The bicycle lifted off the ground easily. I only used one hand. It weighed very little. At least, the bike weighed much less than the last bicycle I’d taken for a spin anywhere.
The company name below the handlebars caught my eye. It read “Yeti” and the price tag was over $5,000.
I’ve owned cars that cost close to that. Then it hit me, the name.
I looked up at Brandon Kline, the owner of Elk City Cycles and said, “Wait, the same people who make the coolers?”
Yeti coolers are awesome. They can keep ice frozen for up to a week. I want one, but they’re not cheap, and when did they get into making bicycles?
Brandon looked at me.
“No,” he said.
I don’t remember for sure when I learned to ride a bike. I think I was 7 or 8 years old.
One year, my best friend, Robbie Santolla, across the street, got a flashy-looking dirt bike for his birthday. His birthday was 12 days ahead of mine.
By the time he got the training wheels off, I knew how to ride, too.
My parents bought me a bike not long after, but I never took to the vintage style, which looked like something out of an old black and white rerun like “Leave it to Beaver” or maybe “Lassie.”
I wanted to be Evel Knievel and jump over rows of cars. The bike I’d been given was all metal, too big and too heavy for me. My flabby, pale legs couldn’t pedal hard enough to muster any real speed, which was lucky, really.
The thing cornered like an airport luggage cart and I tilted to the ground every third or fourth time I went for a turn.
Eventually, I just asked Robbie if I could take turns on his bike.
I quit riding bicycles by the time I got my learner’s permit to drive a car. It was decades before I got back on one. For one of my One Month projects, I trained and participated in a mini triathlon, but afterwards the bicycle went into storage.
A few years later, I added a second bicycle, which was lighter and better suited to riding on pavement.
That bike came from a departing coworker headed west. All I needed to do, she said, was get the brakes fixed.
I never got the brakes fixed.
The bike went into storage, next to the other bike I don’t ride and two lawnmowers that won’t start.
I should get those fixed, too.
Cycling always sounded like something I wanted to do, but I had questions. What kind of bike should I actually be riding? Where was I even supposed to ride? From my stately starter home in Pinch?
That seemed like a good way to end up in the daily news section of the newspaper, maybe on page two, but I didn’t think there were really many places to ride in the city, either.
Talk about bicycle lanes and accessibility has been on and off for years. Actual progress has been slow. The only dedicated bike lane in Charleston I know follows Kanawha Boulevard, starting at a particularly foul-smelling point near Drug Emporium on the West Side and ends near the entrance to Magic Island — maybe a mile and half?
Sure, plenty of people ride on the sidewalk past the Capitol, all the way to Daniel Boone Park, which can be aggravating if you run on the boulevard and don’t hear the cyclist until they’re right behind you.
I could maybe turn down the music a little.
I had an interest in riding a bike, in exploring bike routes and trails, in knowing how to take care of and maybe fix a bike, but I had no idea where to really start, so I reached out to Elk City Cycles. Brandon said he could help me, at least with some of it.
Elk City Cycles opened his shop in October, later than Brandon had hoped to.
“But then COVID,” he said.
It was kind of a dream come true for him.
Brandon learned to ride before he learned to spell his name. He grew up around bikes. He and his friends used to build dirt mounds and jump over them.
He cut his teeth at the dirt bike park in St. Albans and he even raced BMX bikes for a while.
“I’ve been all over the place, all over the country on bicycles,” he told me. “I’ve made a lot of my friends because of bikes.”
It’s a worldwide community.
Brandon spends his days repairing and tweaking bikes people bring him and selling higher-end bikes for real cycling enthusiasts and still finds time to routinely get out and ride. When the weather is warmer, he and his assistant Chris Huckaby will sometimes take their bikes for long rides and camp.
Brandon got into the bicycle business 20 years ago. While in high school, he got a job at John’s Cyclery in St. Albans.
“I don’t think they let me near repairing a bicycle for the first two or three years I was there,” he told me. “They started me off assembling bicycles and then I became the guy who patched tires. They really wanted you to learn the ins and outs of the bicycle before they let you try to fix one.”
Charleston, Brandon told me, was bicycle-friendly, even if it didn’t have a lot of designated bike lanes.
“Sure, bigger cities have more places on the road for bikes or seem to encourage it more,” he said. “But they also have a lot more traffic. Charleston is a lot easier to get around — or it has been for me.”
And there are plenty of trails outside the city for mountain bike riding, if I was interested it that.
I was, but one thing at a time. My main concern was getting started and taking a bicycle on the road. I really didn’t want to get hit by a car.
Accidents happen, but riding in traffic isn’t that big of a deal.
“Yeah, sure, there’s always going to be some guy who’s upset that you’re delaying them by three and a half seconds for wherever they’re going, but most people adjust,” Brandon said.
They know you have the right to be there.
A lot of accidents, he explained, come from people doing the unexpected — like a cyclist riding and abruptly jerking to the left.
Cyclists can get spooked, but getting spooked can spook the guy in the car behind you.
“Just hold your position,” he said.
Brandon said I could work up to riding with traffic and suggested that the rails to trails routes were a good way to safely build up experience and confidence with a bike.
He recommended that I check out the Elk River Trail, which was still under construction, but had rideable portions completed.
We talked about bicycles for over an hour and barely scratched the surface.
Brandon said it was better to have a cheap bike that fit than an expensive bike that didn’t, but there was clearly a difference between a good bike and a cheap bike.
“The bikes you get in a chain store are all machine assembled,” he said. “You practically need to take them apart and put them back together. Everything is too tight.”
He also said that the kind of bike I wanted depended on where I wanted to take it. A road bike was different than a mountain bike or a touring bike.
As with everything else, quality costs money.
Elk City Cycles had bicycles for several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Higher end bikes are lighter and perform better than their less expensive cousins, though Brandon acknowledged that after a certain point, you’re paying for tiny, incremental advantages over the next best bike.
“Like, it might be half a pound lighter,” he said. “But that half a pound is going to cost you.”
Not everybody wanted or needed that, but those into serious cycling might. Brandon called them friends and customers. They could be a singularly focused group, which was why he laughed about my mistaking the word “Yeti.”
It had happened to him, too.
“I remember when I first started seeing all those Yeti stickers on the backs of trucks,” he said. “I just wondered how all these people knew about this little boutique bicycle company in Colorado?”
And no, they don’t make coolers. As usual, there was a lot to learn.