Aug 05, 2010 Ami Olson Uncategorized
The business model Steven Morris and Sara O’Mahoney employed with their Westcott Street bike shop, Mello Velo, is an old standard: find a gap, and fill it.
“We saw a need,” Morris said simply. Existing bicycle shops in the Syracuse area tend to cater to a specialized clientele. “They’re great if you’re a triathelete. But for the average Joe, it can be kind of overwhelming.”
So last November — yes, November — the pair opened the doors to their shop. On the second floor, in a neighborhood where more than one bike shop had failed previously.
In Syracuse — a city considered among many cyclists and advocates of the sport to be extremely un-friendly for biking.
But by the end of the first unusually warm week of April, the shop had completely sold out its stock of used bikes, and it was clear that Morris and O’Mahoney had found a niche.
Setting the scene
Part of what Morris and O’Mahoney hoped to accomplish, aside from running a successful business, was to help develop a vibrant local cycling community, and already glints of growth are evident.
Between 20 and 40 cyclists, from casual riders to racers, gather each Thursday outside Mello Velo for a group ride around Syracuse.
“We have new people every week,” said Adam Lindaman, a cyclist who works at Mello Velo.
Lindaman, who uses his bike to commute to work, is also one of the regular hardcourt bike polo players, a sport new to Syracuse but well-known in bigger cities with more established cycling communities.
He and fellow cyclist Neil Hueber agree that there’s been a marked shift in the popularity of bicycling in Syracuse — more people are interested, and they’re taking it more seriously.
And the increased popularity isn’t limited to college students or the Westcott neighborhood.
Kathleen Oot-Quinn, director of b.i.k.e. Syracuse, said the cycling program aimed at 8- to 14-year-olds on the West Side now carries a roster of 140 children, with about 65 of them attending the weekly Saturday morning rides regularly.
Major construction projects like the Connective Corridor have included cyclists in their plans by featuring bicycle lanes and even a bike bodega downtown near the SU Warehouse.
Perhaps most exciting is the F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse project Walk, Bike, Hike, Wheel CNY, which convened in January and is the first real sign of cohesion among different Syracuse-area cycling groups.
Both Morris and Oot-Quinn pointed out there’s no shortage of enthusiasm and cycling advocacy in Syracuse, it’s just been disconnected.
But the F.O.C.U.S. project has already drawn representatives from different cycling and outdoor groups, with big short- and long-term plans to realize Syracuse’s cycling potential.
Cyclist Neil Hueber saw the interest in bikes spike when gas prices hit $4 a gallon. While many of those looking for cheap transportation have found current fuel prices more palatable and slipped back into the driver’s seat, bikes continue to appeal to students.
They’re cheap to buy and even less expensive to maintain — no insurance, no fuel, no parking costs.
Hueber and fellow cyclists Heather Highfield and Dan Fitzgibbons agreed that, especially when traveling within the city limits, trips on two wheels rarely take more time than they would on four.
And the more people see others riding bikes, the safer and more practical cycling seems, fostering an, “if they can, so can I,” attitude.
A safer Syracuse
For all the benefits of bicycling, there’s still one giant wrench in the spokes of the local cycling scene: Syracuse itself.
Sure, there are some specific areas that the bike polo group could agree were particularly dangerous to ride — under the 481 overpass on East Genesee Street and the entirety of Jamesville Road, for example. But overwhelmingly the complaints were of the generally bad road conditions all over the city of Syracuse.
“In general, the streets are really beat up,” Heuber said. “As soon as you get out of the city, the roads are wider and smoother.”
Heuber bikes his daily 7-mile commute from the East Side to the West Side for work, and said there’s not a single bike lane on the route.
He pulled his shirt collar to the side to exhibit a long scar over his clavicle, one of the bones broken in October 2008 when he was hit by a car while riding on the SU campus.
“I know of a lot of people that have been hit,” Heuber said. “I do not trust drivers at all. Even people I know.”
Besides the bike lane on Comstock Avenue, Oot-Quinn said she couldn’t think of any other dedicated bike lane in Syracuse.
Without lanes for cyclists, they share the same road space as cars, buses and trucks.
“People don’t even realize we’re supposed to be on the streets,” Heuber said.
That misunderstanding speaks to the slow growth of cycling in Syracuse, he believes.
“The mentality is, you’re riding a bike because there’s some reason you can’t drive a car,” Heuber said.
But for an increasing number, like Heuber, Highfield and Lindaman, two wheels are preferable to four, even if it means facing inattentive drivers and potholed city streets.
What about longer trips?
“The bus!” Highfield said.
For more information about Mello Velo, visit mellovelobicycles.com or check them out at 556 Westcott St.
Check out focussyracuse.org/projects_awards for more on the Walk, Bike, Hike, Wheel CNY project.