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A small customer steps through the door of The Pony Shop, 1224 Chicago Ave., and his eyes light up. He sees bicycles everywhere – standing upright on the floor, hanging from the ceiling, disassembled and spinning in the hands of the mechanics on duty.
Just 2½, he has come with his grandparents to find the promised replacement for his beloved wooden bicycle, pedal-less by design but after a few spills, lacking handlebars as well. Having foregone biking during a winter so long it lasted through the coldest April on record, he senses summer in the air and knows his birthday bike lies on the garage floor, broken beyond repair.
But a pint-sized bike that means the world to a toddler can be insignificant in the larger world of cycling; the little boy’s grandparents are doubtful that a high-end specialty store like The Pony Shop would carry such a simple vehicle.
Even at the dinner hour, the workshop is abuzz. Out from behind the counter and a dazzling array of repair tools steps a man who turns his smile and whole attention to the small person standing, expectant, in his doorway.
The Pony Shop sells bikes that cost $10,000 or more; they build bikes to order for serious racers and other grown-ups.
The shop sponsors a team of 40 cyclocross competitors who captured two state titles this year in the off-road sport.
But what becomes clear is that store-owner Lou Kuhn and his crew get just as big a kick out of pleasing the likes of this little guy. When it turns out they have a no-pedal bike (also called a balance, glide or running bike) in stock, salesman Gene Biel wastes no time in retrieving it, shiny black with an electric yellow stripe and handlebar grips, from the ceiling rack.
Then he invites the mini-cyclist to take it for a spin. And spin he does, grinning ear to ear as he traces enthusiastic loops inside the ring of bikes on display.
The “test drive” is a very important second step in helping any customer find the right bike, Mr. Kuhn says in a separate interview. The first step, he says, is for his sales people to hear what customers say about how they plan to use it.
“We’re good at [listening],” he says of his employees, adding, “People will tell you without your asking.”
Once apprised of the customers’ needs and wants, sales people at The Pony Shop can help them choose from a variety of state-of-the-art brands (such as Cannondale, Giant, All City and Redline) and styles to suit their needs.
More of his customers – from commuters to leisure riders – find the hybrid bike a good fit than any other, Mr. Kuhn says. Hybrids borrow characteristics from both touring and mountain bikes, he says, making them “perfect for our [geographical] area.” These user-friendly “urban bikes,” he says, seat the rider in a comfortable, upright position and maximize efficiency by using the tall wheels of a racing bike. Tires narrower than a mountain bike’s but wider than a racing bike’s lend stability and allow for the addition of utilitarian accessories like racks and fenders.
These days even those who crave speed can find a modicum of comfort and still keep the pace by opting for a road bike with a more flexible frame, Mr. Kuhn says. He has been in a position to watch the evolution of bicycles, having worked at the shop since 1996 and purchased it 9½ years ago.
Mr. Kuhn has been carrying no-pedal bikes like the “Pre” by Giant for five or six years and is keen on the trend. He admits he was wowed on his first encounter. Because the bikes have no pedals, chains or training wheels, children move them first by walking, standing over the saddle; then by sitting down and paddling rhythmically; and last, by lifting their feet and cruising till they lose – and regain – their balance.
“It’s really helping,” Mr. Kuhn says. “Kids are riding earlier.”
But kids today may be riding less – or for different reasons – than they did when The Pony Shop opened in 1969. The business began as a bookshop that sold, among other things, Pony study aids, the predecessors to Cliffs Notes. In the 1970s, the shop began offering folding bikes to the growing number of cyclists in Evanston.
The advocacy group Safe Routes to School (SRTS) has statistics to show that while 48 percent of children 5 to 14 years of age usually walked or bicycled to school in 1969, in 2009, just 33 percent did.
SRTS addresses a national audience on the health and environmental benefits of bicycling and walking to school. Mr. Kuhn says he sees education – including an emphasis on obeying the rules of the road – as part of his job in the local community.
He tells the story of how a little support helped transform one customer into a committed bike commuter. She had been driving the two miles to her job, he says, and though amenable to cycling instead, she was stymied by certain complications. Besides suggesting that she leave some things at work, Pony Shop staff equipped her with a sturdy lock and mapped out potential travel routes.
She started riding to work, Mr. Kuhn says, “and she hasn’t stopped yet.”
The Pony Shop employs a large service staff (six mechanics in summer) who strive to fix bikes of any make or model in five days or less. The store provides customers the convenience of making an appointment for repairs.
Evanston’s oldest bike store can be proud of its 44 years of experience – and proud, too, of being neither too old nor too jaded to share the excitement of a little boy who, like them, is smitten with a bicycle.