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Since we are committed to preserving the history of bikes, I guess it is fitting that we should also have a history of how we got here? Well, here is the long and convoluted story.
Back in 1979, when cavemen were carving bikes out of stone, I was given a couple of truck loads of bike junk. One of the dads in our local Boy Scout troop had served as the local fix-it guy and had accumulated quite a large pile of bike parts. He figured the best way to not have to fix bikes was to have nothing to fix bikes with....so he gave it all to me. I built a couple of bikes out of the mess and a dynasty was born. I scoured the local "recycling center", then known as the dump, and garage sales looking for raw materials. I would take them apart, repaint them, fix them and sell them with help from the marketing department (aka: a painted over real estate sign in the front yard). One time, I got a really good deal on a case of medium blue spray paint which meant that every bike I painted for about a year was the same color! We would sometime drive into town and I could spot "my" bikes by that color of blue. In the next couple of years, I became locally known for fixing bikes so folks would drop off bikes to get them fixed. I distinctly remember a guy once coming by and asking for a 53 tooth Campagnolo chain ring. Not knowing what that was at the time, I just replied "uh, no" and off he went. I was selling my refurbished bikes for $25-$35 and I am sure the chain ring cost twice that at the time. In three summers, I sold about 125 bikes but it was time to head off to college which closed the first chapter in my bike history. This is a picture (left), circa 1977 or so, of my orange Schwinn Varsity. Unfortunately, I sold my mint 1971 Schwinn Pea Picker (up) to fund purchase of the Varsity. Current value of the Varsity: maybe $100. Current value of the Pea Picker: around $1,500!
Chapter two opens in Columbus, Ohio at The Ohio State University. Needing book, well OK beer, money it was time to find gainful employment. As with most recent high school grads, skills are in short supply. I figured three years of working on bikes ought to count for something so I went off in search of a bike shop. It just so happened, that a new shop had just opened north of campus in the Dublin area. The firm that rep-ed Raleigh bikes in the center of the country had just opened a shop and was looking for employees. Keep in mind that this was 1983, the shop had two dressing rooms, TVs, carpeting, aluminum bike racks, raised clothing platform, super sanitary work stations, custom display cases, open ceilings........pretty much state of the art at the time. The idea was to show bike dealers that they could sell 100% Raleigh bikes and make a living. Raleigh had a rough time in the late 1970's and early 1980's, before Huffy bought the rights to the name in the US, so many dealers considered it a second tier brand. Theshop was also to serve as an place where sales reps could come and see how retail worked and bring in dealers to "wow" them. This is where I purchased my very first mountain bike, a Raleigh Seneca. I remember changing the cable housing out for yellow to sport it up some. I think it retailed for about $350, and I called my parents telling them that I couldn't imagine ever having a nicer bike! As I wheeled my new steed out to the car, I fell flat on my butt while turning a corner on the center ridge tires. Thus began my mountain biking career. The original name of the shop was "Raleigh Bikes of Hayden Run" and turned out to be pretty successful.
Since the first store worked out, they decided to open a store in Westerville and then purchase the former Rick Case store right on campus. For those of you familiar with Columbus, the corner of Lane and High is a well known intersection. Rick Case had gone over to France and had LeJeune bikes, among others, custom made to his specs. Needless to say, they didn't upgrade the bikes from stock. They were miserable to assemble. They didn't really come in a box, more like two sheets of cardboard that was shrink-wrapped. You had to use pliers to get the seat rails close enough together to fit in the seat post clamp. Every chain had a "lucky link" that was sure to fail if you didn't find it. The Rigida rims were made out of the softest alloy known to man and dented if you looked at them wrong. We were selling $179 French road bikes, that weighed just over 20 pounds, to college students. Let's just say that repairs were common. Once we cleared through that junk, we were back to selling Raleighs. Just in time for the aluminum Technium line that sold very nicely. We weren't overly impressed with the Raleigh mountain bikes at the time so we convinced the management to let us order a run of Specialized bikes. I was lusting after the pearl white 1987 Stumpjumper Comp but they were sold out for the year so we ended up with Rockhoppers. I think mine must have been a 1986 since it was red. We later got in some of the 1987 Rockhoppers which came in blue or yellow. A lot of the guys switched forks for the other color, confusing collectors for decades to come! I had put off graduation as long as possible, but it was time. In May 1987, I graduated with a computer engineering degree and made a few half-hearted attempts at interviewing with the appropriate companies. Fortunately, none seemed to be in need of my skills so I stayed at the bike shop.
