By Rachel Wisinski | Photography by Holly Leitner
Whether you’re an avid bicyclist or you’ve recently been inspired to take up the sport, local specialty bike stores offer a personalized experience like nowhere else.
For those unsure where to start, Mike Bettinger, owner of Backyard Bikes and Ski offers years of expertise at his shop in LaGrange. Bettinger began renting and selling skis in 1982 and the business evolved to include another silent sport — biking. The shop also doubles as a general store and deli counter, serving up ice cream, beer, smoothies and other refreshments to help riders unwind after a long day on the trails.
Bettinger, 65, says he started riding mainly for exercise but quickly discovered more. “I like the freedom of it,” he says. “It makes you feel like a kid again.”
When mountain biking became popular in the 1980s, trails in the area were redesigned to handle more traffic, he says. Today, bike styles vary widely and choices are typically based on the type of terrain you plan to cover, but other factors also play a role. “If you want a bike to commute, you probably want something you can ride in all different types of weather,” Bettinger says.
That would be a hybrid bike, which combines a number of features from both mountain and traditional road bikes so they can withstand a variety of terrains. Tony Valenti, owner of Avant Bicycle and Café in Lake Geneva, recommends hybrid city models if you’re looking to commute often and flat-bar road bikes for beginners. Traditional road bikes provide efficiency and are suitable for more comfortable long-distance rides, adds Valenti.
Different surfaces — from asphalt to concrete, crushed limestone or railway trails to hills or mountains — also require a diverse set of features. Because of irregular surfaces, for example, the tires on mountain bikes typically are wider than a bike used for riding on rural roads.
Commuter bikes typically have fewer spinning gear shifts, which aren’t necessary if riding to school or the grocery store, Valenti says.
Then there are the more versatile bikes. According to Bettinger, in the past five years a new category has emerged — the gravel bike, which is designed like a road bike, but has more clearance for a variety of tire sizes, so you can use wider tires or narrow tires depending on the use or terrain.
From kids bikes to recumbents — which place the rider in a reclining, ergonomic position and generally are preferred by older adults — Valenti sees people of all ages enjoying bike riding.
Bettinger’s Backyard Bikes also serves a diverse clientele, from competitive riders to semiprofessionals to people who have never been on a mountain bike but want to give it a try.
That’s where local store owners can put their practices to use. “The best way to buy a bike nowadays is go to a local shop and allow that person’s expertise to lead you to the bike you need, because there’s a lot of different bikes out there now,” Bettinger says.
Looks can be deceiving at Avant Bicycle & Café, which opened last April in downtown Lake Geneva. The store doubles as a coffee shop that specializes in bike rentals, repairs and sales. Valenti constantly changes the store to fit customers’ needs, whether with new items and accessories or by changing artwork on the walls.
Valenti got his start in 2014 at a shop in Delavan before moving his venture to Lake Geneva. He introduced coffee to the business model, a niche he thought would play off the old-school bike shop vibe. The full coffee bar allows you to come in for a breather after a day of biking with the kids, or wait for your bike to be repaired while enjoying a comfortable, causal environment.
“We’ve created a place where the community can gather,” Valenti says. “People like to hang out at the store, whether they’re a bicyclist or not.”
As a competitive rider for the past eight years, Valenti says bicycling is his passion. “I came from riding in big cities and dealing with traffic. Lake Geneva is a great place to ride. [Riding] is kind of a gem waiting to be developed, waiting to be polished here.”
Avant Bicycle & Café has helped begin that transition by providing bike rentals, which Valenti says have taken off. The shop is upping its fleet of cruisers and, new this year, electric-assist bikes because the wait-list was booked solid last summer.
“Our goal is to promote more bicycle advocacy,” Valenti says. “If we’re helping put people on bicycles, we’re bringing more awareness to bikes in general. And whether we rent or sell, we’re hoping to grow a better and safer community for people to come to town and ride a bicycle. If there wasn’t a need, we wouldn’t exist, and clearly there’s a need because we’re doing OK.”
Another area bike shop that prides itself on its relationships with its customers is Mukwonago’s Won-A-Go Biking. In operation since 1975, the store services all bike makes and models. Owner Andy Fix took the reins in 1985 after working at the store for several years.
“We strive to create a pleasant experience, helping customers select the right biking equipment for their needs and wants,” Fix says.
ROAD TRIP READY
All three local shop owners begin their list of essentials with a helmet. Bettinger also suggests a small tool kit in the event a bike breaks down while you’re out on the road.
