Featured Sponsor Q&A: Big Shark Bicycle Company

A Loop fixture since 1993, Big Shark Bicycle Company often tops the annual readers choice lists of “Best Bike Shop” among local publications like the Riverfront Times and St. Louis Magazine. Organized group rides, bike maintenance classes, industry certified and trained mechanics and fitters, educational clinics, bike and equipment rentals are just a sample of the breadth of services you can find at any of their 3 locations. And the accolades don’t stop at the local level. Cycling industry insiders have consistently recognized Big Shark as a Top 100 shop and they are among just a handful of shops that can claim a 5 yr streak on that list. In 2014, Big Shark was also named a top 50 multisport retailer by Slowtwitch and Triathlon Business International (TBI).  Far more than just a retailer, Big Shark fosters the love of cycling locally through the promotion and management of several events ranging from the weekly Tuesday Night Worlds criterium training series to the 4-day Gateway Cup races over Labor Day weekend which is now a date on both the NCC (National Criterium Calendar) and is the finale in the USA Crits Championship Series. In 2008, Big Shark came onboard as a club sponsor and it’s been a strong partnership ever since. For this q&a, we asked owner, Mike Weiss, about how and why he started the business, how expansion to West County (Big Shark West) and Downtown (Urban Shark) in 2012 were not originally in the long term plans, and how to stay relevant and successful in an ever-changing industry.

Tri Club: You opened Big Shark in 1993 shortly after college with an architecture degree in hand. You had worked part time in a different bike shop during college. What led you to open your own shop? Did you see a community that was perhaps underserved by the presence of a local bike shop?

Mike Weiss: At the risk of being evasive…when you’re young you don’t have the foresight to be afraid of failure…and you don’t have the resources to lose that much…so in some ways there wasn’t much to lose, so less risk. I think it’s important to know what you don’t want to do in life. I didn’t want to work in a corporate environment with a 9-5 grind. I liked people…and the technology, design and global nature of the sport is refreshing. There are cool people in the sport- as customers and up the supply chain.
We felt that being in the LOOP (our first store) was important- it’s a college town with no college bike shop… pedestrian friendly…it fit our culture. However now that St. Louis is more mature in the county- it made sense to expand….same is true with the Urban Shark project and the Downtown Bicycle Station. Our region needs cycling stores.
I did see the community as a bit underserved…there were brands that weren’t present in St. Louis when we opened and untapped neighborhoods. Now it’s probably a pretty saturated marketplace.

TC: What drew you into cycling? I understand that you played soccer while in college.

MW: Two ACL surgeries, two Achilles tendon repairs. Time to ride a bike. I borrowed my college roommates crappy Schwinn Woodlands and rode it to South County. I was convinced I was riding to the end of the earth. I was wrong. And I thought it was a high end bike, despite it being the wrong size and $250 retail. Suffice to say…I loved it.

TC: Take us back to the early days of Big Shark. What were they like? How many employees did you have? Was there a moment where you had your doubts whether the business would be successful or has it been a steady growth ever since opening day?

MW: I opened with two partners. One of whom was kind of punk rock and wasn’t into being super kind to certain customers and the other who simply wrote checks to himself and overwrote on the carbons. Not a great first year in business. I bought out the crabby partner in year one and then we “mediated” the guy who stole away from the company. It’s amazing we survived. My first “real” employee was Tim Kakouris, who is the manager of our West County Store. He was also my superior at the first bike store I worked at, the Richmond Heights Touring Cyclist. I had a few key employees in the first few years I am still in touch with- solid peeps.
I always have doubts…businesses don’t last forever. Many of the stores that we originally competed with are no longer around- it’s, in some way, natural. I’m not sure I want to be an 80 year old bike shop guy… we have had steady growth and have gone from 3 partners to 2 partners to myself and TK and then fast forward to the present- 60 employee’s+ in season.
Local business is important to a local sport- so we hope that we continue to grow.

TC: What was the first brand to sign on in a dealership agreement with Big Shark?