Since I wasn't getting a "real job", it looked like I needed to get more serious about the bike industry. Two college buddies and I spent a week traveling through North and South Carolina as well as Georgia. We went to all of the larger cities, bought a map, checked out the Yellow Pages, and visited each shop. We took tons of notes about service, prices, bike lines and took them home to study. Charlotte, NC, seemed to be the most underserved market and became the target. Meanwhile, my current employer thought that it would be a good idea to ship me to Kansas City, KS to help open a shop there. It took us a couple of months to get up and running and I still remember being locked in a vacant shop stuffed with boxed bikes. The 1987 Raleigh Seneca wasn't a big seller since it was something of a pink (they called it salmon) color so we had like 100 of those that were bought on close out and they all needed assembled. Once the shop was up and running, it was time for a short vacation to recover. Steve, my boss at the time, pulled me aside and had heard about our bike shop plans. He told me to come back committed to staying on or to not come back. Well, that vacation lasted a little longer than originally planned.
Since I no longer had a job, it was time to get moving. Since Charlotte seemed to be the best market, I moved there and hoped the others would follow suit. As often happens, nobody else followed through so I was on my own. While working on a location and business plan, I worked selling car tires until one day, the boss and I had a clash. I opened the newspaper and actually saw a want ad for a bike mechanic in a place called Mooresville. Hadn't heard of it before but it looked reasonably close by on the map so I called to check it out. I made the trip north and met with Bruce, the owner, and showed him my business plan and told him that I was interested in working with him but not for him. So, we decided to give it a couple of months to make sure it would work. The shop was in a small downtown building that was fairly run down and there was probably around 35 bikes in inventory at the time. In late 1988, we heard that one of the shops in Statesville was closing and decided to check out the market. We drove around Statesville for a day and just as we were leaving town, ran across a vacancy at 1814 E. Broad St. It looked good so we called the owner and toured the 1,250 square feet the next day. Next thing we know, the lease is signed and I am a 50% partner in Cool Breeze Cyclery. The Statesville store opened in April of 1989 and for awhile we were open 7 days a week which was a drag. Bruce ran the Statesville store and I was running the original Mooresville location. We took turns working every other Sunday.
Things were moving along smoothly and sales were good. In 1991, we purchased the Mooresville building and began to make some much-needed improvements. The Statesville store was quickly outgrowing the original 1,250 square feet so we moved across the street to 1811 E. Broad St. in April of 1991 into 3,000 square feet. We were growing enough that the owner of Pro Cyclery, in Hickory, approached us about purchasing his business. It looked to be a pretty good deal so in June of 1992 we added a third location. The Hickory market was the largest of the three and quickly outpaced the other 2 stores in sales. The original location wasn't in the best of neighborhoods so we quickly moved into the Viewmont area of Hickory. Thing went along pretty nicely until early 1994 when Bruce and I were having conflicting views on how to run the business so I proposed to split the business. Since we had three inventories, a store truck and a building, splitting the assets was relatively pain free. I took the Statesville and Hickory stores and Bruce took the Mooresville store, building and truck. I wanted to start our new identity so a name change was needed.
I spent a couple of hours going through a dictionary and making a list of words that sounded interesting. The list got narrowed down pretty quickly and included some of the usual stuff with "cycle", "chain", "adventure" and "breakaway" but nothing seemed to stick. I really wanted something unique to us. How many Chain Reaction stores does the world need? I had always been interested in flight, especially the Wright brothers. There were some parallels since the Wright Bros. started in Ohio at a bike shop and came to North Carolina which is a similar path that I took. First in Flight was also the license plate motto for North Carolina and was also the motto they used later on the state quarter. I really liked the story behind the name, plus the uniqueness, so First Flight Bicycles was in! At this time, our vintage bike collection was somewhere around a dozen bikes or so and consisted mainly of local trade-ins.
