What differentiates the best bike shops from the rest?
Sometimes it's the simplicity and ease of buying a coffee and a new inner tube before a Sunday spin, or the purchase of winter clothing to get us through the dark days before spring. Whatever it is, the best bikes shops all have something in common; they provide us with pleasure, they remind us of the unadulterated joy we first had for the sport, and for the faintest of moments they have the ability to make time stand still, as if nothing else matters but our wistful gazes upon the immaculate machines and glistening equipment. The best bike shops remind us why we fell in love with cycling.
What first strikes you upon entering the doors at Vecchio's Bicicletteria in downtown Boulder is just how much memorabilia the walls hold. It's simply jaw-dropping. The premises aren't huge; with a delicately small glass counter facing inwards from the front wall, and an open-space floor for the mechanics towards the rear. In between both points are the usual paraphernalia, but it's on the walls where Vecchio's Bicicletteria comes alive. Look upward, and you'll see kits from the last six decades, with a Greg LeMond Worlds jersey sat between strips from 7-Eleven, Molteni and a signed maglia rosa from Andy Hampsten's Giro d'Italia win in 1988. However, there are so many layers to the establishment's nostalgia, and it's the smaller details, the ones you miss when you first walk in, that make the shop stand out.
Take the front desk, for example. The glass casing immortalizes a pair of vintage Campagnolo Corsa / C-Record SGR-1 pedals, while a Campagnolo shaving kit is propped against them. Just to the right are a set of pin badges from the early 1990s that include Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Marc Madiot, and Gilles Delion. You could spend hours trawling through the collection and still find something new by the end.
The shop was opened back in 1999 when the US cycling scene began its first revival after the LeMond years. Peter Chisholm, a local mechanic and wheel builder at the time had been inspired by an influx of European riders in the mid-90s who had used Colorado as a base for altitude training ahead of one edition of the World Championships. Andy Hampsten had ventured to the state and brought a gaggle of Banesto teammates - including the Indurain's - with him. A star-studded Italian squad followed suit, and for a couple of weeks, the streets were awash with the glitz and glamour of the European peloton.
"There was a big group ride one morning, and the Italians were out, and there were all these intros, and one of the Italians looked over at Peter and said 'ciao Vecchio'," recounts the current owner and the shop's lead mechanic Jim Potter, as he cleans his workstation for this morning's business.
"Peter leaned over to Andy Hampsten and asked, 'what did he say,' and Andy turned and said 'hey, old guy.' Peter thought that was cool and he took that on as a nickname, so when it came to opening a shop, he went with Vecchio's."
Chisholm retired in 2013, but the essence of the shop remains intact. Mostly all of the memorabilia that lines the walls has been donated by the cycling community, who have appreciated seeing their collectables on public display rather than in dusty boxes at home.
It takes some time before you realize that the only thing missing from this bike shop is the bikes themselves. In truth there are a handful of machines on display, such as an Albert Eisentraut that's painted up as an Austro Daimler and was raced by both Connie and Davis Phinney, but the on-sale collection stretches to just a couple from Waterford and the odd Moots. If you want to buy an off-the-peg road machine and ride it home that day, this isn't the best place to start. University Bikes, a place at least double the size of Vecchio's caters for that and has its own memorabilia collection to boot.
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Vecchio's staff consists of three or four individuals, depending on the time of the season, with Mat Barlow coming on board when Chisholm hung up his wheels. Barlow's parents launched Mountain Bike magazine, and the keen mountain biker has been around bike shops and the industry since as long as he can remember. Today it's just Mat and Jim, but the rack of customer bikes on the far end of the shop is an indication that the day will be another busy one.
"When Peter started the shop the concept was that when you buy a car from a dealership, you then find a specialist to work on it," Barlow says.
"So, when Peter split from the bike shop he was at previously he didn't even plan to carry any bike brands. He wanted customers to purely bring their bikes here to be serviced. Moots later came on board, and then Waterford, but the idea was that this was going to be the place where you could bring any bike in the world and have it worked on by the best mechanics.
"That model is starting to come around again because more and more people are buying bikes online but they still need the expertise, and customers appreciate it when their bikes are worked on by someone who really knows their stuff, and really cares.
"If you look around and want to buy a bike today, there are two town bikes, but they're a maybe for our customers. If one of our few demo bikes fit someone perfectly then, we'd sell it, but they're just examples. The bike that you'd buy here doesn't exist yet."