MW: When we first opened we sold a total “b” list of brands. Scott, Ironhorse, Barracuda, Fat City and some weird bohemian BMX brands- S&M, Morales, Standard, Hoffman. We opened during the mountain bike and BMX boom. The brands we have sold over time have been numerous….we at one point have sold Aegis, Specialized, GT, Schwinn, Waterford, Serotta, Colnago, De Rosa, etc… as brands have gone into and out of bankruptcy, into and out of other stores or into or out of style….As we were maturing as a company- some of our key brands were sold by other stores in our marketplace and we had to wait for those relationships to change before we could sink our teeth into some of the bigger, better brands.

TC: When did you move to the current Loop location?

MW: The current LOOP store is location #3 in the LOOP. We had an 800 sf. store then a 3200 sf. store and currently are in a 7000 sf building- since 2003.

TC: Assuming you keep a running tally of the number of bikes you have sold, what is that number up to now?

MW: Just guessing- it’s probably about 20,000+

TC: If you remember, what was the first ever bike you sold at Big Shark?

MW: Wow. I should know that. I can tell you that my college roommate came in and bought a pair of Pearl Izumi gloves when we first opened. I don’t think he had a bike…

TC: In 2012, Big Shark expanded to include the Urban and West stores. Shortly thereafter in 2013, Pedal Hard joined forces with the West store. That’s a lot of change occurring in a relatively short amount of time. Looking back, what were the most difficult challenges to getting those stores up and running and Pedal Hard integrated?

MW: All of our expansion in 2012 was unplanned. These were opportunities. Ghisallo sports had closed and we had a very short amount of time to make a decision to absorb their staff and re-open…and we did. We have a close relationship with TSG Realty’s Mike Staenberg. He’s one of the most philanthropic people in cycling locally- so doing business with him made sense. At the same time the Downtown St. Louis Partnership had a grant burning a hole in their pocket…and we optioned to help them with the transit station. Our biggest challenge was being undercapitalized and leveraging our lines of credit with very short notice.
Pedal Hard was a funny one. Kevin Livingston was a local/national legend…and I had grown up perceiving Jimmy Schneider as one of a very short list of “go to” coaches in cycling. They approached us, which is flattering, and it’s been a great relationship since.

TC: What sets Big Shark apart from the other local bike shops in our area?

MW: They say a high tide lifts all boats. I think we make that tide rise higher- which helps out everyone, including competing cycling stores. I don’t think we’re necessarily “incredibly” unique- we try to do a very good job and earn our business. We stress being kind to customers and improving ourselves internally. I don’t think that we need to thump our chest and habitually state that we’re “the best”- if you’re good you don’t really need to repeat it. Deeds not words.

TC: What is the state of bicycle-specialty retailing in 2015? Has it changed dramatically in the last few years?

MW: Retail has changed dramatically in almost every category of brick and mortar business. For better or for worse the internet has opened up the market place and changed the dynamic of how people interact and shop. For a local business we have been very focused on being relevant. Sponsoring clubs, hosting events, classes, advocacy and being a local resource is what makes us unique in our market. We simply try to boost cycling and multisport locally- it’s all we can do to create enthusiastic participants that help the “local” endurance market survive. We work hard at improving and evolving…because we want to and have to. I do not think you can simply open your front door and expect success.

TC: As a brick and mortar business, what remains your biggest challenge to staying competitive with the various internet-only retailers?

MW: Right now we can only align ourselves with the brands that support us and the local industry. For a sport to be strong there has to be a network locally that assists with a sports growth. We don’t want to see our competition locally fail- we’re all in this together. My sense is that if more customers realize that service, culture, events are all enhanced by a network of local dealers…then we’d have more success and be able to give back more.

TC: What is the single biggest misconception about bike shops and how does Big Shark dispel that misconception?