Right after the split, I was looking for a building with more space and hopefully, something that we could purchase. Downtown Statesville has some really nice old buildings and, in the mid 1990's, they were relatively affordable. We actually had the choice of several similar buildings and ended up purchasing the one at
216 S. Center St, circa late 1950's
216 S. Center St. since it had a couple of parking spaces included with it. The building had at one time been a five and dime store and more recently, an auto parts store. The best part for us was the building had two stories at 5,000 square feet each plus 14 foot high stamped tin ceilings. This would give us plenty of space for our growing bike collection. About this time, we put up our first web site on AOL. It was pretty much shop hours and a couple of bikes and that was it. I do remember the pages having a hideous orange background and little tiny fuzzy pictures.
During the spring of 1995, we were preparing the new building for occupancy. The ceiling required 13 GALLONS of paint, all applied with a fuzzy roller from the top of a 10' step ladder. Brad Walton did a lot of the painting and now has his own bike wear company called Spectrum Techwear (he prints most of our shop t-shirts for us now). The shop was selling Trek, Specialized and Cannondale now which was unusual for a store of our size. At that time, those were really about the three most desirable bike lines. In July, we moved into the new downtown location. From 1995 through 2000 not much changed. I was running the Statesville and Hickory stores and the main staffing (Wes, Howard and Chris) stayed pretty constant. We just concentrated on running the stores and doing the best job that we could. Sales stayed in a pretty narrow range at the Statesville store but the Hickory store seemed to be on a slow decline. Properly supporting three relatively major bike lines was getting tougher and tougher so somebody needed to go. Cannondale seemed to be the line that we constantly struggled to make profitable. The margins were lower than the other brands and they accounted for about 80% of our leftover bikes each year. It also appeared that they were the least stable company so 2000 became our first year sans Cannondale (they filed for bankruptcy in 2003).
After a couple of quiet years, 2001 saw some changes. We began construction on the Itusi Trail at Lake Norman State Park. This project has consumed many hours and as of 2008, we have constructed 13 miles of trails and have began working on the next phase which should add 4-5 more miles. 2001 also marked the first Crossroads Festival event. We rented space at the Statesville Civic Center and put on a vintage bike swap meet. It was mainly just a handful of vintage bike fans who got together to buy and sell some vintage bike stuff but it was a lot of fun. With the decline is Hickory sales, I couldn't justify having two relatively high salaried employees so I let Howard go and put Chris in charge of the store. We started doing all of the ordering for both stores from the Statesville store which led to a lot of extra work. We took the order sheets form Hickory, ordered the parts, received them in Statesville, divided the order and then transported the parts to Hickory. It just wasn't a good system.
