This is Me

Bike parking, what?

I always thought I was a better bike mechanic than transportation planner. Maybe I can do both. Well. Below is a cover letter from a recent job application. Above is a self-portrait of sorts; you’re not looking at me, but looking through my eyes at what titillates me. Exhibit A: the bike rack outside a MnDOT district office in February. At least make the token effort to clear the snow? The bus stop wasn’t much better. But, hey, the parking lot was spotless!

xxxx W——— Street
Saint Peter, MN 56082

May 23, 2023

Minnesota Department of Transportation
Active Transportation Division
395 John Ireland Boulevard
Saint Paul, MN 55155

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for the opportunity to apply for the position of Active Transportation Planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. I am applying for this position because I believe that I have the lived experience, professional knowledge, and vision to be successful in the position, while advancing Minnesota’s progress towards transportation that is safe, affordable, sustainable and equitable.

At present moment I am a bike shop owner and mechanic based in Saint Peter, Minnesota. Our family chose this city and our neighborhood because they allow us to reach most destinations without resorting to driving. Our children will grow up knowing their neighbors and be able to travel independently, because mom and dad won’t have to worry about missing infrastructure, dangerous roads, and ambient noise and air pollution. Ours is a life of privilege and that is unfortunate because all Minnesotans deserve the choice we had. I would go so far as to say such a choice is a human right.

My career in the active transportation field began in 2003, at the National Center for Bicycling & Walking, in the District of Columbia. Even with a Masters Degree in Public Administration, I started (figuratively speaking) on the ground floor, opening the mail. Within two years I was a lead facilitator for their Walkable Community Workshop program, which provided technical assistance to local governments and metropolitan planning organizations. In that position I saw nearly every corner of the country and I studied under the pioneers of the active transportation field. Two years later I was doing it again, this time under the newly funded federal Safe Routes to School program.

That early Safe Routes to School work was a formative experience because I had a boss who understood that federal money would flow to the communities ready to accept it. This often meant that places with the greatest need were passed over because they couldn’t raise the local match, or didn’t have a planner, or didn’t have a grant writer, or didn’t have… fill-in-the-blank. So with the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we designed a program to provide technical assistance to urban schools where walking wasn’t a choice and nearly 100 percent of students were on free/reduced lunch. In Brooklyn, Atlanta, Hartford, Camden, and other places, our walking audits and community workshops/listening sessions undoubtedly helped federal funding flow to places of great need, but more importantly our presence was the bridge between the community and the people who could help them. Elected officials, city staff, DOT staff, business owners, churches and other stakeholders fixed broken street lights, painted crosswalks, changed delivery schedules, and so on, all to help children get to school safely. Those problems were solved quickly and often cheaply; they couldn’t wait for whatever schedule the STIP dictated.

Throughout my career as a planner it has been my good fortune to always work for wise and fair people. They were good bosses who by example showed me when to be tough, when to meet people where they are at, and how to know the difference. That guidance and the work ethic I developed in the preceding years, allowed me to be successful when my office transitioned to remote work in 2009. From then until 2019, when I left the planning profession, I was the sole District of Columbia employee for the National Center for Bicycling & Walking. Working without someone in the next cubicle or office was an adjustment, but because I had built a network of trusted friends and subject matter experts, I was able to maintain a reality check to guide me in my next and biggest project: conference director of Walk/Bike/Place.

Walk/Bike/Place was a biennial active transportation conference of 600 people that fell into my lap when my organization merged with Project for Public Spaces. I ran it, I grew it, I earned a surplus for my organization, I helped set the agenda for the active transportation field, and I showed that an event could be profitable and not extractive of the host city. Our event got projects built and we sought out small, disadvantaged businesses for our contracts. Doing the right thing was rarely the easy thing, so many of those victories have stories and lessons learned. Along the way I formalized my planning credentials by sitting for the AICP exam. I maintained my certification from 2012-2019.

All of that is preamble to what I am now: dad to 2.5 year old twins, small business owner, and transportation planning whisperer to local staff and elected officials. It is in that last role that I have gained the experience which will be most crucial to my success at MnDOT. Answering my question of why our Main Street, which is a trunk highway, isn’t being designed, operated and maintained as a Complete Street, led me to appreciate the myriad ways that Department policies on Complete Streets, Towards Zero Deaths, and emissions targets are being interpreted and achieved/subverted/ignored at the district level. So after discussing my findings with my local elected officials, and my friends in public health and active transportation advocacy, we opted for the strategy of soft advocacy in the form of a regional active transportation summit. This fall we will convene a 1.5 day event that will highlight the reasons for investing in active transportation, bring the latest best practices in Safe Routes to School, Tactical Urbanism, Advocacy, Complete Streets, and other topics to local stakeholders, and tour some great streets and neighborhoods in Mankato. The summit will be held September 29-30, 2023.

Whether or not I am offered this position, I appreciate the opportunity to introduce myself and I look forward to working with your division and agency to improve mobility for all Minnesotans. Thank you for your consideration!


Mark Plotz (he/him)
p.s. It is likely now appropriate to attest that these words were composed by a human, and not a form of artificial intelligence.

Old Town Finally Gets the Street it Deserves

In 1993, a guy could put his motorcycle into a wheelie, ride a block of sidewalk in Old Town, Mankato, and the only one who might get hurt is his mother reading about it 30 years later. Today it is a much different place and its transformation holds lessons for Saint Peter’s downtown.

silo art

These massive grain silos probably date back to when the river could be seen from Riverfront. Today they are a different sort of landmark in Mankato. These interpretive kiosks explain the art. In the foreground is the wine bar, which was one of the pioneers in Old Town’s renaissance.

