owning a Caribbean Bike Shop
Ever dreamed about opening a bike shop in the Caribbean? Our friend, Eric shares his personal story (and nightmare) of when he ran a bike shop on the island of St. Croix.
The Adventures of Owning a Caribbean Bike Shop
by Eric Hutchins
For 6 years, I was the owner of a small bike shop on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with my ex-wife. I was also the mechanic. And the custodian. And the nearly-everything-else. I did this and had a 70-hour/week day job. Sounds insane, and it felt like it, too. One store became multiple stores on multiple islands, adding to the insanity.
Very few people make money owning bike shops, and I sure didn’t. I opened a shop because I had passion for bikes and riding. I liked the people and the cycling culture. It’s a fraternity that can include a 120-pound Seattle racer with head-to-toe tattoos on a LiteSpeed and an old Rastaman who uses his Huffy to get his fruits to the market.
I learned, though, that opening a bike shop because of my love of bikes had an unintended consequence. I worked while everyone else rode. For instance, in the 10 years before opening the shops I had done about 30 triathlons. In the 6 years I owned the shops, I did zero.
Owning island shops was different from mainland ownership. For island locals, the “size” of the bike was the diameter of the wheel, never mind the frame size. BUT, in the islands, bigger was ALWAYS better. Size was directly linked to masculinity. Most Virgin Islands men were insulted if I tried to sell them a bike that fit, or from which they could dismount off the front of the seat without racking their privates while leaving their toes four inches off the ground. Heavier was better, too. The locals lived in constant fear that the aluminum or, heaven forbid, carbon fiber frame would collapse under their weight and awesome power.
There were other aspects of island riding that made bike mechanics unique. The roads were nearly all bad so the idea of riding on a 23mm tire with a skinny rim was simply folly. You practically had to put the bikes on Fat Boy tires to survive a ride without multiple flats.
Virgin Islanders speak an English dialect most people from the mainland can barely understand, with a lot of island-specific terminology. One of my first customers came in asking for a “star”. It took a while to figure out this was a gear from a rear cassette, and to re-establish my credibility.
Our shop sponsored local bicycle races and triathlons. A good friend of mine entered a his first triathlon, that happened to include a 1-mile ocean swim. He showed up on the morning of the race, his dreadlocks stuffed in a swim cap that looked like a basketball glued to his head, with his entire body covered in white zinc oxide paste. When I asked him about the zinc he laughed and said, “Eric, mon, everybody know dat black people dem can’t swim.”
St. Croix hosts an annual triathlon with qualifying slots for the Hawaii Ironman. In one of the early races, another West Indian who went by the singular name “Bongo” wore a full snorkel mask, large fins, and a life jacket for the ocean swim. The professional triathletes from all over the world, sleek in their Speedos and racing goggles, got quite a kick out of that.
Anyone who has traveled with bikes know what airlines can do to them. The destruction is multiplied by ten when the destination is the Caribbean. I pulled a lot of all-nighters putting the pieces back together before races. It took small miracles to make them road worthy, including stealing parts off my own bikes, only to have some off-island owners greet my efforts with whiney comments about how the bar tape was no longer pristine.
One year, a young, bushy-haired, soft spoken pro named Micheal Lovato arrived 24 hours before the race with his rear derailleur broken in half, jeopardizing his hope of a top 10 finish to generate some food money. I gave him the derailleur off the best bike I had in the shop gratis and sent him on his way (along with a box of powerbars). And, he finished in the money. To this day we exchange emails and remain friends. He has become a real force in the triathlon world, and I consider my contribution of a derailleur well-spent.
The shops were unfortunately hit by the explosion of Internet shopping and catalog houses like Performance and Colorado Cyclist. I’d be in the shop wrenching on a bike with the place full of customers when some yahoo would brag to everyone how he saved $100 buying his high end road bike through the Internet. And then, 2 months later, he would bring in his damaged shipping box containing a frame and 200 parts that required actual tools and know-how to assemble. I charged $200 to put it together. And, with him standing there, I would cheerfully remind the customers that they got free tune-ups on any bikes purchased in the shop.
Many customers would drag in their mass market K-Mart bikes to get the wheels straightened, the brakes to function, and the bike to actually shift gears. When they found out the work would cost more than they paid for the bike, I was the bad guy. “Waiiiiiiiiit a minute,” I would say. “I didn’t sell you that piece of junk disguised as a bicycle in the first place.”
I do believe there is a place for mass market bicycles. If you have a kid that is growing like a weed and likely to hop off the bike in the front yard, let it crash into the bushes, and leave it there for weeks until she needs it again, there is no sense investing in a high quality bike. But if you are buying a bike with the intention of riding it regularly, you can “pay now or pay later.”
The pleasure of owning those island bicycle shops is something I will pay for (literally) the rest of my life. I could be bitter over the money I lost, and sometimes I am, a little. However, it was gratifying to put over 1,000 good bikes into small island communities. Before the shops, a typical local bike race would have 4 or 5 riders in it, including me. The concept of a Peleton or a breakaway group had little meaning. During our final year, it was common to have 60 riders in 3 categories. That was pretty cool. Maybe not cool enough to justify the money lost, but still something I can hold onto with pride.
The most important concept I came out of island bike shop ownership with was the importance of the local shop to the bicycling community. And it is thus with an appreciation for their value and their owners’ sacrifice that I will forever support small bicycle shops. In the long run, I actually recoup the value of the money I invest in supporting those shops, unlike with my Caribbean stores.
Happy cycling, mon.
Eric Hutchins is a cyclist, surfer, ex-triathlete, and bass player on the side. On top of it all, he’s an awesome motivator, kind friend, and all around great guy. Eric previously contributed at Loving the Bike with a Make it Happen Monday post about being a Positive Contributor. You can follow Eric on Twitter at @trimon29.