MW: Bike shops I think, when I hear people gripe, are often accused as being expensive. I do agree with this statement….because the equipment can be very pricey. But…the margins in bicycle retail are so small that there really isn’t too much fat. People work in this industry because it’s compelling and they are passionate. I am a very strong proponent of shopping locally because it does make a difference. I try to personally support local stores- Big River, Alpine Shop, etc.. over national alternatives. I haven’t been to any local races that were put on by Competitive Cyclist or Wiggle.
We try to give back a lot and add value to the region- we hope, in turn, we’re supported in store. Crossing fingers.

TC: What is/was your best-performing segment of the business in the last year?

MW: We see a lot of growth in “gateway categories”- the areas we support need a pipeline. I don’t care if you’re riding for transportation, socially, fitness gains, competition- we strive to have accessible products for the rookies… and we’re seeing strong growth in our entry level bikes across the board. This is a good sign that there will be a future of folks who get the bug. The caliber of basic bike you can get these days would have cost twice as much ten years ago.

TC: Where does the triathlon/multisport segment fit in terms of performance when compared to the rest of the segments in your business?

MW: Triathlon is a very broad group. If you look at the STLTRI Club meeting it’s everyone, every age, gender balanced. Nationally triathlon is somewhat flat according to our industry magazines- but our perception is that it is a vibrant community. We carry swim, wetsuit, dedicated triathlon equipment and accessories. There needs to be a critical mass of the right stuff to be credibly in the marketplace. We’ve been supporting triathlon since the early 90’s and have always seen the athlete and event as interesting and compelling. For Big Shark…Tri is very important. After all, we’re sharks and it’s an opportunity to eat a swimmer.

TC: Do you think the cycling industry markets effectively to women overall in the U.S. in particular? If not, what could be done better and what might a local bike shop like Big Shark do on a local level?

MW: I think that most sports don’t effectively attract or market to women well…and we’re part of that. All you need to do is go to a trade show and you’ll see how male dominated the industry is. The sad thing is that we also don’t see applicants. I don’t have a single female rep who calls on us consistently. We try to be very knowledgeable about the brands and products we sell- and present women specific or women designed options. Sometimes this can be a marketing exercise for some brands more so than substantive. We’d love to have more women interested in the sport- and triathlon has been a HUGE asset in attracting diversity.

TC: What role can a local bike shop play in supporting cycling advocacy in the local community?

MW: No one is going to step in and advocate for our sport, access, road access, venue access for us. We have to bootstrap it and do it ourselves. Local business hires, trains and spends locally- we’re invested in St. Louis. There are great advocacy partners locally as well as great leaders- the cycling business community is a piece of this puzzle.

TC: In your opinion, could we see a bike-share program be established in St. Louis in the next 2-4 yrs?

MW: I think that it can- but it will take money and leadership. We have a huge asset in Great Rivers Greenway.

TC: When was Big Shark Event Services created? When did you decide to expand from cycling-only events to include multisport, running, and obstacle course events?

MW: We gradually accumulated events we produce…and equipment. And now consult, rent and staff events for a variety of clients- from Chicago’s Mexican Independence Day Parade to Pedal the Cause to the opening of an American Girl Store. We were renting about 30K worth of crowd control barricade per year for several years and when we aggregated what we had spent we realized we needed to own the fencing, truss, signs, trucks, etc. Cycling and Multisport is seasonal- and we want to be active and to keep STL active year round…so runs, obstacle runs, fun runs, weird stuff…keeps us awake all year.

TC: How many events do you manage during the year? What is the smallest in terms of participant size, course footprint etc.? What is the biggest?

MW: We have put on a 5K with 35 people in it…all the way to the Gateway Cup. We’re involved with Cross Vegas (the UCI World Cup Cyclocross Race this fall). We execute and manage over 100 events per year. Often we’re doing multiple events each weekend.

TC: A new to the area cycling enthusiast asks you what are the top 5 must-do races/events in the St. Louis area. Your answers would be?