Old Town was never a great place when I was growing up in Mankato. It smelled bad because of the mill and the attendant semis and trains. But it’s the street I remembered as being really weird: the four lanes weren’t straight – they jogged 10 feet every few blocks. Today I recognize it as a primitive chicane using on street parking to jog the street and slow traffic. And why was traffic calming needed? Because the street was four lanes from back when it was a state highway. The highway had long since gotten a new alignment so all those extra lanes did was encourage speeding. (No need to ask how I know.)

Old Town’s challenges were the same as many cities where the highway moves: too much street makes for speeding, it makes it miserable to walk along, and dangerous to cross. A few brave businesses did move into Old Town, likely attracted by the beautiful and historic building stock and low real estate prices. But pretty much everyone still shopped at the malls unless they were in need of a niche retail purchase.

Then when I moved out to the east coast the fortunes of Old Town began to change. I got time lapse glimpses of it when I returned home (Mankato) for Christmas: facades were freshened, new businesses (a bike shop!) moved in, and eventually new structures went up and existing structures were repurposed. The district was resurrecting itself through art and niche retail. But, still, that F#*&@! street.

a narrow sidewalk

Without knowing the complete history of Old Town — dating back to when it was just called Town — I think it is safe to say that the sidewalk space was once more generous. As often happens when roads are widened, the sidewalk gets sacrificed. The posts, planters, and paint indicate the new sidewalk boundary. The Hub is visible across the street.

Today Riverfront Drive in Old Town should be on any planning nerd’s itinerary of destination streets. The casual and hardcore nerd can both appreciate how a street can make or break a neighborhood. A few days ago it was my destination street for Penelope’s evening walk. Here’s what we saw…

Riverfront Drive Really Needed the Help

Fixing that street was long overdue. Business owners were the first to recognize that no one wanted to park on Riverfront, so they turned their backs to it and made the rear entrance as good as the front door. Wow! What an unexpected joy to walk through the alley and see cleanliness, color and textures, and whimsical details.

back door as front door

Two of the businesses that treat the back door like it is the front door. The building on the left has great detailing. It is also noteable that they saved their windows instead of bricking them up.

People still need places to congregate so when the sidewalks are too narrow, setting aside public space becomes more crucial. And that’s why The Hub was created. It hosts food trucks, music, and chill places to relax. And of course The Hub is accessible with the best possible crosswalk.

Connectivity and Wayfinding Matters

No one window shops at 40 mph, so the details and the beauty won’t matter as long as the roar of the street and danger of crossing it persists. The road diet slowed cars, it shortened crossing distances with curb extensions, it confused – and slowed – drivers with (chortle) blue dots, and then drew people by providing programming. Throughout the district there are tasteful signs for businesses, and where a building contains multiple tenants, they are described in a way that is unobtrusive and comprehensible for pedestrian and driver alike. That means the size of the sign and its location works for everyone.

Building mounted signage in Old Town

Wayfinding in the district could be better. I didn’t spy any maps or kiosks on my walk. But there were good examples of buildings displaying their tenants in a legible way for all users.

such a good crosswalk

Press button. Cars stop. Cross street. All crossing should be this good. Running over pedestrians is bad for business.

Texture is Important

The best streets give you something new each time you walk down them. That sounds like an impossibility, but add up the murals, the blank spaces that became canvases, the hidden gardens, the interpretive signs, the historic detailing of buildings, and programming (music, events, etc.) and that goal becomes obtainable. And of course the best thing to draw people is… people! Added bonus: people on the streets and sidewalks IS the original traffic calming.

a small plaque at the base of a street tree

When moving at human speed it is easy to notice and appreciate the small touches. This is a street tree along Riverfront which has been adopted by local stakeholders.

alley mural

One of the many hidden murals I noticed while walking through the alley. The art often depicts the function of the business. Why waste the effort beautifying an alley? WHO CARES just be glad they did it. And it could be the case that local ordinances prohibit murals in the historic district (Saint Peter has such a problem.)

grage door canvas

You see a garage door; an artist sees a canvas.

Retail has a Critical Mass

I noted two vacant storefronts, and nearly every business was retail or dining. That second point is especially important as those types of businesses are more invested in the success of a district. Think about it this way: if I need my back adjusted I am probably not going to walk down the street afterwards to get an ice cream cone. No, I am going to park behind the business, get there 5 minutes before my appointment, cross my fingers that they will take my insurance, and leave as soon as my wallet is adjusted. Retail has the shades open and the lights on; service businesses may keep the shades down even when they’re open. Which would you rather walk past?

A storefront vacancy

This is one of the few storefront vacancies I noticed. It is new construction with tasteful materials and good design. It should be filled soon so long as the price is right. (Some other time we’ll talk about why it is impossible to buy into commercial real estate.)

Success is Always Intentional

The murals, facade improvements, road diet, public art, and programming at The Hub are intentional – it is someone’s job to ensure the economic success of the Old Town district. It was intentional to construct an event space – a social space – in the district. It was intentional to provide the best, and safest pedestrian crossing in the city to get people from one side of the street (shopping) to the other (entertainment). The Invisible Hand efficiently allocates goods and services, but it doesn’t restripe the street or paint the crosswalks.

a bench in old town

A great bench I noticed when I stepped off the main drag to look at something else.


The road diet is on its way to becoming permanent. This despite the pushback from drivers confused by the lane reductions, blue dots on the street, and the disorientation that comes from loss of status on one of Mankato’s streets (don’t worry, dear driver, you still rule almost every other street in the city). 