I suppose that now would be a good time to explain the vintage bikes. In the early 1990's, I had kept a couple of odd trade-in bikes that I found interesting. In 1992, a fellow came into the shop who had a nice collection of bikes. We had taken a matched set of Schwinn Paramounts (mens and ladies) in on trade and he was interested in those bikes. I went down to his house in Charlotte and picked out a couple of balloon tire bikes to trade for the Paramounts. This is probably the beginning of my interest in vintage bikes. I started looking actively for vintage bikes and had a special interest in the Schwinn Stingray bikes like I rode as a kid. They were a little newer and usually in better condition than the bikes from the 1940's and 1950's. The older stuff always seemed to need restored, which was very expensive, or it was already in the hands of a collector who wanted top dollar for it. This made collecting nice bikes pretty expensive. The Stingray bikes were somewhat reasonably priced but that was quickly changing. They were also a little boring since the bikes were all pretty similar to one another with fairly subtle differences. Around this time, we took in a neat old fillet brazed Ross mountain bike which had very little resale value so we just added it to the collection. This got me to thinking. Most of the folks that had the best bike collections began collecting the bikes when the were "obsolete" instead of "collectible". The best balloon tire collectors started in the 1960's and early 1970's when the ten speed craze was in full swing and nobody wanted the old heavy bikes. The best Stingray collections were put together in the 1980's when the BMX bikes ruled the market and kids didn't want to be caught on the old fashioned Stingray bikes. I decided it was time to start putting back some of the interesting mountain bikes before they got expensive. I remembered working at the shops in the 1980's and reading Mountain Bike Action magazine and marveling at the wonderful diversity of mountain bikes being produced. These dream bikes would remain just that when they cost $3,000 and I made $5 hour! Now some of these bikes were being sold for just a couple hundred dollars. Many of them have been relegated to town use with slick tires or even had baby seats mounted to them. They had become obsolete with the advent of full suspension, push button shifting and disc brakes. Since mountain bikes have been in production for nearly 30 years now, there is a great number a variations as each new technology was introduced. It started with index shifting and moved on to front suspension, CNC components, neon colors, full suspension, disc brake and who know what next. Mountain bikes became the focus of our collecting activities.
Intertwined with the bike collection has been our web site. With my computer engineering degree, I have always enjoyed messing around with computers (as long as I didn't have to do it for a living!) so we had a web site fairly early. It started with a very simple AOL page in 1996 or so and www.firstflightbikes.com in 1998. By 1999, we were listing our museum bikes on the web site. The early 1999 version has a whopping 10 mountain bikes pictured. Since our web site was up and running fairly early, we received good placement with the various search engines which got us some good exposure when people search for bike history. When we purchased a bike, I tried to research the history of the brand. As I did the research, it was easier to put it all on the computer so I knew where it was. From there, it was just one step further to put it on the web site so I posted it there as well. Over the past decade, it has just kept growing and has become one of the most recognized vintage mountain bike web sites.
Now back to the timeline. In 2002, we expanded the Crossroads Festival and invited more people. By October of 2002, we were finally moving dirt at the State Park. Both of these projects continued to grow and in 2003 we added a road ride to the festival and opened the first phase of the Itusi Trail to the public. In late 2003, out Trek rep asked if we would be interested in selling the Hickory store. I hadn't really considered it before but running both stores was very time consuming, especially with the ordering system that we had in place. On December 31, 2003 the Hickory store closed as First Flight Bicycles and opened on January 1, 2004 as Rock N' Road under new ownership. We sold the store as a complete turn-key operation. The new owner wanted to sell Trek stuff but not Specialized so Specialized was looking to open another store in the Hickory area. The one shop that was interested was about half way between Statesville and Hickory which I felt was too close. Specialized has a long history or doing what they want whether it is good for an individual dealer or not. Trek has always been much more supportive of cycling, and sold better at the store, so we made the decision to drop Specialized. After making these changes, I followed up on my promise to purchase a point-of-sale computer system if I ever got down to one store. The thought of trying to coordinate the system at two locations always seemed like too big of a task but one store seemed doable. We purchased the Ascend system and began implementing it in mid 2004.
About this same time, the 2.5 mile Norwood Creek Loop was opened to the public which brought our total mileage to just under seven. The 2004 Crossroads Festival was starting to lean a little more towards the vintage mountain bikes and away from the balloon tire and Stingray bikes. After the 2004 event, we decided to try and make the 2005 event better focused and starting contacting vintage mountain bike "celebrities".
We identified twenty or so of these folks and started contacting them to see what it would take to get them to visit the festival. We got various responses but Ross Shafer seemed the most interested. With a little arm twisting, he finally agreed to come to the 2005 Crossroads Festival. Once Ross was coming, it gave us more legitimacy and others soon followed behind. Paul Sadoff, of Rock Lobster, was a traveling buddy with Ross and his wife conveniently worked for an airline. Jacquie Phelan was going to be at the Single Speed World Championships in PA the week before Crossroads and would visit if she could find a ride. Matt had planned on heading that way and agreed to bring Jacquie home with him. We contacted Shimano about helping out and they agreed to sent Paul Thomasberg and Joe Murray who were heading to Eurobike right after Crossroads. A couple of days prior to the event, Maurice and Thanita from Dirt Rag called and said they were going to be in DC and would be making the trip down. With the vintage mountain bike folks coming in we decided to cancel the road ride and concentrate on mountain bike riding instead. You can check out pictures of the event on the 2005 Crossroads page.
