Cyclocross is Spoken Here: Pony Shop, Chicagoland
Here’s another in our series of articles that dig a little deeper to find the unique and great cyclocross shops out there. We just wrapped up an insane amount of racing and other bike and ‘cross events in Bend, Oregon for the National Championships, so we’re taking the opportunity to highlight Sunnyside Sports, one of the local shops. Look for more of these coming up on a regular basis. For a quick list of excellent resources, visit our Top Shops page. Missed our previous feature on Sunnyside Sports in Bend? Check it out here.
This article previously appeared on the Gaper’s Block website and is reprinted here with permission.
by Robert Zach Thomas
The church for the ‘cross racer is the bike shop, congregating twice-weekly at the midweek practice session and Sunday’s race. There at the shop, advice is dispensed, recommendations are made, and goers bow down at altars of carbon fiber, rubber and titanium, emblazoned with brands such as Grifo, Colnago, Dugast. At cyclocross-specific shops, this time of the year is the busiest – ‘cross is hard on equipment, with broken frames and wheels common sights at races. Mondays are a dreaded day when racers drag their busted bikes in for immediate service.
Good bike shops cater to the crowd that insists on rare boutique parts and bespoke frames, but also the beginners who think it’d be fun to try a race out, just to see how they would do, but don’t have much of a budget to do so. A good bike shop can be small or big, cluttered or spare. Whatever its appearances, a good bike shop is run with passion for the sport and care for the customer, and one such shop here in Chicagoland is the Pony Shop in Evanston at 1224 Chicago Ave.
The Pony Shop’s been a fixture of Evanston since 1969, having relocated once in its near-40-year history. The newer space is smaller, more intimate. As one walks in, high-end road and cyclocross boutique bikes from manufacturers such as Look and Colnago are displayed next to more pedestrian, but no less capable, machines from Redline and Cannondale. In the back are hybrids, mountain bikes and children’s bikes. Few bike shops can sustain a business solely catering to the racer with a bounty of disposable income, and the Pony Shop is no different.
To the right is the countertop and work area, covered in catalogs, stickers, spare parts and other ephemera of the sport of cycling. And usually behind the counter, in a shop apron and with tools in hand, is the owner of the shop, Lou Kuhn. Unlike some other shops with their absentee owners who neither ride nor understand the sport of cycling, Kuhn is an individual dedicated to the sport. He’s out at races, atop the products he sells. Knowing this, it’s easy to see why when people ask what shop is the best around for ‘cross specific equipment, more often than not, the answer is Kuhn’s joint.
The repute of the Pony Shop as the cyclocross shop in Chicago is likely linked to the explosive interest in cyclocross in Chicago. Certainly, the Pony Shop wasn’t the only factor in the number of races on the calendar and the huge numbers of racers toeing the line, but it’s one of the primary ones. Kuhn doesn’t see ‘cross as some short-term fad, he’s in it for the long haul.
This is exemplified by his shop-sponsored cycling team that he not only manages, but also races for, usually in the Masters’ races. Masters’ races are for those grizzled veterans of cycling, usually men 30 years of age and older. While the riders in these races may show grey or a bald spot, by no means are these races slow, mind you; rather, they’re often faster than the Elite Category 1/2/3 racers. Kuhn’s been around for a while, having started racing bikes after a high-school athletic career in football.
As far as word of mouth brand-awareness goes, it helps to have a team and it helps even more to have a team full of riders who win races. Kuhn explains the beginnings of the squad: “We started the team last year on a smaller scale. The idea of it was to surround ourselves with people who love ‘cross. We’re associated with so many different teams and clubs, and they all do everything, as far as disciplines go. This team was just going to be ‘cross and that’s all we’re going to do.”
Team member Brian Conant echoed these sentiments when asked about how he became involved with the Pony Shop squad. “I met Lou in 2006 at a ‘cross race via a mutual friend. We hit it off instantly. He loves ‘cross, I love ‘cross. With his passion for ‘cross, he wanted to put together a cyclocross specific team. I said, ‘let’s do it, I want in.’ For 2007, it was just a handful of us. 2008, I think we were a team of 18.”
This small-but-solid roster so far has seen some major results: Luca Lenzi and Conant were series leaders in the ChiCrossCup Men 1/2/3 category; Devon Haskell’s waged a three-day campaign in Ohio against some of the country’s fastest female riders that had her on the podium and in the money every single day. Here in Chicago, the nationally-ranked Haskell raced with the Category 3 men, for the challenge of the larger, more aggressive packs.
When asked why she races for the Pony Shop squad, Haskell said, “Everyone there is friendly and welcoming and the shop isn’t another bike shop that sells a couple cross bikes on the side – they really cater to the cyclocross community [...] The team is full of cyclocross enthusiasts and it’s great to be part of a ‘cross specific team that shares a passion for the sport!”
Kuhn’s support for the team bearing his shop’s name also extends to the bare grassroots. “We took four collegiate athletes, college kids, and they’re racing for free for the year,” adding, “I don’t know if this all does anything in terms of advertising; I just want to do it because I enjoy it.”
Future plans? Kuhn wants to see the shop team grow, enlarge the roster, and incorporate junior riders to see those riders through the ranks to fulfil their potential. That goal is an easy one. Further on down the road, maybe just a dream, Kuhn would like to open a boutique shop just for cyclocross. A humidor for those $300 sets of tires, glass cases full of shiny, lightweight shifters and brakes. Maybe.
The immediate focus is on the day-to-day operations of the shop itself: bringing in new lines of bikes; selling bicycles to racers, commuters and casual riders; and maintaining and repairing those bikes when the shifting acts up or the hubs need rebuilding.
Kuhn knows that it’s hard enough to make a living off of one’s passions and he knows full well that he’s lucky that he’s able to live and breathe bike racing, all the while supporting his family - not just the family at home, but also all those cyclists who come to his Wednesday training sessions or race with the Pony Shop name on their jerseys. They are family too, and he’s grateful for it.
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