The district has become a place and an economically successful one at that. It is an alternative model for economic development which doesn’t depend on 20k cars passing through the neighborhood hoping that if we provide enough parking that just maybe a fraction of them will stop and leave some money.

a very narrow sidewalk

It is easy to see why businesses turned their backs to Riverfront. There’s no space for pedestrians! Hopefully this will be addressed when the road diet is made permanent. But hey, they found space for public art!

public art

I loved this one so I had to include it.

To sum up the formula used in Old Town: slowing traffic + street narrowing + programming in public spaces + public art + texture = a destination. They are now well on their way to people saying ‘you should’ve seen this place before they changed the street.’

This story was 50 years in the making. At least. I don’t have that kind of time or patience.  Do you? So just change your F#*&@! street already (and stop listening to people who tell you it is hard or impossible.) 

bike sale

A Business Case for Supporting the Arts

On a blustery Saturday morning, just as the first flakes of the season filled the air, it was standing room only in our bike shop. I talked to more people that day than I did in the month(s) prior. Even better was meeting people who never would have come into a bike shop on such a day (if at all). How? Art! On Saturday, November 12, Saint Peter held its inaugural Art Stroll, with 24 local artists and 16 venues, including our bike shop.

art by Judith

A representative sampling of Judith’s art. Fun, right?

What happened at our shop was the scene up and down Main Street (aka Highway 169) as locals mixed with out-of-towners to bring more foot traffic to our historic central business district than any event in recent memory. Hanging those nine paintings by our featured artist – the self-described Painter/Sculptor/Woman of Leisure – brought more people through the door than anything else we have tried.

It is almost a no-brainer for a business to become a venue for such an event. I say almost because there is an opportunity cost for involvement: there is time in set-up/teardown; I got one wheel laced in 8 hours and that was about it for wrenching; and those delicious vegan cupcakes we put out were free, but not to us. But so what! I choose to see the upside.

What do I mean by upside? Art collectors and connoisseurs drink coffee, buy household goods, shop for clothing, and ride bicycles – among other things. Their more salient quality for this discussion is possessing discretionary income and the desire to support local artists and local businesses. (Perhaps we are reaching the point where if you’re not shunning Amazon you are at least feeling a little bad about ordering from them!)

For readers now under the impression that I am a marketing genius, I counter with Exhibit A: our businesses’ (intentional?) lack of a marketing plan. Other than a few fliers we put up announcing our open, and our facade improvements, we are nearly 100% reliant on word-of-mouth, the loyalty of our St. Paul customers, and southern Minnesota’s latent demand for bike shop services. So when offering up our shop as a backdrop for a local artist, I had no idea I would be having casual compare/contrast/discuss conversations about early De Rosas and Pinarellos, or that a sizeable fraction of our patrons that day would be e-bike curious. Then there’s this important disclosure: Amanda, my wife, is one of the trio of Art Stroll organizers. So of course we would participate!

The Art Stroll was our opportunity to give back to a community that has been welcoming and generous to us. When our neighboring businesses are strong, so are we; when we struggle to fill vacant storefronts, we lose viability as a shopping destination. As such, we have a responsibility to help others when we can, and that’s why alongside Judith Foster’s art we featured some of the furniture art of Jovi Thomas, who is just getting her start and in need of exposure. (Perhaps the myopia of altruism will be supplanted by enlightened self-interest next time and Amanda will feature her papercuts and I will try to sell some bike shop t-shirts!)

wood burned clothing dresser

An example of the artistry of Jovi Thomas.

It is gratifying being part of something that challenges people’s expectations while winning universal acclaim. The closest I’ve come in recent memory was PARK(ing) Day 2015 when I was part of a team that transformed two parking spaces in downtown Washington DC into an oasis for reflection, socializing, people watching and eating delicious berry smoothies. And if I am being honest, I have to say my expectations were challenged as well: I knew we had a lot of talented people here, but I never thought of Saint Peter as an arts destination.

PARK(ing) Day 2015

The most valuable parkings spaces in all of DC on that day in September.

Lessons Learned

I offer these observations with a bit of remove from the planning and execution of the event. These conclusions are also flavored with a hint of confirmation bias from conclusions I have already drawn about what works and what doesn’t (169!) in downtown Saint Peter. Now without further delay, caveat, preamble, or apology:

People like art. The end result of the creative process is fascinating whether it yields poetry or painting, stained glass or object. Artists should have the opportunity to display and make a living. The public should have an opportunity to view, appreciate and consort with other aficionados. And while not every day can be an Art Stroll day, public art – murals, sculpture, music and other forms of creative expression – can provide such an outlet and connection beyond the confines of an annual event. In short,  more public art, please, Saint Peter!

Wayfinding is crucial. A well-designed brochure and a critical mass of destinations within walking distance ensures a well-attended event with prolonged engagement. But giving people things to see is only part of the equation; they need to know how to get there. Central business districts that don’t heed this lesson become one-stop-shops. Fairmont shows Saint Peter how to do it right.

way finding signage

Creative wayfinding in downtown Fairmont.

Give people reasons to visit and stay (and they will!). Bars host comedians and bands; coffee shops have poetry readings; bike shops sponsor races – all these things are done to draw people in, in hopes of keeping them there. Without question Third Street Tavern, the Saint Peter Food Co-op and River Rock all rang up a few extra sales thanks to hungry, thirsty art lovers. Now how about we consider designing the public realm with an eye on providing people comfortable places to rest, socialize, drink, eat and otherwise. Act like you want people to hang out downtown by providing shade in summer, warmth in fall and winter, places to rest, and beautiful, interesting things to look at.

artistic nook Henderson

A local example from Henderson of how a downtown can become a welcoming place for pedestrians.

