Lance Armstrong's bike shop open for business

Mellow Johnny's packs 'em in

Mellow Johnny's, the newest bike shop in Austin, Texas, had its grand opening May 10, and for general manager Craig Staley, overseeing Lance Armstrong's first bike shop has been a labour of love.

The shop opened at 7 a.m., and by the time BikeRadar decided to head back to the hotel to file this report, it was nearly midnight. Staley, beer in hand, smiled and told us he had two hours to go before getting some much-needed sleep. Armstrong had just left the party, and several guests were still lingering, not wanting the day to end.

Manager Craig Staley and Trek's John Burke

What began as a business idea between Armstrong and Trek Bicycle Corporation five or six years ago has crystalized into an 18,000-square-foot bike shop with a built-in coffee shop called Juan Pelota, located at the corner of Fourth and Nueces in downtown Austin, home of Dell Computers, 709,893 people, and named the number one best big city to live by Money Magazine. It helps that the University of Texas brings in co-eds every year, and Austin is known as the live music capitol of the world.

But for Staley, the next challenge is to put Austin on the map for bicyclists, and not just for seven-time Tour de France winners.

"Two years ago we started looking at 5,000-square-foot shops to get inspiration," Staley told BikeRadar Saturday afternoon. "I have experience managing running stores, and rode bikes with Lance when we were teenagers."

Staley was all settled in California when Lance and his business partner Bart Knaggs convinced him, after five tries, to relocate to Austin and commit to this venture. With 16 employees, soon to balloon to 35-plus, Staley has his work cut out for him. Thankfully, Armstrong has a solid history with Trek, so it's a no-brainer to see road, city, mountain and kids bikes from the Waterloo, Wisconsin maker.

"Once the dust settles from the grand opening and reality kicks in, our marketing plan is pretty obvious," Staley said. "We call it 'cheating' to have Lance as one of the owners because he's so visible.

"The thing is, because this is Lance's place, we can't afford to be mediocre; everything has to be dialed, because that's how Lance is," he added.

Armstrong's 1993 World's-winning Team Motorola Caloi, made by Litespeed

Armstrong and Staley have been making the rounds since signing a lease on the property in June 2007, visiting bike shops around the country during business trips. They even drank in the recent North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHMBS) in Portland, where Armstrong plunked down US$15,000 for a handmade beauty from Canadian makers Naked, which now hangs gallery-style in Mellow Johnny's. Bikes from 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, longtime teammate George Hincapie, and a Caloi-branded Litespeed that Armstrong rode to victory in the 1993 Worlds in Norway also hang from the rafters.

Armstrong's big purchase, the $15,000 Naked

"Actually, the Naked bike is probably the first bike Lance paid for himself," Staley added. He also mentioned how cool it would be to have the Handmade Show in Austin someday, something highly plausible given the Show's nomadic nature.

Brands

Besides Trek, Mellow Johnny's offers Swobo and Masi urban bikes, Pinarello, Merckx, DeRosa, Crumpton and Seven road bikes, Fisher and Santa Cruz mountain bikes, and Dahon foldable bikes. Despite Armstrong's obvious relationships with Trek, Nike, Oakley and Giro, Staley was quite pleased to see Trek revamp its road and dirt platforms in 2007, a move he said was critical for Mellow Johnny's to feature the brand that carried Armstrong to victory in France from 1999 to 2005.

Swobo's Sky Yaeger, explaining the new Del Norte

Staley also mentioned their focus on working closely with the city on bikeability and transportation issues, employing a liaison to work closely with Austin to create a more bike-friendly city. A 45-story condominium is going up across the street, with several more planned in the next few years. From Staley's viewpoint, Austin is expanding greatly, and he wants Mellow Johnny's to be there to make a difference. Armstrong and Knaggs signed a five-year lease on the property with a five-year option, so the proof will be in getting over that new-business hump and increasing cash flow while providing a service to the Austin cycling community.

Star gazing

Because of the expansive 9,000-square-foot main level (there's a similar-sized footprint below) with high ceilings, a crowded opening day didn't feel too crowded, despite the steady flow of well-wishers, star gawkers and tyre kickers. Armstrong's longtime coach Chris Carmichael, Ben Harper musician Mike Ward, mountain bike pioneer Gary Fisher and Armstrong himself took one-hour shifts to sign books, posters and clothing throughout the day.

Armstrong signs a poster for Gary Fisher's mom

Mixing in the crowd were Swobo mavens Sky Yaeger and Erin Kirkpatrick, Kozo Shimano, Trek president John Burke, and Armstrong's former Motorola manager Jim Ochowicz. Mellow Johnny's merchandise was flying off the shelves, a sight that pleased Staley.

"Yes, we sell and service bikes, but we're really going to focus on soft goods here," he said. Besides the American Apparel Mellow Johnny's t-shirts, clothing abounded from Rapha, Swobo, Pearl Izumi, Hincapie, Capo Forma, Chrome, Livestrong, RVCA, Mash, Castelli, Craft and Giordana. The cool factor was amplified by the music piped into the store all day, including the latest from Death Cab for Cutie and Coldplay, two of Armstrong's favourite bands.

As we heard throughout the day, if someone has deep pockets and wants to open a bike shop the right way, Mellow Johnny's has hit a homerun.  

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