MW: I haven’t done them all…so I can’t really answer correctly… I think that supporting local promoters is in line with how I desire people to live…so I’m a fan of GO! And what they are doing…Big River’s events…Pedal the Cause. In truth- we put on so many events that I really want to try more that we don’t author. I regard the local highlights we produce as the Gateway Cup, Pedal the Cause, Vino Fondo, Newtown Triathlon and the Cupcake Run. Of the events we don’t produce- I’ve enjoyed the Burning at the Bluff MTB race, Dirty Kanza, and the Trailnet Ride the Rivers Century.

TC: Which is better in terms of durability and price ratio … the new super light aluminum or a carbon frame? Which is more durable – because you hear so often about carbon cracking, etc?

MW: Aluminum versus Carbon are simply different in enough ways that the choice between the two materials should be pretty contrasting. Regarding durability, I have seen failure and flaws with ALL frame materials- so there is no silver bullet. All metal and carbon can fatigue- and not always consistently. I’ve probably sold more metal bikes over 20+ years and have seen compromised frame in all materials- including titanium. I do not think that the materials are fragile. Any material can be made any way- so there can be some atrocious components and frames that are made out of carbon or titanium…to the same extent that there can be world class product. Design, source, quality control are all factors. It’s funny- we see a lot of knock off, incredibly cheap carbon products that people seem desperate to believe are identical to researched, designed, developed product. My typical comment is that not all blue pills are Viagra.

High end aluminum components and frames are almost the same weight as carbon- and can be very great value propositions. The Cannondale CAAD10 (As an example) is almost as light as most carbon frames and is very compliant due to tube shapes. The coolest thing about carbon is that you have additional ways you can design and position carbon directionally, you’re not constrained by the same limitations as metal- so you can truly micro-engineer aspects of a frame, or a tube, or a part of a tube…or it doesn’t have to be a tube… Our industry tends to love cliché’s that are easy to repeat- aluminum is harsh, titanium is light, carbon absorbs shock, etc.. These comments are always relative to a specific- so you really can’t speak generally about each material. I regard the state of the art right now as being carbon for most decisions…but this isn’t an absolute statement.

Carbon can be very tough and I do not see frames cracking with much frequency at all. I see more warranty with metal bikes- but more metal bikes are in the market place. At some point most equipment needs to be replaced. Life expectancy is something most folks don’t consider with bicycles. Most of the bikes we see become too obsolete or expensive to convert to new technology prior to frame failure. Carbon can be repaired fairly affordably so I don’t know if it is something I would stress over. Carbon shouldn’t be scored or hit laterally- so you should make an effort not to let it hit the edge of a brick wall, etc.. but the same is true with a derailleur or a metal frame.

TC: What’s the key to gaining speed on the bike? Getting in miles vs. speed work, etc? How important is strength training for becoming a better cyclist?

MW: The key to gaining speed on a bike is both endurance training and strength training. You have to be able to maintain an effort level AND you have to be able to push an upper limit of speed. Endurance training combined with speed work equals a better bike split. The magic sauce for this is a consistent program that builds endurance and power over time. All programs and coaches are going to gradually increase duration and intensity while allowing for recovery. There really aren’t short cuts for this. The biggest weird thing I often see if a goal of increased performance…coupled with a disassociation with miles per hour. To me it doesn’t matter what your heart rate is, what your watts are, etc… at the end of the day when you’re looking at your result- it’s measured in time and speed. How many watts you averaged or what your heart rate threshold was are all relevant ‘ingredients’ to how fast you go- or the boundaries within which you ride and train…but the clock and your MPH are what defines your result.

Most athletes IMHO do not recover slow enough or train hard enough- they’re really good in that 60-80% range. I don’t see a lot of cyclists or triathletes working on top end- usually it’s mid-end. Speed workouts in a pool or on a track should also exist on the bike.

I don’t think you need to do too much strength training in a gym to be a good cyclist. Most pro’s don’t spend that much time in a weight room. Most things can be accomplished on the bike- although you can certainly accomplish good things by working out in different ways. I don’t think it’s black and white or that there is one solution that works for everyone.

TC: What are road cyclists feelings about riding with triathletes on TT bikes? What should we be aware of when riding with them? What are some pointers/advice for this? Why do they despise us so?!

