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Are Bike Shops Chicago's New Coffee Shops?

 Photos: Tori Telfer
Photos: Tori Telfer

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After a leisurely Saturday brunch, you stroll into a sunny storefront that smells like doughnuts. As you hunker down on the nearest squishy sofa, the barista asks what you'd like to drink. An artfully foamed cortado, perhaps? You're about to say yes, but just then, the owner appears on your other side and insists that you have a glass of free wine instead. She flings open the mini-fridge and cracks open a cold bottle of white and the two of you chat about Saturdays, life, and sweat-wicking socks until someone from the back calls out, "Dude, your bike is ready!"

Welcome to the new Chicago bike scene. All across the city, a different type of bike shop is springing up—one that's specialized enough to keep the craziest of racing fiends happy, but small enough that the owners know your name, you'll probably get a cup of coffee while you wait, and you'll never feel like you don't know enough about the Kuat NV 2-Bike Hitch Rack to be a "real biker."

As Chicago becomes an increasingly bike-friendly city, the definition of "biker" is changing, broadening, and most definitely not just for super-athletes anymore. The new Chicago bike shop serves everyone, including the guy who occasionally commutes to work; the waitress who'd rather not sit around on a bus; and the freelancer who deducts her Divvy membership from her taxes. Call it the democratization of biking.

"The one thing I didn't like about triathlons was going into bike stores and feeling really intimidated," says Gillian Fealy, founder of Live Grit in the West Loop. "I'd go in and feel like I didn't belong there, like I wasn't "serious" enough. I wanted a place were people who loved doing endurance sports—but weren't super intense about them—could hang out and meet people. One of Live Grit's tag lines quickly became, 'Some days I do it for the ride, some days I do it for the beer.'"

And beer there is. Live Grit prides themselves on offering free beer, wine, and coffee to anyone who wanders in, though according to Gillian, people are often too shy to drink. "We're trying to get people to actually take us on our offer—we're not kidding! We have a keg all the time!" says Gillian. "People don't believe us, so we've put signs all around the shop." (And Live Grit isn't the only bike store to pair booze and biking (though not at the same time, please); brand-new Ancien Cycles in River West is actually opening an adjoined beer garden this summer.)

Live Grit also hosts group rides on Sundays, and has set aside a table in the front of their store for workshops, events, and chatting about cycling—or anything, really. "People are starting to connect over different things [besides cycling] here, and it's been really cool," says Gillian. "Other stores tend to target the elite, competitive groups, so they're missing out on this huge group of people. It's not about your racing time, it's not about how fancy your bike is, it's just about getting out and doing it."

Want to hang out with like-minded ladies and skip the slightly-too-intense biker dudes altogether? Head over to BFF Bikes in Bucktown, where you'll find a comfy couch, water bottles, and plenty of brightly-colored female-centric gear. The owners, Vanessa Buccella and Annie Byrne, met when Vanessa posted a call for fellow female bikers in an online bike forum. Soon enough, a dream bloomed from their friendship: they wanted to open Chicago's only bike shop geared solely toward women. (The last one, Outspoken, was around in the 90s, but it's been closed for years.) BFF Bikes opened in March 2014, and while you won't exactly find a No Boys Allowed sign on the door, they're definitely here for the ladies. "Women are underserved at bike shops," says Vanessa. "There's a dearth of clothing, the employees are usually guys, you can't find what you need, and you feel awkward asking questions."

BFF Bikes is focused on gear, not coffee, but the caffeinated stuff is absolutely a strong part of the BFF experience. "Obviously, a coffee's a big part of this," Vanessa told me, and their communal bike rides end at either brunch or at a coffee shop on the north side of Chicago. Make sense: if I were biking 25 miles to Wilmette, I'd be chugging lattes, too.

And speaking of foamed milk, if you need coffee before you can even think about tuning up your spokes, head over to Heritage General Store in Lakeview, where excellent coffee is an integral part of the bike store experience. A neophyte customer might suppose they were hanging out in a coffee shop decorated with bike parts; a hardcore biker might insist that Heritage is a bike store that just happens to serve incredible Americanos. Which one is it?

Neither/either, and that's the point. Every element of the Heritage brand strives for the same sort of careful, artisanal aesthetic, and owner Mike Salvatore doesn't feel the need to separate bikes from coffee. "They're both a universal language," he says. If Live Grit and BFF Bikes are there to serve non-biker bikers, Heritage doesn't mind attracting people who don't bike, period. When I stopped by, I saw plenty of hip young things working on their laptops and sucking down cortados with nary a bike lock in sight.

Why coffee, anyway? "No matter where you go in the world, you'll be able to access a bike and coffee," says Mike. "The cultures have come up together. In both worlds, you can be such a geek, such a pro, and know everything about coffee/bikes—but there's also the idea that it's just coffee. It's just a bike. You just want to ride it, you just want to drink it, you just want it to be part of your life."

But you might as well check out the bikes while you're at it, because they're gorgeous. "We hand make our own bikes," says Mike. "We hand cut the steel, we design them, we make them all in Chicago. [The coffee shop] is just part of the larger picture." And this larger picture now extends down the street to Heritage Littles, where your kids can get a custom make bike and/or hang out at the milk and cookies bar, complete with tiny stools. (I know, I know!)

We've got the City of Chicago to thank for much of this blossoming, ultra-accessible bike culture. Both Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel have pushed for an increased number of protected and/or buffered bike lanes; Divvy's bike-sharing program is a smashing success; new bike racks and corrals are springing up all over the city; and the cycling shops are following, run by both indie and established owners. Cult favorite Timbuk2, which began in San Francisco 25 years ago, just opened up a storefront in Bucktown, where they sell their legendary messenger bags as well as a "San Francisco-inspired parklet" for relaxing, wifi-ing, and rehydrating. They're also rolling out a bike share program in June.

"Chicago once had a small number of general bike shops, but we are now seeing the growth of specialized businesses," says Siobhan Clancy, store manager at Timbuk2 Chicago. "Cyclists seem to understand each other, and riding down Milwaukee in huge commuter pelotons gives you a powerful feeling." Maybe that buzz is just from community and endorphins, but I'm guessing it has something to do with all that coffee, too.
· BFF Bikes [Racked Chicago]
· Live Grit [Racked Chicago]