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|September 24 - 30, 2009
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• Elevation — second story
Labors of love
Jon Stabile of Boulder Bikesmith has a passion
for anything on two wheels
Story and photos by Tom Winter
It starts with sweat, the oil of passion and frustration and effort. Sweat that stains the clothing, drips from the brow and permeates the very pores of the soul. From that passion — the passion to sweat and suffer and work harder than anyone ever thought possible — comes the blood. The blood of broken knuckles and torn fingernails, of road rash and skinned elbows: the blood of passion.
Passion drives a lot of bike shops in Boulder. After all, if you love your road or mountain bike, what better way to feed that passion than start up a cycling emporium? But while all those shop walls covered in bright and shiny and expensive things and the shop floors covered in the latest, greatest, super light — and super-expensive — carbon fiber winged machines speak to a certain type of passion, it’s generally in the back shop, where the service guys sweat and curse over broken spokes and bent rims, where the waters of cycling passion run the deepest. You have to care if you’re going to spend your time on the old stuff, the stuff that isn’t new, isn’t shiny and isn’t cool or trendy, the stuff that’s been rescued from Dumpsters and garage sales and someone’s pile of trash from when they finally cleaned out the basement, and the stuff that’s broken and needs a-fixin’.
It’s exactly this type of passion that I find when I stumble into the confines of the Boulder Bikesmith shop in an odd corner of a shopping center off of Arapahoe Road. After all, one of their neighbors is a grim sewing shop that smells of stale mothballs and Grandma’s closet. It’s not exactly a trendy Northlands retail location, but trendy isn’t what Jon Stabile, owner of Boulder Bikesmith, is about. He’s about bikes, especially the funky older steeds that defy the best repair efforts.
Old bikes are cool. And they’re cool because the basic technology that allows them to zip around fuels the rarified steeds that ply Le Tour de France today. Bikes are — and have always been — about two wheels, a frame, a seat and some handlebars. It’s this fundamental simplicity that drives the childlike joy of Boulder’s Thursday cruiser nights, the smile on my neighbor’s kid, Ben, as he does loops in the cul-de-sac, and the primal rush when I drop into a stretch of singletrack high in the mountains. Two wheels equals freedom, and as any kid will tell you, freedom is cool.
Jon Stabile knows about freedom. He put his money and career on hold to taste it, to follow his passion and leap into the great unknown. A computer geek with a good job in the tech industry, he suddenly realized that he wasn’t happy. Like a kid on a tricycle, he took a hard left turn into the unknown, walking away from his steady paycheck and following a road called passion.
“I didn’t get into this for a career,” admits Stabile. “I thought I’d do something fun for a year.”
That year started when Stabile walked through the doors of the Boulder Bikesmith looking for work. “It was the first place that said yes,” he admits.
Stabile laughs as he reminisces going from bike shop to bike shop in hopes of scoring a job. He also laughs when he admits that after a couple years of wrenching at Boulder Bikesmith, he realized that he’d found his calling.
“Bikes have a subtle mix of simplicity and complexity,” he says. “They’re the most efficient mode of transport, and they include structures that are more than 100 years old but remain unmatched. That a wheel can take the weight of a 250-pound rider, yet weighs ounces, the shape of a frame — I find it amazing when bikes are reduced to essentials.”
Of course, as simple as bikes seem, it’s the subtle complexities that can make them devilishly difficult to repair.
But with a business that specializes in old bikes and in rehabbing and selling used bikes (a very affordable option for students and others on a budget who need a reliable pair of wheels to get around), for Stabile and his crew, which includes store manager Gloria Sargent, the core of the business is wrenching.
Sargent’s story is eerily similar to Stabile’s. An eastern transplant with a love of bikes, she fetched up in Boulder looking to ride and to get a job based on her passion. With no one hiring, she volunteered to work for Stabile, and he took her in. It wasn’t long before she ended up on the payroll.
“I’ve been lucky,” admits Sargent. “I can road ride a lot in Boulder, and I commute to work on a bike. I love that.”
Walk into Boulder Bikesmith, and you’ll probably find Stabile and Sargent huddled over bikes in the cramped workshop at the back of the shop as they bring them back to life.
“We’re a service shop,” says Stabile. “I don’t mind selling stuff, but it’s not why we’re here. We are here to squeeze every last bit of performance out of every bike. Five thousand dollar racing bikes or $60 Target specials — it doesn’t matter. We want to make machines live up to their potential and solve mechanical challenges. Ninety-eight percent of that happens through service. The best is fixing something that is considered ‘unfixable.’”
“That is the most fun!” interjects Sargent.
As Stabile discusses recent man-over-machine victories, such as resolving issues with a 60-year-old Bendix hub, it’s hard not to notice that there’s some pretty unusual stuff tucked into the corners of the shop. One bike in particular draws the eye. It’s a wild “chopper” fabricated by Stabile himself.
“I didn’t anticipate how fabrication would help the shop,” says Stabile of his custom creations. “It allows for repairs that normally couldn’t be done.”
In fact, the nasty shifting issue with the Bendix hub was solved with a replacement part fabricated by Stabile. But the unusual bikes that he builds are substantially more striking than the handmade small metal disk that put the Bendix hub back on the road.
“It’s a labor of love,” concedes Stabile. “No one has ordered a bike from me yet, and I only make six to eight bikes each year, and I go overboard with the bikes I make. No one is going to pay $5,000 for one of these. But I use the skills I develop and the tools I acquire for fabrication to make the shop a better shop. The shop is becoming a synthesis of fabrication and repair work. I’d love to not sell anything, but just be the place that can make or fix anything.”
It’s an interesting business model: a bike shop that doesn’t sell bikes, tubes or helmets. But looking at the jumble of parts, tools and bikes that are waiting for their turn to be wrenched on, it doesn’t seem particularly farfetched. That’s because the Boulder Bikesmith is already there: a place that can fix anything with two wheels, fueled by fabrication, sweat and passion, the same passion that puts kids on bikes and keeps them riding until they die.
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