entrepreneurs riding road to success thanks to growing bike-based economy

It’s a well-known saying that to live in Cleveland, you’ve got to be tough. Yet to be a year-round Cleveland cyclist -- battling snow, frame-destroying potholes and distracted drivers -- is another thing entirely, demanding wheels as tough as city streets.

Some businesses are born out of ingenuity and opportunity, while others are created out of frustration. One might say Blazing Saddles Cycle was born of all three.

"We were fed up with unhappy customers that weren’t getting what they wanted," says Travis Peebles, who created Blazing Saddles with fellow bike mechanic James Rychak to sell refurbished steel bikes that are more durable and flexible than mass-produced aluminum bikes. “We wanted to build quality commuter bikes priced from $400 to $1,000 that are able to withstand the rigors of Cleveland."

Last summer, these young entrepreneurs opened their doors in a narrow, wood-floored storefront at the edge of the Gordon Square Arts District. A hardware store had existed there for more than 100 years. The partners didn’t change the place much, other than mounting a classic, rusty bike on the second story and installing an artsy, industrial bike rack out front. Inside, though, it’s now a bike lover’s paradise.

"We pride ourselves on the restoration and rebirth of the classic bike, especially bikes from the '70s and '80s made of steel," Peebles says proudly, gesturing to rows of custom-painted bikes to which he and Rychak have graciously bestowed second lives.

Rychak and Peebles aren’t the only ones taking advantage of Cleveland’s growing bike-fueled economy. In recent years, a mini boom of bicycle-based businesses has developed across Northeast Ohio, including frame builders, messenger bag makers, rickshaw drivers and an indoor bike park that attracts visitors from throughout the Midwest. As the number of area bike commuters continues to increase, savvy entrepreneurs are exploiting the market while doing something they love.

"As we get more people on bikes through creating infrastructure improvements and cycling advocacy, I believe we’re going to see more bike-related businesses," says Jacob Van Sickle, Executive Director of Bike Cleveland, a newly-formed nonprofit organization which serves as a voice for cyclists.

At first glance, the economic impact created by bike-based businesses may appear to be little more than a blip in our region’s economy. But upon closer inspection, these small enterprises are playing an important role in creating jobs, filling vacant space and making Cleveland a more attractive, active, livable place.

"Locally-owned bike shops and other businesses put a lot of money back into the local economy," says Van Sickle, who adds that Northeast Ohio experienced the highest percentage increase in bike commuting in the country according to recent census data, suggesting that there is a growing market here that will continue to expand.

Lou Erste and Grant Smrekar of Rustbelt Welding tend to agree. Previously welders who worked on boiler crews, these entrepreneurs now spend their days designing, fabricating and welding custom bike frames for their customers. They launched their business four years back in a West Side warehouse that once housed a sausage factory.

"Including bike racks and frames, nearly 50 percent of our business comes from bike-related projects," says Smrekar, who has developed prototypes for frames he hopes to produce and sell at bike shops such as Blazing Saddles.

"We’re constantly redesigning our frames because we get bored doing the same thing twice," adds Erste, who enjoys making eight-foot “tall bikes," as well as bike-polo bikes. “We work for ourselves so we don’t have to be ground down by monotony."

Although there are several talented frame makers in Cleveland, including Dan Polito of Cicli Polito, Joe Bringheli of Bringheli Frames and Tools, Joe Bruening of Solid Rock Bicycles and Carmen Gambino, there also are other bike-related businesses that capitalize on cycle culture. Artist Rick Smith and writer Brian Griggs produce the daily comic strip Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery, which chronicles the lives of a performance cyclist and cycling advocate who own a small bike shop.

"The [fictional] Kickstand Cyclery is located in Shaker Heights, and the building is based off of the Coventry rapid station at Shaker," explains Smith, who used to ride his bike 25 miles to work each day until he quit his job to draw comics. "The stories cover our commuting experiences and different aspects of bike culture."

"We’re huge in Hungary," adds Griggs with a laugh. The subscription-based comic now appears in Bicycle Times, a bike commuting magazine with a circulation of 35,000. Yehuda Moon also has attracted an international fan base via the Internet. 

If you're looking for the answer to the perennial question, How do you carry stuff on a bike?, Michael Hudecek can help. As founder of Forest City Portage, Hudecek makes messenger bags out of recycled materials like sailcloth, scrap vinyl and old seat belts. His first prototype had an image of a smokestack and the word "BelieveLand."

Some entrepreneurs don't even have to get off their bikes to run their businesses. For proof, look no further than the rise of rickshaws that ferry tourists and bar-hoppers around town.

"I was a bike courier for six years, until the Internet started taking that business away," says Daniel Dominic, who founded Ride On Cleveland last year and is planning to expand his small fleet of rickshaws this summer. "Since I started this business last summer, we’ve had a really good response from the community."

Tim "Ricksaw Willie" Wilhelm, a truck driver who pilots a rickshaw in Cleveland on summer weekends, says it’s possible to make a decent living in the right spot. "I’ve had tourists ask me to show them the town, and they always love it," says Wilhelm, who works solely on tips and by selling ads on his rig. "Everyone really enjoys it; I like to sing and dance and act like an entertainer."

One of the most successful bike-based businesses in Cleveland is Ray’s MTB, an indoor bike park that attracts visitors from throughout the Midwest. Located in a mammoth brick warehouse in West Park, the venue is a wintertime paradise for off-road cyclists.

While business is booming at Ray's and other bike-based businesses, additional investment in bike lanes and education is needed to fully capitalize on the ever-growing trend of cycling, argues Van Sickle of Bike Cleveland.

It's no coincidence that one of Travis Peebles' biggest thrills at Blazing Saddles is watching customers get back in the saddle again after years of neglect. "When they first get on they’re a little wobbly," he notes. "But in 20 seconds they’re riding like pros. It just tickles me pink to see them act like kids again."

Photos Bob Perkoski 
- Images 1 - 6: Blazing Saddles, owners Travis Peebles & James Rychak
- Images 7 - 14: Rust Belt, owners Grant Smrekar & Lou Erste
- Image 15: Kickstand Comics

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.