A good bike shop does a lot more than just sell bikes. We call in at Transit Cycles in Tuscon, Arizona, to talk cargo machines, bike art, and building a cycling community…
To those unfamiliar with the American South West, the city of Tucson lies on the fringes of the Arizona-Sonora Desert, just sixty miles from the Mexican Desert. It’s set within a backdrop of arid mountains speckled with saguaro cacti, and blessed with a warming sun and clear skies come winter. With temperatures often hovering around the 70°F mark (21°C), Tuscon is becoming a hub for road riders, gravel riders, and mountain bikers alike. This, along with a burgeoning everyday bicycle culture, has seen it regularly ranked in the top ten bike-friendly US cities.
To begin, can you talk us through a short history of Transit Cycles?
This prompted a bit of a shift for us, as we saw fewer younger buyers looking at city and commuter specific bikes, and instead exploring the idea of travel by bike as both recreation and a better way to get around in general.
“Transit Cycles opened on January 31st 2014. So as I write this, our 5 year anniversary is a few weeks away. Originally I was expecting to primarily sell city bikes, cargo bikes, kids bikes, and few touring bikes here and there. I opened the doors as the only employee and wanted to sell as many products as possible that were made in the US, and if possible, from businesses within the bike world that are owned by minorities.
The whole touring/bikepacking/adventure bike thing has really caused something of a shift within the bike industry. To me, this has meant that it’s so much easier to get a bike that is far more practical for most people to buy. This prompted a bit of a shift for us, as we saw fewer younger buyers looking at city and commuter specific bikes, and instead exploring the idea of travel by bike as both recreation and a better way to get around in general.”
What inspired you to set it up and what are your goals?
I’ve always wanted to have a bike shop. I grew up in a very small town in Ohio where most of the businesses were local ones, including the bike shop. It just seemed like a natural thing to think I would own my own business one day. As I began working in other bike shops, what I thought my own would look like changed. Maybe it would be a high-end road shop, maybe a mountain bike shop, then back to something broader. As I got older and started a family I sort of began letting go of the dream.
Then we got a cargo bike when my son was around two (he is almost 11 now). I spent more than a year researching what to buy instead of a second car. We had friends and family living in Portland OR and I was very aware of the bike cargo bike boom going on there, and was madly in love with the Work Cycles/VanAndel Bakfiets. Lucky for me, Clever Cycles was willing and able to ship one to us.
The long and short of it is that this bike, an 8ft, 90lb (40kg) machine, made this very burnt out, slightly overweight recovering roadie fall in love with riding bikes again. It also helped me jump start my fitness. I quickly found that I couldn’t ride the bike without being asked about it, “Did you build that”, “Where did you get that” etc. So out of this, I began wondering about importing bikes from Henry at Work Cycles in Amsterdam and opening a tiny shop that sold only cargo bikes and “Oma/Opa” Fiets bikes. Transit grew out of that. My goals have essentially been to have a store that offers a space that feels comfortable for everyone, offering products that I feel good about selling and can stand behind.
How many employees are there at Transit Cycles?
“Not including myself, I have one full-time employee and one part-time. Monique Laraway is our main service person taking care of the majority of our repairs. Spencer is our part-timer; he’s also helping us get our rides established and with a bit of social media.
Can you tell us about the space you’re currently located in? It would seem like this location lends itself well to shared business between small shops and restaurants, as well as passing bike traffic from the nearby bike path.
“We originally opened in the Mercado San Augustin. My understanding is that the Mercado, as its called, was supposed to be sort of a small business proving ground… the idea being that it would offer shorter term leases and smaller square footage, to make it a little easier for small businesses to get things going. We moved from there at the end of March 2018 into what is called the MSA Annex, just a couple of blocks away. In doing so, we doubled our size and traded some great neighbors and local businesses for several more wonderful neighbors. The MSA Annex is about a 50/50 mix between brand new businesses and those that are either second locations, or new concepts from businesses that have been around for a while. In total, there around 14 shops and restaurants. The complex itself was built inside of modified shipping containers, has a performance space attached to it. All of the business is local and almost all are minority and/or family owned.
The Mercado has become something of a nexus for riders from both the local community as well as the large community of cyclists that visit throughout the year. It has a trifecta with Presta Coffee La Estrella Pastries and Mexican food from Seis. It also sits fairly close to singletrack in Tucson Mountain Park, part of the local bike path system called The Loop, and to the roads and dirt on the Westside of Tucson. We also have the streetcar (tram) using the Mercado District as its western terminus. It’s a lot of fun having a very diverse and eclectic range of business, all of whom seem to be happy to have bikes as part of the mix, bringing me a lot of inspiration with their unique styles and perspectives on what they want their businesses to be.”
