The Spoke Shop Story
1973 – Oil embargo fuels bicycle boom!
Jim Downs couldn’t have picked a better year to open a bicycle shop in Billings, Montana. The oil embargo of 1973 sparked a wildfire of bicycle sales for transportation, and meandering through the mountains of Montana, and Europe. The English-bike-brand Raleigh, sold 1.2 million bikes that year.
At the peak of the U.S. bicycle boom, 15 million adult bikes were sold!
This is somewhat similar to what Covid-19 did for bicycling in the Spring of 2020. A couple of big exceptions: There wasn’t mountain bikes, E-Bikes, gravel bikes to sell, or frame-to-rider fitting systems in ’73. Bicycling at that time was rural, recreational, urban, practical, and did not come with gel saddles, cell phone mounts, or e-shifting.
With backing from Rene Moser, owner of the Chalet business in Bozeman, Jim started his bicycle business on March 1, 1973. It was originally located in a 400 sq. ft. room, rented from an adjoining gunsmith on 23rd & Grand avenue. If a tire tube blew up in the shop, everyone ducted for cover, thinking a gun had miss-fired next door.
Just to add some social perspective on what was happening around the globe in ‘73, as twenty-six-year old Jim started his new business venture. In music, the Beatles had broken up three years previous, Three Dog Night was filling stadiums, and Dark Side of the Moon, one of the best selling albums of all time, was released by Pink Floyd. Elvis was still the rage. On Television: The Partridge Family, Colombo, and Sanford & Son. Movies included: American Graffiti, The Exorcist, and Deliverance. Globally, the 12 Arab countries belonging to OPEC, stopped exporting oil to the US and gas prices had risen by 200%, hence causing a huge spike in bicycling transportation, exercise, and nose-thumbing at the Arabs. Gas prices rose to forty cents per gallon. Very similar to what has happened recently with Covid-19. Except there where no lines for toilet paper, only petrol.
Originally Jim was the sole employee, just turned twenty-six years old, was right out of the army. A graduate of EMC (MSU-Billings) with a degree in Biology. Jim was an outstanding middle distance runner at both Scobey High School and EMC (Eastern Montana College) And he’s too modest to talk about. His above average aerobic capacity, and passion for fitness, carried over into the next phase of exercise, bicycling. He found more smiles-per-miles on a bike!
1970…ish, and backing up a bit. After being drafted into the Armed Forces, Jim was stationed in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma as an analyst, and instead of running in the constant fog of high-humidity, he started bicycling around the base. He discovered a nearby nature preserve (Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge) with mostly animal traffic on the paved roads. It was perfect for daily rides after working his Army day job. He would cycle through the nature preserve, and up a twisty-climb to the Mt. Scott Observation Area on a regular basis. Yes, riding the bike gave a self-induced breeze to cool the savage humidi-heat. While there, he found his first bike shop experience was with a recently purchased shop in Lawton, OK., Just south of the Army base. A Staff-Sergeant that bought it, had great business knowledge, but knew little about bicycles. Jim became his mechanic, and in return, learned how to run a business way beyond just fixing a flat tire.
Jim’s first bicycle was bought mail order through Sears Catalog while at Scobey High School. His first quality bike was bought on leave in the army, and purchased at the Rose Park Cyclery in Billings, which is now Juro’s Pharmacy. It was a Gitane.
1973-1974 Jim was the solo employee for a year, and then in 1974 he hired his first of many employees, Joe Bednarek. The bike brand that started the Spoke Shop wheels in motion was Peugeot, a French company that was started by Armand Peugeot in 1882. They turned their water mills profit into steelworks, which made knives, forks, and quickly into bicycles. The first bicycle Peugeot made was a penny-farthing, or “High Wheeler” that is part of the first Spoke Shop logo and and can be seen on the front of the current building. During World War 1, Peugeot built nearly 63,000 bicycles per year.
1975 – Jim buys out partner, and moves Spoke Shop into current location on 1910 Broadwater.
The Spoke Shop strikes out on its own two wheels, and moves into a former Texaco gas station that was closed down. Located on the busy corner of Broadwater & 19th St. West. The move was on a Sunday, and the garage doors opened for business Monday am.
The timing of the move was a challenge right from the get-go. The city had just closed Broadwater from 15th street to 24th st West and all the intersecting streets, north and south, for road work. This was done in May, right as the bicycling season was hitting full stride for the summer months. In bike shops, it’s time of the season to make the bulk of your living! There wasn’t any sidewalks to circumvent the road construction, and bikes lanes were a foreign language. The City planning process, at that time, did not include alternative transportation. Much has changed!