What draws people is other people. This is an observation by Holly Whyte upon which the non-profit Project for Public Spaces was founded. As it turns out, and as deprivation during the Pandemic bore out, we want to be around other people. Throngs of people walking down Main Street gets other people interested in doing the same. It indicates a place is interesting and worth exploring. As a side benefit: drivers also notice this and they tend to slow down. And with that begins the virtuous cycle of slower streets making for better sidewalks and better places to do business, have a cup of coffee, or dinner.

A rising tide lifts all businesses. As stated already, but worth reiterating is that when the new brewery is packed, we’re going to be doing great as well. Yup, that’s right, there is a brewery coming to downtown Saint Peter. I am so happy to be the first one to tell you!

Cheers to the 2023 Saint Peter Art Stroll!!!


Cannondale ebike on left and RadPower ebike on right

The Triumph of the $1,000 E-Bike

Cannondale ebike on left and RadPower ebike on right

You gotta spend a lot of $ before your e-bike starts looking like a regular bike. For everyone else who doesn’t have $10k to drop on such a rig, behold the bike on the right… and get used to seeing more of them. No disrespect to Rad Power bikes; the RadMission is maybe the best e-bike at the $1k price point. But tons of disrespect to Cannondale for bring their thought experiment to market.

The direct to consumer model for selling bikes is here to stay. For a small shop like ours we can look at that reality in two ways: as a lost sale, or as an opportunity to provide value-added service once a box shows up on your doorstep. We see it as the latter and since opening in 2019 we have assembled Canyons, State Bicycles, and a few of the lesser known brands. We assemble the bike as if it were one of our own; we adjust the derailleurs and brakes; we true the wheels; we adjust the headset and wheel bearings; and we offer the customer a detailed assessment of the bicycle. This last part is crucial as we will help the customer file a warranty claim if something is amiss. And something often is amiss — with the exception of Canyons which are thoughtfully packaged and (even better) packaged using minimal plastic. In fact, their boxes are so good that customers hang onto them and use them whenever they need to ship a bike. The only thing that isn’t perfect is their headset design. But I’m off topic now.

One of the direct to consumer bikes we will be seeing a lot more of is the $1,000 ebike. Ebikes for the masses is something that excites us because they have the best potential to replace car trips. Ebikes need no charging infrastructure and they will proliferate even without the generous tax credit that drivers enjoy. I have assembled a few of these and worked on a few more, so here’s the answer to what a thousand bucks buys:

  • 36 – 48v battery (300 – 500 Wh) with onboard charging
  • 350 – 1000 watt rear wheel based motor
  • Multi-function display
  • Throttle and pedal assist
  • 1 x 7 speed drivetrain
  • Mechanical disc brakes
  • 60-80 lbs

Additional variables include wheel diameter and tire width; folding or not; and what accessories are included. What’s true of ebikes at this price point — and pretty much any ebike that’s less than $3k — is that they’re not great bikes. They’re not even good bikes because they’re equipped like a $300 mountain bike with $500 of motor and battery strapped to it. That means the shifting is going to be awful and the brakes will be even worse. And this is unfortunate because now that the motor has freed the designers of the burden of thinking about weight, they went ahead and, well, burdened the bike with weight. Should your reactor go critical mid ride, I hope, for your sake, that the way home is slightly downhill. Why slightly? See previous comment about underbraking.

Buying a $1000 ebike
Sure I spent the previous paragraph trashing the $1000 ebike, but I still think they are a good thing, and with some careful shopping you can end up with a safe bike that serves you well. Here are a few considerations:

Customer Service. This is the big advantage brick & mortar has over consumer direct sales. If I sell you a shitty bike then you can come down, get in my face, and tell me to fix it. I can’t put you into an endless customer service phone queue; I can’t ignore your multiple emails (usually submitted via a website form). Not many bike shops sell $1000 ebikes (for very good reasons) so when choosing a consumer direct brand look at the product, the product reviews, and the customer reviewers for resolving defects. Thirty day money back guarantees are great but what’s not great is shipping an 80lbs bike back to wherever it came from and hoping for your money back. I listed this consideration first because it is the most important.

Assembly. DO NOT DO IT YOURSELF. Take it to a shop, pay the money, get the piece of mind that comes with professional assembly of your underbraked landrocket. Buy a bell while you’re in the store. Seriously.

Wheel Size. There are two ways to go: conventional 700c/29er wheels or 20” wheels with 3-4” wide tires. The advantage of the former is that tire replacement, tube replacement, and spoke replacement can be done at any bike shop. The advantage of the latter is a lower center of gravity and a cushier ride. The big disadvantage of the fat and low bikes is availability of 20” x 3” tires and tubes. That back tire will wear out fast and those sizes are very hard to find under the best of circumstances. Just say no to fat tired ebikes. Trust me.

Brakes. Name brand hydraulic disc brakes are best. Look for brands equipped with Hayes, Magura, SRAM, Shimano, Tektro, and TRP. Pay extra if the upgrade from mechanical discs is an option. It is possible to find Tektro brakes and 180 mm rotors on a bike at this price point, but you will need to give up other stuff (gears). Cheap brake levers, cheap housing, cheap calipers, cheap brake pads, and cheap rotors = brakes I wouldn’t let a friend or enemy ride. That experience is the rule, not the exception.

