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.

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