OUR FAVORITE BIKE SHOP IN AMERICA
Your favorite hotel in New York. Your go-to choice for a bottle of Pinot. The climb you love most. Calling them the best -- isn’t that akin to confrontation? ‘Dude, how can you think anything’s better than the Galibier?!?’ Best -- the fact that it’s the most overused word in modern media hasn’t made it lose its sting for those who choose to disagree.
But waxing affectionate -- admitting you had the chills as you approached the first switchback on Alpe d’Huez -- that’s a different deal. You can’t argue over sentimentality.
So that’s what we have here: It’s not my vote for the best bike shop in America. Rather, it’s an appreciation for the one that electrifies me most. Above Category in Mill Valley, CA -- of all the bike shops I’ve ever visited, it’s the one I most want to spend money with, hang out in, and refer people to.
Why? What makes Above Category so intoxicating? There’s no single specific thing, but perhaps it’s the totality of several details so finely tended to --
Selection -- There is very little, as befits a shop equal in size to a one-car garage. The proprietor of Above Category, Chad Nordwall, refines a world of options down to a narrow band of intensely desirable choices. Bikes? He has exactly one of every model Pegoretti in stock. He has one Pinarello Dogma FPX painted Italian Flag-like Red/White/Green. He has one Pinarello Prince Carbon. You’ll see one or two Parlees, and maybe one Moots. That’s it. All of your options -- they’re there for the marveling. Each stands alone with ample breathing room, as befits their intrinsic craftsmanship. The clothing selection is equally well-honed -- Assos and Giordana hang in meticulous semi-dishevelment reminiscent of a Soho boutique. Jewel-like bits from Campagnolo, Shimano, and Zero Gravity are arrayed on clutter-free shelves. Above Category makes a bold statement: Variety appeals most to those whose know the least. (Think about it, it’s phenomenon that holds true for almost anything of a transactional nature: Retail, restaraunts, or mutual funds). For those whose heads buzz with passion and knowledge -- we’ll coin a word and name them passionistas -- scant choice is all that’s needed. For a passionista cyclist, Above Category hardly lacks in breadth or depth.
Location -- Mill Valley exists in (surprise!) a valley at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais. Roadies with little riding experience in the Bay Area might turn their noses up at Mt. Tam for the fact that it’s where Gary Fisher
discovered the meaning of 4:20 purportedly invented the mountain bike. But don’t let that piece of off-road trivia turn you off -- it’s a lovely village nestled into the bottom of the mountain. There’s no shortage of inviting restaurants and shops. The ~40min climb to the top of Mt. Tam is remarkable for the corkscrew zaniness of the road, for its majestic trees, and for the adventuresome architecture of the houses perched on the hillsides. Unlike the concrete jungle of San Francisco (located a mere 4mi away), nature still rules supreme in Mill Valley, and there’s a tangible calm to the town thanks to it. This balance of the urbane with the unspoiled gives it a timeless, Euro vibe you might otherwise only detect in a 1,000 year old hamlet nestled in the Tyrolian Alps.
Hours of Operation -- Speaking of Euro, is anything more Euro than the split shift? Above Category is open in the morning for about 2 hours, then in the late afternoon/early evening for about 4 hours. Need a repair (or a new bike) between 9am-3pm? Tough luck. Chad is out training, sipping on his espresso in the square, or otherwise celebrating life outside of the workplace -- a tendency long ago mastered by the Italians and the Spanish, but lost in concept to virtually all Americans.
Class -- Nearly every one-man bike operation we know is run by a godawful prima donna. The reason these folks work alone is that everyone else detests them. Not the case with Chad. He’ll warmly greet you; he’ll be happy to listen to that’s day’s training war story; and with ample skill he’ll wrench on your bike, size you for a new bike, or tell you if you’ll be happier in a size Medium or Large Assos jersey. His engaging personality is an attraction equal to the décor and the choice inventory.
The last time I visited Above Category I was 3.5 hours into a 5 hour training ride. It was pissing rain, it was chilly-getting-chillier, and being a Southern lad unaccustomed to the capricious bent of Bay Area weather, I was woefully underdressed. In order to get back to the starting point of my ride, I had to climb over the mountain, then descend the other side. I was ready to chew off my fingers so their cold sizzle would finally leave my body. I stopped in the shop and Chad could see I was a mess. He gave me a pair of thermal gloves without hesitation. Did I have any money on me? No. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘Just send me a pair out of your inventory when you get home.’