Weight. Don’t be fooled by compact size: folding ebikes are just as heavy as regular ebikes. The only way to lose weight is paying more or simplifying the bike (see Rad Power Mission).

Motor and Range. A motor with 350 watts is plenty; a motor with 1000 watts is way too much. The more power the motor makes, the more it taxes the battery. Ride with the throttle or on max pedal assist and you will burn 25 Wh per mile. That means a 350 Wh battery will give you less than 20 miles at max power. That may be fine for most people but for a daily rider it means your battery will burn out after 2 years. I milked a 283 Wh battery for 55 miles using pedal assist 1, and pulling the twins for most of that. But I was doing a range test and trying to prove a point. Your mileage may vary. 

After seeing what has come through our front door, and looking at what is on the market at the moment, it would seem like the Rad Power Mission is the best bike, at this price point, for most people. Why I like it: it is under 50 lbs, the motor and battery are of good power and capacity, the brakes are head and shoulders above its peers, and the brand is established. Yes, it is a single speed but most ebike owners ride in the hardest gear and dial the assist to max, so does it really matter if you have 1 or 7 speeds?

Ebikes are a relatively new thing and longevity issues are only starting to emerge. These bikes tend to be hard on drivetrains, tires, and brakes. Those items should be replaced more frequently and always with ebike rated components. OEM mid-drive systems are proving more durable than OEM wheel based systems. These motors make A LOT of torque and over time that torque will lead to spoke breakage in wheel based systems. Once that happens, that wheel needs to be returned to the manufacturer for repair, as most bike shops don’t stock the spokes and aren’t willing to deal with truing a 20 lb wheel that uses motorcycle spokes — and may be shod with a motorcycle tire. Ask me how I know. ‘We don’t have the tools to work on your bike… but you should try Erik’s!’

When you are ready to buy, come talk to me or another bike shop. We’ll talk you through the pros and cons of the various options so you can make an informed buying decision. And who knows — maybe we’ll even have something on the floor that you like!


Now that you’ve searched for a $1000 ebike you will be followed across the internet by banner ads for $1000 ebike. Careful what you search for!


The things we’re not carrying with us.

As we have mentioned, we are moving our shop to a new location. A new location means a new look for our sales floor and service area. No, we’re not going corporate; we’re just changing our aesthetic and maybe leaving behind some things that we no longer need. If you are interested in any of these please email us Pick-up must be at one of these times: late afternoon Wednesday (9/8), all day Thursday (9/9), and Friday morning (9/10).

Behind Door #1 in our Showcase Showdown we have this beautiful countertop! We scored it off Craigslist in early 2019. We got a set of kitchen cabinets from the Re:store and we built an exoskeleton of 2″x4″ around it to hold everything upright. The top has about a 1/2″ acrylic layer with some scuffs. We experimented with using polyurethane to cover scuffs and that worked well enough. This is perfect for a retail establishment or a she/he/they cave.

Price: $0. We will help you get it out the door and after that you are on your own. It will probably need to be dissembled to make it easier to haul. Warning: this thing is heavy and will require 2-4 people to move it.

Counter schematic

Additional dimensions: the top is 2-3″ thick and the assembly stands about 30″ tall when mounted to the cabinets

Counter frontal view

Photo of counter top showing wood pattern

The acrylic is so deep you might fall in!

Storage cabinets underneath the counter

The kitchen cabinets, Ikea cabinets (white) and supporting lumber are yours if you want them. (We prefer you take them.)

Behind Door #2 is this beautiful refrigerator/freezer! This thing had been in our kitchen. We moved it after I rendered the shop’s mini fridge inoperable. Side note: never use a screwdriver and hammer to chip ice from your freezer because you will puncture the refrigerant tubes.


Refrigerator and microwave are both avaialble.

Price: $0. There is a small leak condensate in the refrigerator. Just stick a bowl under it and empty it weekly. The applicant is clean, odor-free, and works. You have to haul it away yourself.

Behind Door #3 is an infant/toddler motorized swing. This thing is a life saver… if your charge actually enjoys it. (Neither of our girls were into it.)

Price: $0. This was a gift to us; now it is a gift to you.

<Not pictured>

Important conditions:

  • Items much be picked up Wednesday (9/8 after noon); Thursday (9/9 all day); and Friday (9/10 morning).
  • We don’t have the time to provide additional information beyond what is here.
  • We don’t have the ability to help you beyond the front door of our shop. You leave with it and we’re not taking it back if you change your mind.
  • These are free but if you feel like making a contribution towards our customers’ unpaid balances, then we accept cash, check, and credit card.
  • Email us if you are interested in any of the above. Thanks!

That title is with apologies to Tim O’Brien. He was writer-in-residence at Mankato State University when I was in graduate school. I didn’t read any of his books but I can recommend his recent interview on Fresh Air. He has some profound thoughts about becoming a father late in life, which he beautifully articulates.

Robbed. Twice.

In the late hours of Saturday, May 1, someone threw a brick through one of our shop’s windows and stole our best bike. We built it custom from the frame up; we were proud of it; and so we put it in our window display. That night happened to be a hot one and so windows above us and across the street were open. Everyone heard the glass break and the burglary was reported immediately. But the thief was long gone.


The $470 brick

The next morning we found out via email. I’d been waiting for this to happen. Bikes are in high demand and the neighborhood… well, it is still a bit transitional — after dark.

I left the girls and the dog with Mandy while I busted a move to the shop to 1) secure our inventory and 2) survey and clean up the damage. Much to my surprise and relief we hadn’t been looted because the window was boarded up. Unfortunately, the window glass wasn’t tempered, and there were razor-sharp shards almost to the back shop where I found the brick that was used.