MW: Many triathletes aren’t super comfortable in a pack of experience road cyclists- and aero bars are not designed for reactive steering or braking…so I would not recommend being in an urban setting or big peloton on an aerobar. An observation is that many people are not comfortable riding in close proximity to other riders or don’t know how to regulate their speed on a group ride- and these are certainly things to work on. A good rule of thumb is to NOT be in the aero position on a group ride. You’re drafting and if you have a sudden, evasive something, you’ll slaughter the riders behind you. If you want to be in an aerobar you should be the last rider/last wheel in a group. Usually there is an effort change when you rotate in a pace line- but this does not have to be a speed increase. I think the tension, if it exists, on group rides between roadies and tri-peeps has to do with the sum of these things: don’t pull through too hard or gap, stay close and don’t sit in the wind to the outside of the pace line and stay off the aero bar. Then we can all get along. Another tip would be to rotate- don’t hog the front of a paceline- everyone gets a turn. If you look at an operational peloton in a race video you’ll see that each rider can stay in front for seconds, not minutes.

TC: Any advice on TT bike drafting? Obviously we can’t do this during a race, but often we do on training rides. I see too many close drafters and when out on the aero bars it doesn’t seem safe to me.

MW: I would only recommend drafting on an aero bar if there is no traffic and you’re comfortable with the group you’re riding with. Don’t “half wheel”- so don’t ever put yourself in a position in which your front wheel overlaps the wheel in front of you, if the rider in front abruptly changes their line they’ll take you out and you’ll need dental work.

TC: What are preventive measures cyclists should take when still timid on congested roads? What’s the best way to handle/respond to angry motorists?

MW: I always advocate for being far enough from the gutter to be safe AND to stay to the right to allow cars to pass. Militant cyclists tell you to take the lane…but that can piss off folks- so my judgement is to be visible, not give too much quarter- so prioritize yourself. Cyclists have a right to the road- so feeling like a second class user isn’t acceptable. The more folks who are comfortable, visible and confident the better. If a motorist is an issue- take their picture, get their plate- send it to MODOT- they’ll get a letter AND be on a list of known conflicts. I think it’s always best to diffuse situations and walk away if an encounter really goes off the tracks. When someone gives me the finger I tend to wave and smile.

Picking the roads that are amendable to training and the times of day that are lower traffic is certainly a good strategy- and if there are team members who aren’t sure where to ride- we’re happy to be a resource.

TC: What new to market innovation in cycling will be the most impactful in the coming years? Conversely, what current trend is most likely to have the least impact or be a faded memory down the road?

MW: I think that power measurement and data are going to improve cycling and just get more insane. I think disc brakes for road and triathlon are going through their “awkward’ growth spurt stage and will eventually be no big deal.

TC: Where is your favorite place to ride in a) the Greater St. Louis area b) the continental U.S. c) the world?

MW: I’m still looking for it. But…on the short list…Annecy, France. Just google it. We work with two companies who have really exposed us to a lot of amazing places to ride. The Cycling House and Duckstore Productions. Friends who share great ride experiences.
If anyone wants the map link to my favorite ride…happy to share…Columbia Illinois…

TC: If you could import one piece of cycling-friendly infrastructure from anywhere in the world to St. Louis, what would it be and why?

MW: Better intersections….and a desire to clean or sweep the shoulders of roads.

TC: SNL’s Landshark, Katy Perry’s Super Bowl Dancing Sharks, Sharknado, Jaws…What is your favorite pop-culture shark?

MW: I love the SNL shark. I don’t actually know too much about sharks or have a shark fetish.

TC: True or False? You can trace distant family ties to Harry Houdini.

MW: You mean Eric Weiss? Distant relative. I can’t tell you how distant…it’s family mythology.

Thank you to Mike for taking the time to answer our questions. Like Big Shark on Facebook. Follow Big Shark on Twitter. We ended the last q&a with a reminder to shop local and if you’ve made it this far, you know how important it is and what it means to our community.

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