Do we compete for customers with Chad on a regular basis? Of course. But did he have any concern at that moment other than my comfort? No. Like rivals in a breakaway sharing a Clif Bar -- he never considered not helping in my time of need. Pure class. Humans like Chad are rare, and shops like Above Category are equally so. Next time you’re in San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and dump your wife in Sausalito’s maze of tschochke boutiques and zip up to see Above Category. You’ll be dazzled.
MEDIA CRITICISM CENTRAL – AN UPDATE
Faithful readers of the Competitive Cyclist What’s New section will recall that we recently dished some pretty hard dirt on two easy targets: cycling.tv and cyclingnews.com. We’d like to follow up on our comments with some recent developments:
Moments before we were about to begrudgingly pay cycling.tv their ~$50 for live Giro coverage, a good customer dropped us an email that saved us our money and gave us great cheer: He introduced us to the spectacular website cyclingfans.com. The nice folks who run that site are clearly bike race fans no less rabid than us. But they distinguish themselves in one golden way: They scour the internet in an attempt to find free live feeds of every bike race of consequence. To wit: In May they’ve linked to upwards of 8 live feeds of the Giro. Yes, most of the commentary is in languages other than English, but can anyone understand Brian Smith on cycling.tv anyways? I understand NRK’s Norwegian commentators better, I think, than Brian’s slurred Scottish brogue. And from a streaming video standpoint, cyclingfans’ feeds are virtually without chop or hesitation. It’s proof that the strong will always survive. Cyclingfans will satisfy our urge for live coverage, and it will prove that the frustrated subscribers of cycling.tv have every reason to be pissed: NRK, RAI, and EuroSport all provide smoothly streaming coverage. Why can’t cycling.tv? If you’re geeks like us you’ll probably study the traffic reports on Alexa.com. We’ll bet that you’ll see cycling.tv daily pageviews plummet in inverse proportion to cyclingfans.com’s skyrocketing traffic. It’ll be justice at its finest. Check it out. You’ll dig what you find.
And regarding cyclingnews.com -- some of you rightly accused us of hypocrisy for our rant about the irredeemably obnoxious 300×250 ad above the race results there, and then shortly thereafter seeing Competitive Cyclist ads in that very position. Were we saying one thing, but doing another? Ummmm, yes. And we did it for one reason: To test the performance of that ad position. In other words, we wanted to assess whether such a prominent position for our ads improve our clickthrough rates and revenue dollars in comparison to other ad positions on cyclingnews. We’re avowed capitalists here, so if the performance of that position was killer, we’d learn to live with our hypocrisy. And what did we learn? It was a big surprise: Its performance sucked! Clickthrough % was sub-par, and our revenue dollars from it were weak. Cyclingnews as a whole is a strong place for us as an advertiser, but that position is a loser. It’s as though readers of the site are voting with their clicks. Cyclingnews.com: I told you at lunch a few weeks ago over barbeque, and I’m telling you again now. PLEASE OH PLEASE eliminate that ad position. It’s horrible as a reader, and we now possess the data to prove that it’s a loser for advertisers. Please listen, please?!?
GET SOME CAMPY AT A BARGAIN
In 2008 we made the transition in our demo program from Campagnolo to SRAM. No, it’s not because we think SRAM is qualitatively better than Campy. Rather, we understood that most of our customers had some curiosity about the form and function of the new SRAM Red component group, so we decided to use our demo fleet as a means for folks to give Red a good test. This changeover means one simple thing: We have a mess of lightly used, lovingly-maintained Campagnolo Chorus componentry we’re keen to sell.
Since our demo fleet is our most important sales tool, these components were lavished with care. In most cases, the wear and tear is hardly visible and these components will be just one small step away from seeming new. We have both Chorus and Centaur groups available, and we’re selling them at upwards of a 40% savings over the equivalent new components -- even though it’s like new AND for the fact that your cassette and chain in these groups will in fact be new-in-the-box. Click here to read more…