Dylen, our first hire, came in early on a Sunday to help with clean up. We took home the most expensive bikes, locked up everything else, and asked customers to pick up their repaired bikes ASAP. Damage control phase completed, we commenced the recovery and revenge phases.

We were insured so we added up the expenses to make the claim:
$3400 58cm Fairdale with Campagnolo Potenza and Hope RX4 brakes
$1200 for a tempered 3’ x 8’ pane of glass and installation

That came to $4600. The policy had a $1000 deductible and — here is the fine print — it only covers cost. That Fairdale was only worth $2400 to the insurance company. At the moment we are $2k in the hole from the theft and that doesn’t even count the hours spent cleaning up, dealing with the insurance company and police, and fighting the City of Saint Paul.

Wait, what? A few days later I noticed a guy wearing khakis and a shirt with buttons loitering on our corner. He had a clipboard and that made him look official. I went out to talk to him wondering if he was the insurance adjustor. Nope, he was from Code and Inspections. He was there checking to make sure the plywood had been installed. Upon learning this I asked why and was told that we would soon be receiving an invoice from the City for the work.

Excuse me? We just got robbed and now you are sending us a bill for it? Fuck. Off. Saint. Paul. As I recovered from that news I asked him the same question that I have been asking ever since: Why don’t you bill the criminal? No one, not him, not my elected officials or their staff, has been able to come up with a satisfactory justification for the $470 we were invoiced. That’s $310 for materials and $160 for a City administrative fee.

Eventually I did hear back from my Council Member and Code and Inspections. The former wasn’t aware of this City practice and policy; the latter explained the process for appealing the assessment, which involves filling additional paperwork and making my case to the Council. Or something like that. The process wasn’t logical and I was too pissed off to play their game.

tree box

We all come from somewhere.

Instead, since May 2, 2021, I have shaded the City to everyone who asks about the plywood window on the front of our store. The plywood is going to stay there until the City buys back its brick which was used to smash our window ($470) and it changes its asinine policy of penalizing the victims of crime.

So what should the City have done? 1) prevent crime (but I realize that such a thing is unrealistic when something like 100 shots were fired that same night elsewhere in St. Paul); 2) contact me when my business has been broken into so I can secure it myself; and 3) failing those other things, go ahead and charge me the $470 but refund it when I install a new pane of glass — otherwise there’s little incentive for me to spend $1200 replacing the window when we’re already out $2,000.

We had said good-bye to downtown St. Paul a long time before this happened. This was just additional vindication of our decision to move our family and our business. We love the people we’ve met along the way, and they deserve way better from City Hall and their elected officials. 

What is our niche?

Storefront logo

As we close out our second season in the business we have been reflecting on who we are, what our niche is, and what our vision is for the next 5-10 years. Other people are asking us these questions too. Eighteen months after we opened our doors our responses to those questions remains the same: We are an independent, self-financed, service-focused bike shop which has built a customer base through advocacy, word-of-mouth, and (of course) great service. Our niche is that we are small and we are good.

Since opening we have by design and out of necessity pursued a slow growth business model. That’s how it goes when building a business powered by personal savings, a side hustle, and an AmEx card obtained when I had a salaried job. Four or five months in the business was generating enough cashflow that it was able to purchase inventory, pay rent, and set aside money for rent in the colder months. In that first year of operation I paid myself $3,000. 

This year has brought its own set of challenges. Our slow growth model doesn’t always interface well with the biking industry. Most days I wonder if we are the smallest cog in their machine. Our diminutive size means that we don’t enjoy volume discounts on tubes, tires, bikes, and everything else. We get it: It’s not just, it’s just business. But it is going to be a problem one day when the only bike shops still standing are Erik’s, Freewheel, and a handful of boutique shops. We don’t want to be Erik’s and we don’t want to be a boutique shop.

So is the neighborhood bike shop an anachronism or is it feasible? More to the point: Is any small scale retail viable in a space dominated by Amazon and large brick and mortar chains? Talk to us five years from now and maybe we’ll have your answer.

In the meantime we humbly suggest some changes to the retail environment which could allow new small businesses to bloom:

  1. Pass a living wage ordinance, like, yesterday. The smallest small business — ahem, us  — are usually exempted, but our competition, because they are bigger, takes the hit. And they damn well should be paying their people more. This was a record year for the biking industry and those front line workers should share some of the spoils for taking all the risks.
  2. Tax the hell out of vacant storefronts. That storefront is vacant for a few possible reasons including: the rent is too high, the demand is low, or the retail space needs to lose money as a write-off because it is part of someone’s investment portfolio. That vacant storefront imposes a cost on adjacent businesses because it can attract undesirable uses which, in turn, makes the street unwelcoming. Just ask any of our neighbors if opening our shop improved the corner and the neighborhood. Just ask us how much we’d like a tenant in the empty storefront next to our shop (yes, please!). Taxing vacancies might provide incentive for some landlords to look harder for a tenant, to lower their leasing rates, and it might even provide the city a revenue stream for addressing quality-of-life issues in the downtown area.
  3. Take a holistic approach to retail corridors and business development. Successful businesses rarely exist in a vacuum; they are often part of a looked-after corridor, node or district. A great example of a nearly-complete corridor is Grand Avenue because it has a critical mass of businesses; it has street trees and trash cans; and it is an interesting place to walk. But could be a lot better if traffic were slowed so pedestrians could safely cross the street. And when traffic slows good things happen. No one window shops at 40 mph. No one wants to dine in a parklet with adjacent traffic moving that fast.
  4. Work to attract and retain small businesses. Saint Paul (and other midsize to large cities) prefers the supernova approach to the thousand points of light approach when it comes to economic development. This approach manifests as ball parks, sports arenas, large convention halls, and Class A office space intended to lure big corporate fish. It almost always involves a sales tax levy to pay for the stuff and to build lots of structured parking. A less expensive, harder, but more sustainable approach would be to fund a small business liaison office which could help new businesses find space, connect with lenders, obtain business services (regulatory compliance, insurance, accounting, internet, healthcare, etc) at a subsidized rate. Where would we get the money for that? See #2.

