Bike shop fights national economy backwash, stresses roots, service

Mechanic Sam Edgemon works on a bike at Suck Creek Cycle on Chattanooga’s North Shore.

A family-run bicycle shop founded in 1998 is pedaling forward in low gear up a steady grade and a bit of recession-blown headwind.

Suck Creek Cycle is pressing ahead, though competition among bike shops began to intensify after the arrival of Volkswagen in Chattanooga, says owner Mike Skiles, who runs the shop on 321 Cherokee Blvd. He and his wife, Joanna, have six children, some of whom work at the shop or sell lemonade on the front sidewalk in the summertime.

Four other bike shops compete with him on the trendy North Shore.‡ One is Trek, owned by Tyler Klein and his wife, Lacy. The shop sells the Trek bike line for which the store is named, manager Taylor Keaton says. The shop on Manufacturers Road opened in 2008, when VW announced it had picked Chattanooga. Another, Hub, an athletic coaching service, began a full-scale bike shop three years ago. Surviving requires Suck Creek Cycle to rely on a network of friends and customers and good service, Mr. Skiles says.

“We pride ourselves on being lovers of all things bicycles. Most of the folks that work here, including myself, do it because we love bikes. I want not only to provide a service and have an income, but help other people enjoy cycling like we do.”

Personal relationships basis of prosperity

Mr. Skiles, 48, is working on a Colnago road bike from a customer who has had Mr. Skiles work on his bikes for three decades. He’s disassembling the Italian bike hanging aloft on a pneumatic stand and is getting ready to spray innards to prevent rust.

“We’ve formed a pretty tight bond,” he says of the biker. “He trusts me with his bikes, and if he’s been riding that long, he forms a bond with his bike, so he doesn’t trust just anyone to work on them.”

Does the gentleman ask for a price estimate before turning over his property to Mr. Skiles? “Never. He realizes we’re going to do it at a rate that’s acceptable to him. Our labor rates are fair. There’s not been too many times that someone has balked at what we’re charging on our repairs.”

As Mr. Skiles maneuvers parts, mechanic Sam Edgemon, 22, works nearby. What sets Suck Creek apart from other shops? I ask him. He looks over from between wheel spokes.

“Bikes and friendly advice would be the best way to put it. We’re here to get your bike fixed and help you out any way we can. We’re not concerned about how much money we can take from you. It’s more about making sure you’re happy when you walk out the door and are as educated as you can be.”

Chattanooga a biking destination

Mike Skiles relies on a strength of local economy — personal relationships — to survive intense competition among bike shop operators on the North Shore.

The River City enjoys advantages from its geography, weather and the precision of its sprawl along the Tennessee River. Within 30 minutes of the city are nearly 100 miles of biking trails, Mr. Skiles says. Soon about 10 miles of jogging and biking trails will be open on nearby Stringer’s Ridge.

“Chattanooga is a fairly nice place to visit, too, small enough and inexpensive enough, close enough from some of the bigger towns like Nashville and Atlanta. So we get a fair amount of people weekly that are from out of town.”

Yesterday visiting bikers came from Anniston, Ala., Mr. Skiles says. Today a group hailing from Birmingham made a courtesy call at Suck Creek Cycle.

The city appeals to many, Mr. Skiles says.

“We have seen an influx of people moving from the bigger cities to Chattanooga because of outdoor opportunities, be it bicycling, boating or climbing or hiking. North Chattanooga is nice because it’s close to downtown.”

‡ Among these four shops is Chattanooga Electric Bikes, which Mr. Skiles says is not a real competitor.

Suck Creek Cycle, a family-run shop on Cherokee Boulevard, involves children in the operation of the business. In summer, little girls sell lemonade on the sidewalk.

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