Image: Cycling cafe
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Cyclist Diane Meyers talks about her new wheel set March 5 with John Lehman, head mechanic at R+E Cycles in Seattle. Behind them, Amber Madison runs the espresso machine in the bike shop's cafe, Pedal-a-Latte.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/10/2011 1:09:18 PM ET 2011-03-10T18:09:18

At bicycle cafés, travelers can stop for coffee, grab a bite to eat and get air in their tires or even a tune up, all at the same time. These cafés are proliferating across the country, enhancing the “in the saddle” experience for everyone from urban riders and hard-core cyclists to weekend warriors and tourists.

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“In cycling culture, there is a strong connection to coffee,” said Gene Oberpriller, partner, One On One Bicycle Studio in Minneapolis. “We’re the engine for the bike,” explained the former mountain bike racer, bike messenger and industry spokesman, whose café, opened in 2003 in the city’s warehouse district, he says is known for its quality bikes and service, hearty soup, low key vibe, and of course, great coffee.

“It’s very common to meet at a café before a ride to have coffee or espresso to get the adrenaline going,” Oberpriller said. Bike shops have long provided coffee, but “cycling specialty cafés are relatively new.”

Growing trend
Bike cafés are cropping up in biking-friendly cities like Portland, San Francisco and Boston, as well as in surprising places like Louisville and Pittsburgh.

The cafés are part of the emerging bicycle culture sweeping many U.S. cities, which has spawned growing numbers of bike paths and lanes, public-private bike-sharing programs and better laws, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

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Some cafés have names that make statements, like “Cars-R-Coffins” (in Minneapolis). Some names are fun, like “look mum no hands!” (in London), and the Uphill Grind Bicycle and Coffee (near Madison, Wis.).

Christopher Berge, an amateur bike racer and long-time restaurant owner, is planning a “bike-in bike-out” restaurant along a Madison, Wis., bike path, that will be accessible only by bike or on foot. Local and sustainable food — delivered by bike — will be served, he said.

Image: Cycling cafe
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Fragments of a chain ring decorate the menu at the Pedal-a-Latte cafe inside R+E Cycles in Seattle.

Most bike cafés sell, repair or rent bicycles; others only have bike pumps or simply reflect a bike-themed ambience. Some are high-end, or quaint with funky, mismatched furniture. Some hang works from local artists, are known for their microbrews, and for their selection of take-as-you-wish old paperbacks. Many, predictably, sell state-of-the-art biking gear and designer biking clothing. All, it seems, serve excellent coffee.

“They cater to us and our needs and our interests, so we like to hang out there,” said Kristin Tieche, a San Francisco-based freelance film editor and frequent bike café patron. Local favorites include Mojo Bicycle Café, where she enjoys the outside dining areas and often grabs a coffee before bike commuting to work.

Another San Francisco haunt is the Velo Rouge Cafe, named for a big red bicycle that hangs above the awning. “It’s on a beautiful bike path through some of the most scenic areas,” beginning in Golden Gate Park and leading to Marin County, said Tieche, who founded the bicycle blog “Vélo Vogue.” “Most people who ride, all around the world, want to stop and take a break. To me, it’s just so natural,” she said.

In the European tradition
American bike cafés are thought to be inspired by Europe’s strong biking and café cultures.

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That was the case for the recently opened café at the Dutch Bike Co. in Seattle. “We wanted a community space, where people could gather for a coffee before work or for a glass of wine after work,” said Julie Kloss, co-owner. The shop specializes in Dutch and other city bikes that are comfortable and can be ridden with regular clothing. The overall concept “is to remind people of the joy of biking,” she said.” Kloss has plans to open a café in their Chicago shop in the future.

“The traditional café where people congregate has always been part of the European cycling scene,” since the late 1860s in France when cycling began as a social or club-oriented sport, said David V. Herlihy, author of “The Lost Cyclist” ( 2010) and “Bicycle: The History” (2004).

There is some historical precedence in Europe for bicycle-themed cafes, notably the landmark café Le Vélocipède, “that has been in continuous operation since 1882, when it was the headquarters of Parisian bicycle club.” And in the U.K., bicycle-themed pubs and tea-houses are well established, Herlihy said. But combining a traditional café with a retail bike shop for the most part seems to be distinctly American, he said. “We have a tendency to de-compartmentalize.”

Sedona beginnings
No one knows for certain, but Sedona Bike & Bean, across the street from a major trailhead in Sedona, Ariz., is thought by many biking aficionados to be the first U.S. shop to formally merge cycling and coffee. Founded in the mid-1990s, the original owner “saw the connection between biking and coffee and just went ahead and did it,” said Tony Fanelli, the manager.

Sedona Bike & Bean prides itself on its excellent mechanics and sales staff of “nice guys,” a draw for local clientele as well as many professional mountain bikers. “It’s nice to be that kind of destination location,” Fanelli said.

The shop was also created in response to what the founder perceived as an unfriendly atmosphere that prevailed in many retail bike shops. “He didn’t feel he was greeted as well as he would have liked,” Fanelli said. “He thought it could be done differently.”

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George Gill, president of RentaBikeNow, a rental company that uses a network of local bike shops, said the bike café trend “is probably good for the cycling industry” because it combats the aloof “clubhouse” feeling that some bike shops project. “Perhaps the more open aura of bike cafes “will break down the doors,” he said, “and encourage more people to ‘Come in.’ ”

Welcoming cyclists
But Chip Baker of Needham, Mass., a freelance writer who specializes in social media, said traditional coffee shops, too, have often been unwelcoming. “We come in with our helmets on, wearing tight Lycra pants, and with cleats that sound like high heels, and we’re all sweaty and gross,” he said. As a result, some coffee shop owners view cyclists “like these weird alien space creatures.”

Richard Masoner, a software engineer who works in the Silicon Valley, and a cycling enthusiast who writes the blog Cyclelicious, said some coffee shops have long welcomed bikers by making bike racks readily available and displaying big “cyclists come in” signs. But the trend to have specialty bike cafés makes sense. Food and coffee are a draw, and they create a nice place to hang out, socialize, unwind after long rides and watch bike races.

Some owners say multiuse spaces are thought to be good for business, especially in slow winter months when traditional bike retail sales are slow.

Rob Vandermark, founder of Ride Studio Café in Lexington, Mass., which sells high-end custom-built bikes (starting at $4,000) as well as city bikes (starting at $400), said it’s challenging to excel at both coffee and well-crafted bikes. “I think it is a difficult combination to make work.”

But so far, he said, the coffee alone has been so successful that about 50 percent of sales are from non-cyclists. The studio also hosts special events, book signings and bike-themed art shows, such as a recent sculpture exhibit of robots made from bike parts. Bike-centric food will be featured, too, like pre-ride “fuel-up” sweet and savory toasts, made with maple butter and organic jam, or with local cheeses and freshly made bread.

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For Baker, now a regular at the Ride Studio Café, the efforts are appreciated. “It’s really unique on so many levels. It’s totally integrated into the biking culture.” And most of all, he said, “it’s very welcoming. It’s been this real hub.”

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