The Adventures of Owning a Caribbean Bike Shop

30
Dec
2011

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.

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18 Responses to “ The Adventures of Owning a Caribbean Bike Shop ”

  1. Mike Nap on January 28, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Eric – you are amazing – you haven’t changed one bit in the 19 years since I last saw you – and still just as positive.  Best early career mentor I could have hoped for – best of luck.  By the way – your writing has improved ten fold – you took me back to the islands during a cold winter……good stuff!

    • Eric Hutchins on February 1, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      Holy Cow Mike,
      I just saw that you dropped a comment in here, I am not sure if you will be back to see it but it means a lot to me that you stopped by and said those nice things. Kinda funny about my writing, and to be honest with you , I have a really good editor :). My wife Pamela is an writer and she rocks at it.
      I have got so many memories of life in the islands, and a lot from cycling and running the shops, (I try to forget about some of the others!) Hah
      Take Care.

  2. Anonymous on December 31, 2011 at 1:02 am

    LOVED this post Eric!  It’s really interesting hearing your stories, and all you went through, and all you did for the islands.  Thanks for sharing!  
    Like so many other people, I love your positive attitude.  Even if it wasn’t the best financial experience, it made for great stories (and I have a feeling you have a lot more great stories from growing up in the islands)!  
    Can’t wait to read more from you. :) 

    • Eric Hutchins on January 1, 2012 at 7:36 pm

      Yeah the good definitely outweighs the bad! There are so many funny and amazing stories from life in the islands. You guys I am sure have your own from your experiences in the islands.

  3. Darryl is Loving the Bike on December 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Another fantastic post by the guy who claims not to be a writer…hahahaha.  I think I should just hire you and Pamela to do all the posts over here and I can sit back and relax on the beach all year.

    I really appreciate you taking time out of your super busy schedule to lay down a couple awesome posts for us over here at Loving the Bike, and I sure hope there are more coming my way in 2012.  You’re a good friend, excellent husband and dad, rockstar athlete, and one inspiring writer…keep up the great work.

    I’m hoping my bike tour business goes a whole lot better than your bike shop.

    Darryl

    • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Hey Darryl, thanks man, it is an honor to contribute your your awesome site. Really, I love it. Thanks for all your kind thoughts and support of Pamela also.
      I really did learn a lot with this gig, and while I sense you are the type of person that is going to to just fine on their own, I  would like to sign up to be your FREE business advisor on that bike tour business. If there is anything I can do to help, or if you ever need to bounce ideas of of someone about island businesses, I am your guy.

  4. Stacey Hanna on December 30, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Cool outlook on it. You are never a failure if you continue to try. I need to listen to my husband more when he says that. You have really pointed out that there is more than money value to any experience.

    • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm

      Yeah it all just depends on how you slice it you know…. there are plenty of very positive things that came out of it, and I will always be grateful for the experience, but, there is also a financial reality that my wife Pamelas life is burdened by some of those mistakes. So all you can do is learn, go forward, and do the best you can.

  5. Pamela on December 30, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Yah mon! I am so proud of you, and I lOve this piece and the memories you share. But No More Bike Shops ;-)

    • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 9:26 am

      I know :) and I am sorry :) But I do keep your bike shifting nicely!

      • Pamela on December 30, 2011 at 10:58 am

        I love that when we first got married my youngest told her teacher you were a bike mechanic (instead of a chemical engineer).  She’s right!  You’re great at it.  And that the first presents you got for me when we were dating were bike gloves.  And handblebar tape :)

        • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 11:03 am

          Keep your hands soft :)!

  6. Sherpoland on December 30, 2011 at 8:42 am

    If for nothing else owning your island bike shop makes for some great stories. I really enjoyed reading your post, it made me feel as if I were right there.

    • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 9:25 am

      Thank you so much, I was born and raised in the islands an lived there nearly my entire life. If certain parts of the situation were different the shop would have been even more fun, but I still do have many good memories.

  7. Kevinjeast on December 30, 2011 at 8:07 am

    Well. Spoken. I can tell you are a true motivator. Positive attitudes are contagious.

    • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 8:28 am

      Thanks Kevin, I have a lot of wonderful memories from that time also. There were plenty of people whos lives were changed (and were grateful for it) by simply getting a bicycle as an adult and getting out and getting themselves healthy.

  8. Anonymous on December 30, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Great article. A USVI bicycle shop was something that actually crossed my mind during my honeymoon. No longer haha!

    • Eric Hutchins on December 30, 2011 at 8:27 am

      It was not all bad :). There were times when it was great fun. Knowing what I know now I could do it and lose a lot less, but, I seriously doubt its possible making money at it, so you would have to have some other way to support yourself.

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