Potter, originally from Michigan, agrees. Like Chisholm, he moved to Boulder in the 1990s and worked with some of the premier bike shops at the time. He took over from Chisholm in 2013 and had ensured that the shop has retained a reputation for excellence. It's no wonder that so many pro riders have donated their jerseys or that many Boulder glitterati stop by for repairs.
"We're known for the quality repair work that we do, but people come to us because they trust us," he says.
"We have a lot of good old mechanics, wrenches, here in Boulder, so we've been a draw for a lot of people over the years. We're known for our Campagnolo work as well. We give a personalized service so it's two hours into the day and all I've done is talk to customers about their bikes. I think people want a face to the person working on their bike. We equate what we do to being tailors. You can go and get a suit off the rack, and it will probably serve most of your needs, but if you go to tailor, they'll take measurements and ask about all your needs. And then they make something for that occasion."
That ethos around the bike manifests itself in the rest of the shop. There is no sunglasses or electronics section. Instead, a portion of the floor is devoted to customers bikes, with a replica Eddy Merckx bike with full Motorola decals ready for collection.
"It's hard for us to be the place where customers need to come and get a Garmin, for example," says Barlow.
"So we try and curate a smaller collection of things that are not available everywhere else. We can't compete when it comes to selling helmets and shoes because every place has those.
"I came here from living in mountain bike towns, but I've become more of a road rider since coming here because mountain biking is a bit under the radar. It's a road biking town, for sure, but there are some many good trails around here that gravel has taken off. It might feel a bit elite here because no matter what you're going to be passed by people here but I find it quite relaxing because you'll be out riding and Taylor Phinney will blow past you."
Phinney, old and young, are both regulars in Vecchio's. Potter worked for Davis Phinney during the elite rider's racing career, and a pair of junior's wheels sit against a wall. It's no coincidence that Talyor Phinney's national jersey takes centre stage next to a portrait of Chisholm on the front wall.
"Everything here has a story behind it, and I feel like people like the vibe here and want to contribute," Barlow says as he looks up to scan the section of wall furniture dedicated exclusively to Merckx.
"I'm not sure where the collection started, but at this point, people bring in stuff all the time because they walk in here and they appreciate the look, how much depth there is, and how you keep finding things days after you've first visited."
There are so many backstories to the bikes that hang from the ceilings and the memorabilia on the walls, but it's the Phinney bike that stands out above all else. Barlow unhooks the bike from the ceiling and Potter gives it a once over with a cloth to remove the dust. The paint begins to glisten, and the beauty of the almost art-deco branding along the downtube becomes clear.
"Back in the 90s I worked at Morgul-Bismark bikes, and two of the guys who co-owned the shop were Davis and Ron Kiefel," Potter says.
"There was an old Austro Daimler frame that was clanging around in the cellar for years. When the shop was in the process of being sold, those that moved here liberated the frame and brought it here. We repainted it, and the decals that were on it were Austro Daimler so when we repainted it was with new Austro Daimler decals. We hung it up here but years later Davis Phinney came in, and he looked up and asked: 'Is that the Austro Daimler that came out of Morgul?' We sheepishly had to tell him the truth, but he was glad we had it."
At that point, Phinney informed the staff at Vecchio's that the bike wasn't an Austro Daimler but a frame built by the legendary Albert Eisentraut, who taught almost an entire generation of frame builders through the 1970s until the 1990s.
"Davis told us that it was Connie's bike when she raced for the Puch women's' team. It was her race bike but when Davis found himself without a team for a year Connie's team hired him as the token guy to race for them. To differential him from the rest, they repainted the bike with Austro Daimler on it, so it didn't look like the women's teams bikes. It was too big for him but it was free, and he won a lot of races on it."
Vecchio's isn't a catch-all bike shop. With that level of space it just wouldn't be possible, but what the customer receives is more than just service.
As a journalist, it's easy to lose sight of the many wonderful aspects cycling still holds. You tend to think in terms of guilt and innocence, page views and copy sales, deadlines and headlines. If time with Floyd Landis, Mike Creed and Michael Friedman had provided any lessons, they were that professional cycling has much more depth to it than we have given it credit. And if Vecchio's shows us anything, it’s that cycling remains a beautiful sport, and now and then, it can still create those moments when we're stopped in our tracks, time stands still, and we're reminded why we fell in love with the sport in the first place.
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