Outspokin’ on Wheelhouse: ‘Riding a Renaissance’

Wheelhouse Detroit bike shop on the Detroit RiverWalk.

Wheelhouse Detroit bike shop on the Detroit RiverWalk.

We are so honored and thrilled that the industry magazine “Outspokin’” recently wrote a wonderful article on Wheelhouse, entitled “Riding a Renaissance.”

Writer Peter Koch eloquently captures what Wheelhouse is about: bikes for everyone, and everyone on bikes in Detroit. We thought we would share a few excerpts from the article here.

On beating the odds:

“We all know the relatively long odds of succeeding in this industry—how 70 percent of new retail shops close within three years and roughly 1,000 shut their doors every single year. But when Wheelhouse Detroit first opened its doors back in June of 2008, the odds seemed stacked even higher. After all, here was a seasonal business setting up shop in an unheated, uninsulated 500-square-foot shed in an Upper Midwest city that also happened to be the poorest in America. To make matters worse, the Detroit economy was in free fall, weighed down by sweeping layoffs in the local auto industry, doubledigit unemployment and one of the nation’s highest home foreclosure rates. But none of that stopped Kelli Kavanaugh and then-business partner Karen Gage (who sold her half of the business to Kavanaugh last winter)—both industry outsiders working in community development—from seeing opportunity. As passionate lifelong cyclists who were intimately familiar with community needs, they were confident of one thing: cycling was on the rise in Detroit, and downtown was in desperate need of a shop.”

On the mission:

But this wouldn’t be a high-end boutique peddling carbon frames and Tour de France dreams. From the start, Wheelhouse Detroit was organized around the singular goal of getting more city people on bikes through sales of reliable workhorse bikes, rentals and—an unusual offering—guided bike tours, then keeping them rolling with top-notch service.

On our future:

Today the shop’s future looks much brighter. Not only is it open year-round and thriving relative to those bleak early days, but a second, larger location is in the works. And out on the streets of Detroit, the number of cyclists is exploding, ushering in a sort of two-wheeled revolution in Motor City.

On the Riverwalk

This is where locals get their fresh air, and where tourists come to see signs of the city’s burgeoning renaissance. And Wheelhouse is ready to facilitate, with its well-maintained rental fleet and, improbably for a bike shop, guided tours.

On the Wheelhouse mission and philosophy:

“I think there’s a little bit of attitude around cycling—‘I’m cool because I cycle, I’m really fit because I cycle, I’m smarter than you because I cycle’—that permeates the industry and cyclists,” she says. She tries to combat that image with the tours, where virtually anybody can get on a bike, ride a dozen miles, learn about Detroit and have fun. “You don’t have to wear spandex, you don’t have to ride a fancy bike. And I think that serves as a gateway drug to becoming a regular cyclist.” In other words, the tours are a great way for newbies to gain confidence and learn the rules of the road in a small group.

“We’re emphatically not about performance here. We’re about making people comfortable, and hopefully turning them from very occasional riders to very regular riders.”

On the city’s growing bike culture:

“It’s funny to see the change that’s happened in Detroit in eight years,” Kavanaugh says. “It’s gone from people saying, ‘You’re insane to ride a bike in Detroit’ to people being really interested in it.” Three bike shops opened in the first half of 2015, and at least a couple more are slated to. “Detroit is this super desirable place to do business right now. It’s super hip.”

On the future of Wheelhouse

Now that growth appears to be snowballing. This summer, Kavanaugh opened a tiny Wheelhouse rental outpost downtown in a converted shipping container. She’s hoping to open another in the autumn near Eastern Market. … By the end of the year, Kavanaugh plans to open a second full-size retail location of Wheelhouse Detroit. “It will focus more on retail and service, and I’ll keep the rentals and tours at our current location.” There will be a small amount of overlap in either direction, though, so customers can rent a bike from the new shop, or get their ride repaired at the old one.

On biking Detroit:

“Whether they’re buying their first bike, upgrading from a beater—inherited or from Wal-Mart—renting or going out on one of our tours, we get people on bikes,” says Kavanaugh. “We’re a portal into cycling in Detroit.”

Thanks again to Peter and “Outspokin’”! You can read the entire article here.

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