What kind of bikes do you sell most?
“Well, after a bit of a downturn in the category we began selling more city bikes, specifically from Linus and Civia, and although I haven’t looked at the specifics at the close of 2018 just yet, I am pretty sure we sold more of those than anything else last year. Second to those would be touring/cross/adventure bikes, like the All City Gorilla Monsoon, Salsa Vaya and Surly Cross Check.”
How do you think we can get more people out of cars and onto bikes, standard, electric, cargo or otherwise?
“That’s a really tough question! Right now, I think the answer is going to vary a good bit depending on the city you are looking at, and by extension, the people and associated cultures that exist there. Meaning something that what works really well in say, Portland Oregan, probably won’t do much good in El Paso, Texas. Their built environments are very different. I think the socio-economic differences are what we need to be focusing on when we talk about getting folks to ride. How to answer that on a broad scale is really hard. I will say that I feel that in many ways that discussion sort of dried up within the retail side of the industry. We still have lots of organizations both local and national working on ways to make this happen, but it feels like the “industry” has moved on to talk about newer catchphrases by in large.”
It’s great to see artwork and bicycles in the same space. Speaking of which, can you talk us through the artwork featured on your Transit Cycles water bottles?
We have had 5 or maybe 6 different artists from Tucson, or with Tucson roots, do some art for us or design a bottle. We do a single run and once they sell out they are gone.
“Well, as much as I am a fan of bikes, I am probably actually a bigger fan of bike shops and the culture that comes from them. As silly as it may sound, one of the things I was most excited about when I was getting the shop open was what our shop bottle would be. It just so happens that we know a lot of artists and graphic designers here in town. After ordering our first batch of simple bottles with just the shop logo on them, I realized that I wanted to do something a bit more exciting, so we have had 5 or 6 different artists from Tucson, or with Tucson roots, do some art for us or design a bottle. We do a single run and once they sell out they are gone. I’m pretty excited about the bottles we having coming out for our anniversary. The art was done by a good friend and customer named Racheal Rios who grew up not far from where the shop is now and who’s art I am a huge fan of.”
Do you have children? Do they ride bikes too?
“Yes, two. One is almost 11 and the other just turned 14. They have both been involved with riding since they were pretty young. My 14-year-old was part of the junior El Grupo (a local youth cycling organization) pilot, El Grupito, and has been associated with the organization ever since. She has raced in the local Nica league through El Grupo for the last three years and will start High School in the Fall. My son has also been in El Grupito since he was old enough but took this past season off. They both do some commuting here and there when schedules allow it.”
How much do you get out to ride?
“Nowhere near enough, not by a long shot. I probably get on 2-3 real rides a week right now. This past year has been pretty challenging for me on the bike…not really sure why but I haven’t really enjoyed myself or felt very good on the bike for much of the last year.”
How has Tucson changed, from a cyclist’s point of view, over the last decade?
“Another hard question but I think that there has been a big realization that Tucson is a great cycling destination and attraction because of it. This has meant improvements in some infrastructure that of course benefit local cyclists too. We have also seen a very concerted effort to improve and build more trails in the area. Mountain biking here can be pretty technical and unforgiving and it’s great to see more miles of trail both technical and more mellow to draw more folks out to the dirt.”
In more recent years I would credit Living Streets Alliance, and some pretty great bike/ped coordinators and dedicated community members to helping make some changes for the better.
As a visitor to the city, I’m impressed by the use of space, and how it’s prioritised for pedestrians and cyclists within areas of the city centre. The implementation of bike paths and commuting bike routes seems very well considered too. What was the catalyst for this?
“I am maybe not the best person to answer that question but there is a long history here of trying to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists with some mixed results. In more recent years I would credit Living Streets Alliance, and some pretty great bike/ped coordinators and dedicated community members to helping make some changes for the better.”
Any recommendations for a local ride that will help get a feel for Tuscon and the surrounding desert, either within the city or beyond?
“There are so many. I would say Mount Lemmon is really fantastic. Another amazing option is riding out Reddington pass, through the foothills to the East of the Catalina Mountains. Your pick of most of the mountain bike trails really, but if you have limited time, I would prioritize Tucson Mountain Park/Starr Pass, especially on the tail end of Monsoon season. Time it so you can catch the sunset.”
Be sure to check out Transit Cycles on your next trip to Tuscon. It’s situated north of Menlo Park, just off the ‘Loop‘, within a complex of smallscale businesses set in revitalised shipping containers, including a coffee shop, a burger joint, local art curators, and of course, a great bike shop.