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2/06/2009

Bike Shop Love

“No single group within the cycling community seems to better reflect the history, spirit and enthusiasm of cycling than the local retailer.” – Eric Gruenwedel.


Few bike shops stand the test of time long enough to become legends. With lives as illustrious as those of their founders, these shops come to serve as guardians of local cycling culture and lore. With museum-like reverence for the past, they provide glimpses of cycling evolution for current generations.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, three such bike shops immediately come to mind.

Oscar’s Shop

American Cyclery sits at the helm of San Francisco’s infamous Bicycle Row, occupying two corners, across from each other, where Stanyan and Frederick Streets meet (the original store, and American Cyclery Too, respectively). The doors first opened in 1943, after Oscar Junor retired from an accomplished career as one of the countries premier six day racers in the 1930’s. Among his racing stories was the tale of snatching the hat from Bette Davis’ head before going on to win the last Los Angeles Six. A few years later, Oscar again turned heads by attempting to ride his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge a day before it opened to the public.

From its earliest days, his shop drew local racers from all over the area as one of the only places they could fraternize with “their own.” Oscar himself, selectively dispersing grains of experience to riders he deemed worthy, was as great an attraction as the fine lightweight bicycles he was one of the first to import from Europe. Along with the bikes on the sales floor, the store carried even more obscure treasures that filled the shop’s basement.

“Oscar would never let anyone down there,” chuckles Bradley Woehl, who acquired the store in 1996, the third owner in the shop’s history. “If you asked the right way, and you had proven yourself worthy of him selling you that part, then he might sell it to you. Or he might let you look at it and then six months later sell you that part.”

The nether regions of American Cyclery remain to this day the place to inquire for vintage Campy or anything else from decades past. Bradley, who also publishes Bicycle Trader magazine, has always been “into the old stuff.” His goal for the shop from the beginning was to publish the magazine, helping people to buy, sell and trade old bikes, while also having specialty items for sale in the shop. Hence the case full of vintage Camagnolo derailleurs, on display like jewelry.

Some of the fondest reminiscent of Oscar come from the racers he mentored throughout his life, those who knew the man beneath gruff exterior. Among them was Peter Rich, whose racing career spanned the1950’s and early 60’s. Peter remembers Oscar and his shop as being a central location in the world of every serious cyclist at that time.
“We used to meet at 8 a.m. every Saturday morning at Oscar’s shop. We’d hang around and talk to Oscar, then we would ride south to go see Spence. I bought my first two Cinellis from Spence.”


Spence’s Shop

Cupertino Bike Shop started as a project in Spence Wolf’s garage. After failing to find a local shop that carried tubular tires in the late 1940’s, Spence began to manufacture them himself, setting up shop in the garage next to the home he shared with his wife, Lillian. Word of Spence’s considerable prowess as a wheel builder and mechanic soon spread, and before long there were riders lining up on his front lawn every Saturday morning. By 1953, Spence and Lillian officially went into business, and Cupertino Bike Shop opened its doors.

“He built the shop on his attention to detail. He was extremely meticulous and methodical. Everything had to be perfect, it had to be right, and it had to work,” says Vance Sprock, who currently owns the store with his wife, Cynthia.

The first and only shop in the area to perform custom bike builds, as well as bring Cinellis and Singers on to American pavement, its reputation quickly grew. Spence’s ingenuity not only lead to wheels that are still on the road and true thirty years later, but also to such innovations as the “Wolf/Alpine Modification,” a pulley extension arm Spence machined to work with Camagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleurs, allowing for a wider range of gearing. A set of arms with Campy rollers sold for $17.

Spence’s endless quest to build a better wheel resulted in scores of special orders for 24, 28, 32,40, and 48 hole rims from the French manufacturer Super Champion, as the 36 hole standard of the times did not match his own. In the late 70’s he convinced an unemployed machinist friend named Phil Wood to make a batch of 50 sealed bearing hubs ‘just to see if they’ll sell.’ Undoubtedly, we all know the end of that story.