Despite the challenges of the road construction, the city agreed to move barricades that allowed customers access to the shop. Incredibly, business was still up 15% from the previous year. People found a way to get a bike!
1976 – Big order of 150 Peugeot bicycles arrived!
Since there was no room for all those bikes at the new shop, Jim had to store them at home in his basement. Along with Peugeot, the Spoke Shop also carried Windsor Bicycles as well. It was time for the former Texaco Station to be fitted for a bicycle shop. The garage door on the left rolled-up to allow the summer breeze in for the mechanics, and behind the right door, was a barn-door that swing open for the storage area.
Jim’s trademark VW bus, which he still owns today.
1976 1/2 – The Spoke Shop starts carrying Cross Country Ski Equipment.
The bike business goes fairly flat once October hits, and instead of trying to sell pumpkins, and Christmas trees, Jim takes a leap into cross country skiing, or in the original Norse language, “sticks of wood.” This helped keep the bike shop busy and diverse. Montana had excellent snow years that helped keep the sticks of wood very popular. The Spoke Shop also used their mechanical skills to service skis, with ski, and glide wax application. The sport took off in the 1980’s, and is still one of the best aerobic, and calorie burning exercises available.
Jim’s first employee’s at the new location included Louis McComas, (Jim) and Chris Nurre.
All three of these guys can really ride, race, and wrench on bikes. Louis still works in the bike industry in Billings, and Chris ran his own shop in the Heights for years, and also started the Fit-Kit business out of his shop. Fit-Kit was one of the first bike fitting systems developed to make sure the right size bike was sold to the unique measurements of the individual biker. The Fit-Kit tools are still used today.
1978 Jim brings Trek Bicycles into the lineup. Trek started the company in 1976 in a red barn located in Waterloo, Wisconsin.
Initially the bikes came as a kit. The Frames where separate, and the components, and pieces-parts were all separate... ala carte. Reynolds 531 Steel was one of the most popular metals used for the hand-built framesets.
1980 – After four years of continued growth, the shop really needed to expand!
The new addition to the south, doubled the available square footage, and also added a much needed basement to store gear, parts, and inventory.
Along with the new expansion, a new look was developed for graphics, and outdoor signs. Bruce Larson was the designer for the logo, signs, and indoor displays as well. The original rock exterior was replaced with wood siding and a service door was added. Bike service door that is. The original logo incorporates the UCI colors as part of the design. UCI is the Union
Cycliste International. Founded in 1900, in Paris (France), the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is the worldwide governing body for cycling. It develops and oversees cycling in all its forms and for all people, as a competitive sport, a healthy leisure activity and a sustainable means of transport, but also as a way to have fun.
1983 - The Canopy from the original Texaco garage, is enclosed.
Instead of filling the gas tanks, the enclosed overhang is now filled with bikes, gear, and clothing.
The Spoke again has growing pains, but creatively used space to expand the business.
What was going on in 1983 you ask?
The First Person to Receive an Artificial Heart Barney Clark dies after 112 days. Barney should have been riding a bike. Motorola introduced the first mobile phones, and they weighed as much as a brick. Michael Jackson sang Beat It, and Billie Jean. Oh, and a league of hair bands, including Dokken, Whitesnake, Poison, and Warrant. Sally Ride is the first woman in space aboard the Challenger; Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Tootsie, and Flashdance is playing in the theater. Microsoft releases Word, and a year later, Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, buys Australia.
Spoke shop carries Fuji bicycles
Fuji was named after Mount Fuji, and was a Japanese company started in 1899. In the 50’s, Sears & Roebuck, and Montgomery Wards’ bikes were rebranded Fuji bikes. The present writer’s first good bike was purchased from the Spoke Shop in the spring of 1982. It was a Fuji S12-S that was used for commuting to work on Lewis Avenue, before there were designated bike lanes. Fuji fell behind when Trek, Specialized and Giant hopped on the mountain bike scene in a big way.
1989 – The Bargain Barn was added to gain more space for used bikes, bike racks, and general overflow.
In the barn lived the used bikes, under the barn, assorted critters have taken up residence including: mice, rabbits, snakes, cats, chipmunks, and the occasional dog that chases all the above.
Mark Sevier, who started Dovetail Design, builds the first glass case displays.
1992 - The Laundromat and warehouse to the east on 19th st. West
The building was at one time, a drug store, dance studio, and warehouse for McCall Pools. Jim Corning, Steve Corning’s father was the original owner. It is now Bogart’ Laundromat, and Bike Fit Studio, and Warehouse. Jim was there when the the Big Sky State Games where started. He also was one of Trek’s “Top 100 dealer’s in the US,” twice, and a BDS magazine top 100 as well.