During the event, we talked to the folks who attended about possibly making some "old school" mountain bike frames that would accept modern components. We were fielding a lot of calls from people try to upgrade their old bikes but they were often not compatible with the newer forks and brakes. We tossed around a few ideas about how to approach it and agreed that it would help to use a name from the past instead of trying to create a new brand. One of our favorite brands had always been Mountain Goat Cycles. They build very nice solid frames that featured a few extra touches and were always known for fantastic paint work. We had talked to Jeff Lindsay, of Mountain Goat, over the years about some of the older bikes that we had found. He always helped us out but had pretty much washed his hands of the entire bike industry. One evening I was stuck in a traffic jam heading home from work and decided to call Jeff to see what he thought. He thought it was a neat idea as long as he didn't have anything to do with it! So in late 2005, we registered www.mountaingoatcycles.com and started working on the bikes.
At the Itusi Trail, the IMBA Trail Care Crew paid us a visit in January 2005 and taught us some very useful trail building tips. We were able to borrow some mechanized equipment so the TCC could show us the benefits of mechanized trail building. I had always enjoyed the "acoustic" nature of trail building. Silently building trails with hand tools always just seemed to "fit" with the nature of mountain biking. All of this changed when I saw the potential labor savings of using power tools! After the TCC visit, I vowed to somehow find a way to purchase some trail building toys. We had begun construction on the new 6 mile Monbo Loop which continued during the spring and fall of 2005. This loop is situated on a larger piece of property which allowed us to lay out longer runs of trail which gave it a little different personality than the existing trail.
After the 2005 Crossroads Fest, we received a good amount of publicity in the national magazines. Check it out on the First Flight Press Clippings page. After this, we started to see an increase in out of state visitors to the shop. They had seen the magazines articles and wanted to stop in and check out the collection. As the Mountain Goat story starts becoming its own entity, it is probably best to split it off and send you to the Mountain Goat "Goat Droppings" page for all the details.
Building off of the previous years event, the 2006 Crossroads Fest included Captain Dondo and Richard Cunningham. Once again we messed around with the formula and made it a Friday night dinner, Saturday morning swap meet or ride, Saturday afternoon ride at the park and a Sunday Pisgah ride. Saturday evening, we tried out the "Pinks" race where you could challenge any other rider to a short race once you both agreed on an appropriate handicap. Challenges included beer, hot dogs and riding backwards on the handlebars. We also added a "Huffy Toss" to the festivities. Pictures from the event can be found on the 2006 Crossroads page. This was to be the last year for the swap meet portion of the event. We tried to spin it off and let someone else take charge and make it better but nobody stepped up to the plate.
For the 2007 model year, we were interested in picking up a second bike line to fill in a couple of gaps in the Trek line. Looking around, it seemed like Gary Fisher was the best fit. It tied in nicely with our interest in vintage mountain bikes (since Fisher was one of the earliest sellers of mountain bikes) and gave us access to single speed and 29" wheeled bikes. For Crossroads 2007 we had shed the road ride and swap meet to focus on the vintage mountain bikes. We also enlisted Neal Boyd, of Charlotte Sports Cycling, to help us add a competitive event to the festival. We decide on a mountain bike time trial to offer something unique. The Itusi Trail design really lends itself to this type of race. With all the changes a new name seemed appropriate so the Cackalacky Cup was born. Mountain Goat continued to roll along and we actually built up a few spec bikes to have at the shop. A new Memorandum of Agreement was signed at the end of 2007 which allowed us to build a slightly more technically challenging trail for Phase IV. 2007 was also our highest year ever for sales at the shop which was very encouraging. Everything that we had been working on seemed to be paying off.