These are all feasible ideas and none of them are original. COVID (or not), unrest (or not), recession (or not), there are small businesses that need help. What we have learned in 2020 is that when disruption happens it isn’t the agile that survives — as we might have been led to believe by Charles Darwin or Malcolm Gladwell; it is the already advantaged businesses that are in the best position to hang on (read: large PPP loans/grants) and even grow (Amazon, Instacart, and big box retail). This has to be corrected because the worst thing for Lake Street would be to rebuild as a corridor of wine bars and cheese shops operating in buildings owned by real estate investors. 

Our next blog post will be about real estate because that, probably more than any single factor, determines the success or failure of a business. The TL;DR is the rent is almost always too damn high.


Master and Servant: A review of me, Zwift and the Elite Suito

bike and trainer

Master and servant (not pictured). Pardon the clutter, I Zwift at the shop.

I don’t have fitness goals, I have lifestyle goals. I want to drink IPAs when desired, not count calories, and keep the same clothing size… because, while wardrobe churn is long overdue, I need to reserve my money for things lower down in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The User
Pursuant to my lifestyle goals I find myself on the road to nowhere with increasing frequency. I have an aging set of CycleOps rollers which I’ll spend 30 minutes on a few times per week. The rollers have magnetic resistance so I can get a workout without having to spin out a 53 x 11. I have a few self-imposed workouts I use:

Resistance 5/5

  • Start in 53 x 28 and pedal for 5 minutes. Then drop down to the next smaller cog (25t) and pedal for 5 more minutes. Then another cog and another 5. The goal is to get to 30 minutes without vomiting or putting a foot down, and keeping cadance in the 100-120 range. Trust me, this is hard.
  • Start in 53 x 28 and pedal for 5 minutes. Then drop down 3 cogs (19t) and pedal for 2 minutes. Then bump up one cog (21t) for 3 minutes. Then bump up one more to start the next 10 minute block.

Resistance 4/5

  • Follow the regimen of the first bullet point but start one cog down the stack (25t).

If I keep my heart rate at/above 150 bpm and my cadence ~110 rpm, then I get a good sweat and I feel the Bern riding home from the shop. But if the world is to keep turning and humanity is to keep improving then one’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp. And what I was reaching for (and failing to grasp) was another Lupulin IPA and/or slice of Pizza Luce (Fire breathing dragon, vegan style). I had to figure out how to burn more calories.

Rollers are a fun skill to master but they have downsides: noise, tire wear, and the need for constant focus by the rider. Thirty minutes is my limit when I’m staring at my front tire and metrics on my bike computer. Over the years I have heard tales of people spending 1, 2, even 3 hours on the stationary trainer. How were they doing it?

I decided to check out Zwift. A number of people I follow on Strava were using it, and so were some of our customers. Zwift has a 7 day free trial. There seemed to be no downside.

pairing screen in Zwift

Pairing your bluetooth devices is simple and the software is reliable.

I went to their website and downloaded the app to my iMac. I answered a few questions about my height and weight and then I was teleported to Watopia. Wapotia is a fantasy land populated by dinosaurs and people who sustain outputs of >5 watts/kg. The dinosaurs are more real than those TdF riders — none of whom I’ve caught and whose existence is only revealed by fleeting appearances on the slate of ‘Riders near me.’

Watopia seems to be a mash-up of Atlantis, Big Sur, the Italian Alps, and the Brady Bunch Tiki god episode. I set the graphics to 1080p which was all my 2013 iMac and Comcast connection could handle. At those settings you can expect a world reminiscent of Ridge Racer circa PS3 days.

But whatever, because riding in real life, I’m not trying to look at the scenery; I’m there to chase down the person in front of me while making sure the numbers of my bike computer are what they ought to be. On both counts Zwift is a great training partner — nay, enabler.

Time for a ride. I loaded the app and rotated my 27” monitor to face the rollers. The program helpfully locates and syncs with any bluetooth transmitters you use. I synced my heart rate monitor, cadence sensor, and speed sensor. For the program to recognize ANT+ devices it requires a ANT+ usb dongle for your computer.

The program also asks what trainer you use. Here’s where I encountered some difficulty. Zwift is compatible with dumb trainers (aka a trainer you don’t have plug in) but its database is limited. My rollers weren’t in the database so I selected ‘Generic Rollers’ for one ride and ‘Cyclops Mag trainer’ for the next ride. The first vastly underestimated my power while the other upped my FTP to the mid 300 watts after a 40 minute ride. Allow me to decode that: I’m not a Cat 1 racer in my mid 20s as Zwift was suggesting.

Compatibility and useability are different things. On a flat road Zwift takes a reading from your speed and cadence sensors and determines your power output. It works fine; go faster or slower by choosing a harder or easier gear, and you will do more or less work while pedaling. But when the road turns up the experience gets a little cartoonish: your speed starts to drop and the world around you slows down. WTF? Oh, you’re on a climb so to increase your speed you will need to increase your cadence or drop into a harder gear. In the game you will be moving at 5 mph but your wheel on the trainer may be moving at 25-30 mph. Hello dissonance!