In 2006 Parker Ford painted the iconic mural on the east side of the warehouse.
The Spoke Shop became one of the premier bike shops in the Northwest with one of the largest trade areas in the United States, over 500,000 people from Montana, Northern Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and even as-far-as Colorado.
Brands included: Trek, Specialized, Salsa, and Electra. Jim also had hundreds of employees work for him. Many went on to become very successful in their fields of Interest.
|Dan Barry was a mere teenager when Jim brought him into the bike business. He worked for Jim than moved to Helena and bought Great Divide Cyclery. Dean initially partnered with Dan, than sold him his half of the business. Dan is thriving in downtown Helena with Specialized and Santa Cruz bicycles. He has always been one of the best mountain and road racers in the state.|
2011 – Jim wasn’t looking to sell, but…
after 38 years of ownership, why not! The new owner’s are Dean & Callie Cromwell, former owner’s of The Chalet Market for 36 years, and almost the same amount time Jim owned the bike shop. They officially took over the business May 7th of 2011. Both of them are avid bikers, and have taken the Spoke Shop to a new level, with thanks to Jim for a successful bike shop to build on.
2018 – Dean extends the service area
This addition doubled the main level service area, and added 4 works stations. The new area dramatically helps increase service requests, and bike repair efficiency. Recent bike riding laundry has been known to hang on the outside railing, and dry in the southern exposure. Skylights were added as well to enhance lighting.
2018 - Community Involvement is a big part of the
The new slogan is added to the logo: “Bikes • Gear • Community.” Dean, with the help of Pedal United, a local IMBA chapter, starts work and development of trails in the Acton Recreation Area, a thirty-five hundred acre piece of land that is managed by the BLM. After some key grants, and much trail design by Jason Hudson, a superb mountain bike trail system has been developed with improved, bathroom, camping and parking facilities. Dean and Jason received awards, and recognition from the BLM, plus John Burke, CEO of Trek Bicycles, for bicycle advocacy and trail development.
Sarah Cromwell, Dean’s daughter, is the longest running Spoke Shop employee. She started in the bike business with Jim, and is the Service Manager for Dean.2019 - After attending a Trek World conference,
NICA team is started in Billings.
NICA is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association with the singular goal to get more kids on bikes. It also the fastest growing high school sport in the nation. After hearing about the success of NICA in the United States, Spoke Shop employee Rob Johnson, and local avid cyclists, started a team in 2019 with 25 kids, and 20 coaches signed-up. The second year, 2020, 65 kids, and 30 coaches signed up! We took advantage of all the local trails systems, and because Covid-19 shut the racing season down, we had an end-of-year relay race at the Billings Motorcycle Club grounds. We also invited the newly formed Cody team to join us.
Bike Park in Billings becomes a reality!
Dean hanging with Mike Sinyard, President of Specialized Bicycles.
The new Blue Creek Bike Park is open. The track was Jason Hudson’s design and Pedal United helped to make this finally happen in Billings. It has two pump tracks one for beginners/kids, one for more advanced riders along with a small trail loop with technical features throughout the trail (and even more goodies). There’s a “Kids Corral pump track. It’s 100% complete and set up for kids on strider bikes, or just ready to take it to the next level beyond jumping off curbs. Thanks to the YRPA for donating the land to make this happen!
2020 – The year to forget, and to remember!
That year was probably the most memorable of a lifetime. Covid-19, a coronavirus that attacked the respiratory system, spread rapidly through the entire planet. The source of the virus was linked to a bat in Wuhan, China but how it jumped to humans is still unknown. It created a panic run on groceries, and especially toilet paper. Businesses, schools, and sporting events where shut down. The presidential race was on, and it was a nasty battle with riots, social media name calling, and violence that extended to protestors storming the capitol building in D.C.
In spite of Covid, the Bicycle business boomed! Luckily, bike shops were considered an “essential business.” Much like the bicycle boom of 1973, it started around March of 2020. Bikes where flying off the hooks at the Spoke Shop as never before in forty-seven years of business. E-Bikes led the charge, along with anything that had wheels, chains, and spokes. Bicycle sales was up 30-40% world wide, and coupled with a long bicycle season in Montana, it was crazy. Community night rides went into the winter month’s and the new year for the first time ever.
People were out riding their bikes like never before. We did’nt just sell them a bike - we sold them an experience. Riding a new bike is a life changing event, and will continue to be as-long-as there’s air in the tires, community to ride with, and paths to journey upon.
The Spoke Shop thanks you the customer for forty-eight years of business. We would not be here if wasn’t for you.