This is the first in a series of articles that dig a little deeper to find the unique and great cyclocross shops out there. Look for more of these coming up on a regular basis. For a quick list of excellent resources, visit our Top Shops page.
Erik Tonkin talks shop © Josh Liberles
by Josh Liberles
It’ll take the first time visitor about ten seconds to realize that Sellwood Cycle Repair is an unusual shop. Mellow Johnny’s it certainly is not. Although both are owned by pro cyclists, Lance Armstrong’s shop promotes the glitz, glamor and high-zoot while Erik Tonkin’s Portland establishment is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s all about the community, value and service.
I learned about Sellwood’s character almost immediately upon entering. Tonkin was talking to an older couple who were in the process of paying their bill. The gentleman was obviously pleased at what he reckoned to be a deal – five bucks to fix the flat on his wheelchair and get him rolling again.
Sellwood Cycle Repair, named for its surrounding southeast neighborhood, began as a consignment shop. Tonkin started wrenching for the shop part time in 1996 and bit the bullet and became a partner in 1998. Tonkin, a longtime Pro cyclocrosser who races alongside Barry Wicks and national champion Ryan Trebon for the Kona / FSA team, only started carrying Kona bikes five years ago – mostly because they just didn’t have enough used cyclocross bikes to go around to meet the skyrocketing demand. The majority of their bike stock, however, continues to be consignment goods. Nevertheless, they’re now one of the biggest Kona dealers in the country.
Kona Team promo poster © Josh Liberles
The parts are a mix of new gear and old salvaged stuff for those looking to get something serviceable for short money. There’s even a box of used, super-cheap cycling shoes. One interesting twist is that Sellwood also features some of the best mechanics in town. Clearly, word has gotten out. The tiny shop had four mechanics working when I visited and, as Tonkin told me, they needed more.
“Our main goal is to be non-intimidating,” said Tonkin. “Bike shops, almost by definition, can be intimidating and antagonistic. Our knee-jerk reaction to someone whose mechanical needs have been turned away by other shops is, ‘yes , we can do that for you.’”
Tonkin’s quick to point out that the focus of the shop is not on him. The guy’s something of a ‘cross legend – heck, he even had a fan club in Belgium when he was making the trek to race World Cups and the World Championships. Tonkin regularly cracks the top-10 in national-caliber U.S. races, but he’s definitely different that the typical successful racer. Nicknamed “Caveman” for his full beard, Tonkin works more than a full-time job, has a 2 year-old son named Gus, runs an annual cyclocross clinic and is super-approachable and supportive of newbies, and just so happens to kick ass on the bike. But the shop is a group effort, comprised of what he describes as “strong characters and big personalities, serving all.”
Although there are plenty of cyclocross and road goodies, commuters are probably the bread-and-butter customer group. The supportive environment encourages new riders to pick up cycling and that attitude, together with good service, keeps them coming back.
Kona Honky Tonk bike, designed by Sellwood staff © Josh Liberles
A reflection of this priority can be seen in Kona’s Honky Tonk frameset, named for Tonkin and designed with input from several of Sellwood’s employees. It’s a robust, steel, do-anything frameset with full fender attachments, rear rack mounts, and the ability to take downtube shifters. Per Tonkin’s specs, it had to be steel for durability and it had to be available as a frameset – which is unusual for a lower-end model. “At $400 for a frame, fork and headset, it’s almost like a repair part,” said Tonkin. Look around the Oregon ‘cross circuit and you’re sure to see a few new to the sport riding a Honky Tonk with road brakes.
Needless to say, cyclocross is spoken very loudly here. I was happy to note the stock of Cyclocross Magazine, always a good sign. The shop’s Team S&M was the first cyclocross-specific team in Portland, the first with a tongue-in-cheek name and attitude, and was largely responsible for starting the culture. While Seattle was the much more serious, “real” scene, Team S&M and the Cross Crusade, both of which got their start in the early 90′s, made it a point to focus on having fun and not prioritizing the A races.
Like in Tonkin’s shop,the result was a non-intimidating environment that led to huge participation. What naturally followed was a pretty damned good elite scene that sprung from these grassroots beginnings – look no further than Sean Babcock (Team S&M), winner of this past weekend’s Cross Crusade and the series overall.
You can browse Sellwood’s new and used stock on their website but, next time you’re in the neighborhood, pop in and check it out this anachronistic gem in person.