But it all mostly works. Unless you are on rollers. Thanks to Zwift I ended a decade-long streak of riding the rollers without a fall. The next streak lasted 3 minutes. Then 2 minutes. Then 4 minutes. A pattern seemed to be emerging: when I got into the game (‘Close the gap!’) I paid less attention to my front wheel and, oops, there goes my balance. I needed a more stable platform if this was going to continue.

Direct Drive
There are three types of trainers: rollers, rear wheel trainers (your wheel contacts a roller; the roller provides the resistance); and direct drive trainers (remove the rear wheel and throw your chain on the trainer’s cassette). Sparing the tire is the big advantage of the direct drive trainer. A subset of these trainers is smart or dumb. Smart trainers plug in and can relay speed, cadence and power data. The newest generation of smart trainers can interface with Zwift and vary resistance according to terrain. The road pitches up and suddenly your effort increases. Goodbye dissonance!

I did some research on direct drive trainers. I checked my personal bank account. I considered power meters. The Elite Suito ($799) looked like the best value (1 month of Zwift and a Shimano R7000 11-28 cassette) and got positive reviews. I lept. A day later it was here.

Unboxing the Elite Suito
Direct drive trainers can be stupid heavy due to large flywheels. They can be loud. This trainer is neither. Pick it up by the handle (nice feature), place it on the floor, fold out the legs, and adjust the feet so the unit is level. Attach the bike by snapping the correct axle ends onto the trainer, lay the chain across a cog, nestle the frame’s dropouts onto the trainer, and close the quick release. Plug it in. Start Zwift. In less than 3 minutes you are ready to go.  No pairing problems. Nothing. Easy. Integrated. Seamless.

Things to keep in mind: 1) your derailleur may need an adjustment to optimize shifting (mine did — my hanger was a little bent); 2) you need to level the bike (I used a bubble level on the seat tube and adjusted the trainer’s feet; and 3) rear disc brake calipers need either a pad separator inserted or (better) the pads pulled and a bleed block inserted. I recommend this third precaution because it is too easy to squeeze the rear brake lever; without a rotor between the pads (remember removing the rear wheel?) you will dislodge the pistons. Oops! Now you’ve got hydraulic fluid all over your new trainer.

Zwift landing page

Once your sensors are paired it is time to select a course or workout. You can join others if you don’t want to ride solo.

Smart Zwifting
I love it. It is so much better than intervals on rollers. It is so much better than Zwifting on a dumb trainer. I joined on January 8 and have logged almost 8 hours, >150 miles, and 12k feet of climbing. That is probably double or triple what I would have ridden without Zwift and the Elite trainer. Here’s why:

  • Gamification. Early in this review I transitioned from calling Zwift an app to calling it a game. Zwift is constantly prodding you to go faster, to close the gap, to beat your old time, to up your watts per kg, etc. More evidence this is a game: it has a scoreboard. As you ride you accrue points. Said points can be used in the Zwift store to purchase virtual kit and custom bikes. I haven’t seen any prompting for in-app purchases — and I hope that’s not an option. Bottom line is that I’m extremely susceptible to this gamification so it does result in longer and faster rides.
  • Socializing. Every time that I’ve logged on there have been >2k people Zwifting. That’s pretty rad. While you ride you can see what countries people are representing. And while it is predominantly North America there is also plenty of representation by Asia and Europe. You can give and get thumbs-up from other riders. I usually log on between 5 and 6 pm so I have started recognizing names. That’s motivating too. 
  • Depth. Every day there are two worlds and multiple rides in each world from which to choose. Newbies can’t access all the rides, you have to unlock them by putting in your time. Watopia is a constant (described above) and the other world rotates with NYC, Richmond VA, London, Innsbruck and Yorkshire. My favorite so far is Innsbruck, Austria, which uses the 2018 World Championship Course. That day I wanted a 30-40 minute workout. An 8 mile course with 1400 feet of climbing? Hello! Yes, please!!
  • Variety. So far I have only ridden solo, but Zwift can connect you with other riders and you can even join races. I don’t like riding with other people IRL, so I think I will reprise my role as Plotz Solo.
  • Fitness. I am in this predicament because I had lifestyle goals to pursue. Buying into the virtual riding world wasn’t cheap, but that cost is now behind me, and it is up to me to make sure that money was well spent. My reality is that I am a time constrained cyclist, approaching middle age, working two jobs: my health and my financial security are intertwined, so it behooves me to invest in my health.
rider screen for zwift

That’s me in orange. The upper portion of the screen tells you wattage, hr, speed, elevation and milage. The left side shows information about the segment you are in. The right side shows you the riders near you, their speed, their effort, and their mileage that day.

You can pay more for a smart trainer and you can pay less for a dumb trainer. The Elite Suito ($799) hits the sweet spot relative to its competition. If you pop for one (buy it from us!) then I highly recommend taking advantage of the one month of free Zwift. Drop by or give us a call if you have questions about the equipment or set up. We are always happy to chat. Catch you in Watopia! XOXOXO.

Bike: 2015 Cannondale Caad10 disc with Ultegra R8000 (Not for sale)
Trainer: Elite Suito ($799)
Accessories: 4iii heart rate monitor ($79)
iPhone mount: GoKase iPhone mount ($40)
Software: Zwift ($14.99/month)
Hardware: 2013 21″ iMac with 27″ external monitor