Bicycle-shop owner sees momentum for lifestyle
By Anthony Siracusa
Monday, December 13, 2010
Memphian Hal Mabray's inspiration for a lifetime of bicycling was unexpected.
"My deranged friend, Jess, came screamin' up to the end of my driveway one afternoon wearing blue-jean cutoffs with a bandana around his head, and was spouting something about having just rolled about 10 feet on his front wheel trying to stop because a Memphis motorist had just cut him off. That seemed exciting and like something I wanted to do, so I asked my parents for a Sears road bike."
Mabray, now co-owner of the Peddler Bicycle Shop, grew up in the Oakhaven neighborhood near Memphis International Airport. He bought his second bike, a purple Gitane French racing bike, brand new from the Peddler Bike Shop on Southern Avenue. "I treated it with kid gloves," he remembers, "and did most of the work myself."
After a "truly horrible" day on the job at a plumbing supply warehouse here, Mabray reconsidered his life's work.
"I was picking up my Torpado racing bike from the Peddler one afternoon, and I asked, 'Are y'all hiring?' Within a week, I was sweeping floors and building new bikes for Dan Lamontagne (former owner of the Peddler). I told him I was going to be one of his managers within a year."
Mabray approached LaMontagne about buying the business in November 1990. "Dan was looking for a change when (my partner) John McCombs and I approached him about buying the business.
"I was fortunate to work side by side with Dan for the time leading up to the buyout, while John was growing the Germantown store. I learned a lot during that time."
Mabray has observed a number of changes for bicyclists in Memphis since that first driveway encounter.
The OPEC crisis of the 1970s generated what bicycle historians have called the "Bicycle Boom," a time when national bike sales skyrocketed from 5.5 million in 1970 to 14 million in 1972. Mabray recalls the gas shortage created such a demand for bicycles in the United States that "bike manufacturers couldn't keep up."
Street conditions have also changed as the Memphis region has expanded. "Historically," Mabray remembers, "you could leave Christian Brothers High School and see very few cars while riding out through Fayette County. Now with all the growth ... you have to go farther out or get up really early to get in a safe ride."
In business terms, Mabray notes that bikes now compete with "the XBox, golf clubs and jet skis. As a bike shop owner, I know we need to create more excitement and events for bike riding to get the novice out and on a bike."
And for the Peddler and others, the recent openings of the Shelby Farms Greenline and the Wolf River Greenway have been just the catalyst required for an increased interest in bicycling.
"These trails have been the best thing for our business since $4-per-gallon gas. People see how easy it is to access the bike paths using on-street bike lanes, and thanks to the efforts of A C Wharton, Memphis is becoming a destination for young people looking to start a new family or move with their company."
Mabray likened the grand opening of the new Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge to "the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The Greenline has had a direct influence on our bottom line."
And while Mabray says "it looks like a better world for bicyclists" in Memphis, he is also quick to point out that "cyclists have been riding the streets the whole time. You have good days and bad with motorists. Texting has created a new dilemma," he says, an observation confirmed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's data that shows distracted driving was responsible for more than 6,000 traffic deaths in 2008.
But Mabray believes the recent increase in trails and bike lanes will only continue to improve our city's quality of life. "If people decide to use the bicycle as alternative transportation, still the world's most efficient machine, this city will be a better place to live. People will not only want to stay here; they will choose Memphis over Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville or Little Rock.
"Bike parking racks in front of every large building and public facility would be a necessity, and it would take more cars off the streets and make it easier to park for the cars that are out there."
Mabray's dream for Memphis? "In a perfect world, I hope for medians that separate the cyclists from the automobiles." While Mabray is quick to concede that such protected bike lanes seem unlikely, the new separated bicycle lanes on Broad Avenue are a beacon of hope for others who share Mabray's dream.
Ultimately, for Mabray, the bicycle is more than a business venture. "I couldn't think of anything I would rather be doing. Making a livelihood out of something you love is taking a chance on heartbreak. But you still take the chance."
Anthony Siracusa, a native Memphian, is the community service coordinator at Rhodes College. He serves on the board of the Greater Memphis Greenline and is a daily cycling commuter. Contact Anthony through his blog at anthonysiracusa.blogspot.com