We carried this momentum into 2008 which has also been a great year. Mountain Goat added full suspension frames and Titanium to our offerings almost doubling the number of models available. Fall of 2008 brought the ground breaking of the Itusi Trail Phase IV. With the machinery, we hope to have the first portion (about 3.5 miles) ready to open in spring 2009 while we work on the back half of the trail. The Tarheel Trailblazers have pledged $10,000 to help speed along the process! In the shop, we have been working on the first overhaul of the building since we moved in. The counter has been moved and we built the "porch" which houses all of our clothing. We also built a couple of smaller bike racks to replace the larger racks. This allows us to display the bikes better and makes them much easier to view. So far, the comments have all been extremely positive on the makeover.
In 2010, we received our second IMBA Trail Care Crew visit and had 65 volunteers for the weekend. The TCC, Chris and Leslie, said this was the largest volunteer turnout for their whole year! We were also awarded a $75,000 RTP grant which was to pay for the final phase of the trail system. This money was used to pay a contractor to finish up the final portion of the Laurel Loop plus the Fox, Fallstown and Wildlife Loops. This added about 12 miles to the Itusi for a grand total of 30.5 miles of sustainable singletrack trail.
2010 also saw the improvement of the First Flight facade. The brick on the second floor had been painted white years ago. After investigating the possibility of removing the paint, we contacted The Brick Painters who paint brick to look like brick! Here is a picture of the project part showing the application of the first coat of red paint. Peter ended up putting about 7 different coats of paint on the building and it fools people even upon close inspection. The project was awarded the "Best Facade Improvement under $10,000" by the NC Main Street organization. It was also part of the reason First Flight Bikes was awarded the Mayor's Cup by the City of Statesville for contributions to improving the city.
In keeping with the spirit of improving Statesville, the city invested in a streetscape improvement program. This put the shop behind a chain link fence for much of 2011 but still resulted in our best sales year to date. Below is a video we made showing the progress looking south from the shop.
2011 also saw our first nationwide award. Bicycling magazine had an issue dedicated to the top 100 shops in the country and First Flight was honored to be one of the recipients. They profiled the top 50 shops and we were included in that select list as well.
The string of awards continued into 2012 when First Flight was chosen by the Bicycle Retailer and Industry News as one of the Top 100 shops in the US. Pretty nice award when you consider there are close to 4,200 shops in the US. In 2012, we also picked up the Salsa brand of bikes. Salsa has a long history of making interesting bikes and parts and we have several of these in the MOMBAT collection. The brand is a great complement to Trek and fills some of the niche areas that Trek doesn't cover. As or winter project, the rear of the shop was torn apart and improved. Took out a couple of walls and built the "beer porch" complete with rocking chairs and old suspension forks as pickets for the railing.
2013 included more building improvements with the rehabbing of the upstairs offices. As a result of downtown becoming more of a destination due to streetscape project, we made the investment to the offices. Check them out on the office page. Awards for 2013 included being voted the #7 shop in the country by The Active Times and a "Best Bike Shop" by the NBDA. The NBDA award included an in person mystery shopper as well as phone calls and emails. Only 135 shops were honored. Check out the awards on our Press Page. In April of 2013, we held the Itusi Homecoming to celebrate the "topping out" of the trail system. It was great to see many of the folks who had been instrumental in making the trail happen.
In June of 2013, we made a deal with John Meyer to purchase the remaining inventory of Hi-E Engineering. Hi-E was very active in the 1970's and 80's making lightweight bicycle components including hubs, skewers, cages, frames, forks plus many no-bike related items. It has taken some time but there is some inventory for same on the Hi-E page. Check it out and see if there is anything you can use.
To get 2014 off to a good start, Trek acquired the Electra brand of cruiser and Townie bikes. We had previously sold Electra with great success and decided to make the commitment again.
So there you have it, the history of First Flight Bicycles in words and pictures. We look forward to "making history" as we move forward from here!
"There were many steps in the evolution of the mountain bike. There was no single inventor." Joe Breeze
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