Among many things that gives this store it’s remarkable staying power is the painstaking attention to detail by the owners, past and present.
“Things need to be done properly,” says Vance. “I’m here six, seven days a week… there’s a lot of dedication.”
“It really is a labor of love,” says Cynthia. The Sprocks have owned Cupertino Bike Shop for the past thirteen years.

The store still carries on the in the original spirit of Spence’s love for the sport by sponsoring Hellyer Velodrome, nurturing it’s own race team, and hosting one of the biggest annual swap meets in the Bay Area.

Peter’s Shop

Both of these shops and their original proprietors had a profound influence on Peter Rich. In 1962, after being mentored as a young racer by the likes of Oscar Junor and Spence Wolf, he decided to open a bike shop in Berkeley at the relatively tender age of 21. He called it Velo Sport.

His many years racing had fostered in him a love of finely crafted bicycles, which became evident when he began to bring bikes with the names Masi and Colnago on their down tubes over from Italy. “They were unavailable here back then. I brought them in ten at a time,” Peter remembers.

In 1957, Peter had put on what is now the second oldest road race in the U.S, the Berkeley Hills Race.
“The vision for the shop from the beginning was to create a forum to promote bike racing,” he says.

As the founder of what later evolved into the NCNCA, he held regular meetings in his mom’s living room with delegates from local cycling clubs, actively promoting the racing scene. One of Peter’s proudest achievements, the first edition of the Tour de California, came about in 1971.

In 1968, a man by the name of Albert Eisentraut began a stint as a mechanic at Velo Sport. Eventually, after many conversations, Peter and Eisentraut came to an arrangement.
“We agreed that I would subsidize a frame shop,” he said. “After about two years, he started making frames here.”

However, racing has always been Peter’s focus. He dispersed pearls of wisdom to fledgling racers as a coach, just as Oscar had done for him decades earlier. The room where Eisentraut once built his masterpieces now houses young racers from out of state, whom Peter gives a place to stay so they can race in the area.

Genuine Love

What sets these bike shops apart from so many others is simply the motivation for their existence. Past and present owners are not driven by hype and dreams of huge profit margins, but rather by genuine love of the sport itself. It is this passion that inspires them to work the unrelenting hours and make all the sacrifices necessary to keep the doors of their shops open. It is this passion that earned these shops their own rightful place as characters in the cycling annals of the Bay Area.

Cast of Characters:
American Cyclery, 858 Stanyan St. San Francisco, CA (415) 876-4545 www.Americancyclery.com

Cupertino Bike Shop, 10493 S. DeAnza Blvd., Cupertino, CA. (408)255-2217
www.cupertinobike.com

Velo Sport, 1650 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Berkeley Ca. (510)849-0437
www.velosportbicycles.com


Other vital players:
Stone’s Cyclery (since 1943) 2320 Santa Clara Ave, Alameda, CA (510) 523-3264
www.stonescyclery.com

Bicycle Odyssey (since 1975) 1417 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA (415) 332-3050 www.bicycleodyssey.com

2 comments:

hspivak said...

Thank you for your wonderful comments regarding the bike history of the Bay Area. One additional note. Actually, Phil Wood began manufacturing hubs, and later bottom brackets, in the early, not the late, 1970's. I had worked for him briefly making hub flanges in 1973, and had purchased three sets of his hubs. I still ride on them today, and had purchased them upon words of advice from Spence Wolf!

Rick Vosper said...

I had the good fortune to know and work with Spence, Peter, Phil & Vada Wood, and Tony Tom (Tommy Tone) at Bicycle Outfitter. Some others you might be interested in include the Hoffacker brothers (PA Bike), Rick and Jon Hjertberg (Wheelsmith), and the original Desimone's cyclery in downtown San Jose, especially for the Desimone Repair Stand (last time I checked, they had one in the back at The Bicycle Trip in Santa Cruz. PS: Race street in San Jose so was namned at the turn of the century because SJ was the bike racing capital of the world and Race streed boasted 3 velodromes.