We recently moved to Grand Rapids from the north side of Indianapolis.. I want to dedicate today’s post to comparing Indianapolis, where I flipped bikes for 4 years, to Grand Rapids, where I’ve been working for one year.
Although we’ve just moved here, I’ve been buying bikes in GR for many years. My in-laws live here, so I’ve had exposure to this market. I’ve often remarked to friends that there is a glut of used bikes in the Grand Rapids area, and that you can get great road bike projects here for $20-$40. This has changed a bit, or at least my perception of it has changed since moving here. There are great deals, but now it seems that there are more “bike guys” flipping bikes, and working out of their garages as I do. That means that there are more people scooping up the $20 bikes from their original owners, auctions and thrift stores, and selling them on Craigslist.
I’ve been working on my own bikes and bikes for friends for 30 years. 6 years ago, I found a Nishiki Olympic and a Schwinn Varsity at the Goodwill near my house in Fishers, IN. I took them home and cleaned them up. They sold for around $120 each. I was off! And I mean obsessed. Soon I had 20 bikes in my garage. They reproduced like ferrel cats. I moved the lawnmower and other yard tools to the shed. The drum set and PA system for jamming with the neighbors were out. Basically, in 2 years, our two-car garage was all for bikes. In May of 2016, I had close to 90 bikes.
The work I did on those first two bikes improved the riding, shifting and braking of those bikes, and netted me a $180 profit, but I didn’t replace the tires, cables or bar tape. I didn’t clean the bikes thoroughly, and I certainly didn’t do a complete rebuild. But as time went on, my obsession took a turn towards craftsmanship, thoroughness, and a bit of OCD when it came to the appearance and handling of the bikes.
In 2012, I met an Italian guy named Gabe. It’s because Gabe is Italian that I can say that I learned my craft, in part, from an Italian bike mechanic. Otherwise, his Italian nationality is pure coincidence. Gabe has lots of bikes for sale on Craigslist, most of them high end Italian racing bikes. What I noticed immediately was that his bikes, be they Colnagos or Schwinns, looked brand new. The paint shone, the chrome beamed, and the aluminum reflected my jealous face. He shared his techniques with me, and was always excited to tell me stories of how he picked up this or that bike. I still cannot make a bike look as good as his, but meeting Gabe sparked the craftsman in me. His influence still inspires me to make everything look good together, make mechanical sense, and attract buyers that will pay for the time I’ve put in.
Gabe wasn’t the only guy doing the right thing with bikes in Indy. Greg (and his son or his dad) in Broadripple always had clean bikes with new tires and bar wrap. Sean in Elwood just loves to build up high-end vintage stuff, ride it around for a bit, and sell at a modest profit. Sean is the guy you go to to get a frame repainted or cable bosses welded on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him building his own frames one day. Kirill and Phil both have a ton of bikes (hundreds and hundreds), and their knowledge of bicycles is encyclopedic.
The 4 or so seasons that I flipped bikes in Indianapolis saw some of the same changes that I see here in Grand Rapids. There are now a lot more guys clamoring for the used bikes, and trying to sell them for a profit. They come and go. They get the “bug”, start collecting and selling, then disappear. Some hang on. Some get better. Some don’t. In Indianapolis, the “bike guys” who stuck around were the ones I’ve mentioned–the guys who knew their way around a bike, and made them look and ride like new again. There were enough of us around to drive the half-asses out of the market. We had BEAUTIFUL bikes! When customers went to Craigslist, there was a clear choice–good bikes and bad bikes.
I have not yet seen the same level of work among the “bike guys” of Grand Rapids. It rattles me when people toot their own bike horn, but I’m going to make an exception here, as I cannot ignore the elephant in the room. There are at least 5 sellers in this area who have a great volume of bikes. They might replace tires and bar wrap. But that’s it. One of them admitted to me that he does not bother with overhauling hubs, bottom brackets or headsets. Hubs, bottom brackets and headsets, by the way, are the bedrock of a well-performing bicycle!
There must be bike guys in the Grand Rapids are who are worthy. It’s a mathematical certainty. They might be the 2-bikes-a-year types who attract minimal attention. Or they might be selling on forums, Ebay or elsewhere. I want to meet those guys.