It’s all about safety, the store owners say. “Visibility is key nowadays, with all the distractions of drivers, so even if you’re riding in daylight, we sell lights so you can be seen,” Bettinger says. “We try to encourage that as an accessory.”
Much like with drivers, mirrors also can help riders see walkers or other riders behind them.
Additionally, Bettinger recommends proper clothing, such as gloves and padded shorts for longer rides, which provide comfort. With lengthy rides also comes the necessity of staying hydrated in the sun, so water bottles and snacks become essential.
Although it depends on how often or in what conditions a bike is ridden, Fix suggests getting a tune-up every year or two to maximize its lifespan. “Usually after a bike gets to be 15 to 20 years old, people get the desire for something new and shiny,” he says. Others still bring in their 20-year-old bikes for maintenance. “It makes it more reliable, and everything just works so much smoother and easier when it’s clean and lubricated properly,” Fix says.
A CHANGING INDUSTRY
Biking, like many other sports, has evolved in the last several years. Although coffee, service and repairs drive sales at Avant, bike accessories and rentals in the summer are also important. “Typically, we see a lot of people buying a new bell for their bike for the year, or a new color bar wrap for handlebars,” Valenti says.
New customers generally are hobbyists looking to take up biking for exercise. “Exercise is a benefit, if not the main goal in the back of their heads,” Fix says. “And it’s just a great way to get outside and see the countryside.”
Aside from health reasons, Fix says people invest in biking because of its inexpensiveness. It’s not like a car that needs to be refueled constantly, he says. And as with most other industries, improvements to the equipment and accessories have been made to affect performance, ease of riding, comfort and safety over the years.
As of 40 years ago, mountain bikes didn’t exist, Fix says, and now they’re one of the most popular sells.
Today, electric-assist bikes, which implement battery operation to take the leg work out of pedaling and allow a user to set the level of power assist, are taking off. In an area known for tourism, these types of bikes are popular because they allow riders to do and see more with less travel time.
According to Bettinger, Walworth County draws many for road and mountain biking experiences. “This is a tourist destination for those who love to bike, and a lot has to do with the proximity to Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee.”
Diverse terrain makes it ideal for biking, he adds, because it’s far enough away from those cities. “The roads used to be better, but it’s still pretty good compared to riding in other areas,” Bettinger says. “And it’s scenic … it’s a beautiful area.
Looking to connect with nature on your rides? Here are some of the most popular area bike trails.
JOHN MUIR TRAILS
WHAT: Six different mountain biking loops ranging from 1.25 miles to 12 miles; connects to Emma Carlin Trails via a 6-mile path
WHERE: 8 miles east of Whitewater off County Road H in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Includes a three-fourths of a mile kids’ loop; other routes range from medium to hard
EMMA CARLIN TRAILS
WHAT: Three color coded mountain biking trails ranging from 3.5 to 8 miles; connects to John Muir Trails via a 6-mile path
WHERE: 3 miles east of Palmyra in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Expert routes that include extremely rocky surfaces, hard inclines and steep declines
WHITE RIVER TRAIL
WHAT: 12 miles of crushed limestone trails that follow a former railroad corridor
WHERE: Begins at County Road H near Elkhorn and ends outside Burlington
DIFFICULTY: Fairly level grade that is suitable for all riders
LAKE GENEVA CANOPY TOURS
WHAT: Three marked mountain biking trails ranging from 2 to 3.25 miles.
WHERE: N3232 County Road H, Lake Geneva
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Beginner, intermediate and expert routes that include ladder bridges, jumps and switchbacks
GRAND GENEVA RESORT
WHAT: 8.5 miles of mountain biking trails
WHERE: 7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Three easy or intermediate routes; six with tough terrain marked for experts
THE RIGHT RIDE
There are many bike styles to choose from, but here are three popular models and some of their best-known features.
Built to handle paved roads. Tires are narrow with high-pressure and smooth surfaces to decrease resistance. Handlebars are dropped. Many have derailleur gears, but there are single speed and fixed gear models available.
Made for off-road cycling with features like large, knobby tires, durable wheels, front or full suspension, powerful brakes, and a variety of gear ratios to enable climbing and descending steep slopes.
Include features of both road and mountain bikes. Usually have flat, straight handlebars and upright seating like a mountain bike. Include lighter weight, thinner wheels and smooth tires like road bikes. Popular for casual riders, commuters and children.