[BikePortland.org’s Managing Editor Elly Blue is currently on an East Coast Tour. This is the latest dispatch from her trip.]
for New Haven biking.
(Photos by Elly Blue)
When I lived in New Haven a decade ago there wasn’t much of a bike scene. People biked, as did I — but I never had the sense of being part of a movement, or a community, or that bicycling was anything more than a fun but somewhat embattled way to get to work.
That’s all changed now.
Biking was already starting to get big in 2003 when Elm City Cycling, an activism, advocacy, and community-building organization, was formed. Yale University, a major social and economic force in New Haven, began to promote bicycling. More organizations formed, from the New Haven Bike Collective which refurbishes old bikes for low-income people to the beer-swilling, freakbike welding Elm City Scorchers. Critical Mass rides year round, sometimes attracting hundreds of participants. There are a couple of local bike-related blogs now as well, WalkBikeCT and Bike New Haven. And more people are out there riding bikes, even in the dead of winter during college break, than I’ve ever seen here before.
“If there’s a geographic locus of the New Haven bike scene, it’s the Devil’s Gear Bicycle Shop.”
If there’s a geographic locus of the New Haven bike scene, it’s the Devil’s Gear Bicycle Shop . About the time I was moving to Portland, my friend and former mechanic Matt Feiner was opening this shop an out of the way corner of downtown New Haven.
Unlike the few other bike shops in town, the Devil’s Gear caters to commuters and utility riders as well as the more traditional racing and recreational clientele.
Matt, the owner, has been a racer for much of his life, but has long used a bike as his primary transportation as well. “That’s the key to success,” Matt said when I commented on the shop’s focus on utility cycling. “That, and being open all the time.”
The shop’s signature pennyfarthing
is in the background.
Matt was doing a fitting with a customer when I came in, so I chatted with the other three guys working there, and got to know Monk, the helpful shop dog. One mechanic, Skyler, is from Portland (he used to work at the Community Cycling Center) and is moving back this summer.
The Devil’s Gear has had a roller coaster year, with things going up and down right along with the economy.
The store has been popular as New Haven’s population has increasingly embraced bicycling. In February of 2008 they had a ribbon cutting on a second shop, the Devil’s Gear II in a more prominent downtown location that they rented from Yale University (Yale owns much of the property in the center city).
Yale wanted to have a ribbon cutting, and Matt asked them to invite Mayor DeStefano to do the honors. His contact at Yale laughed this off, but Matt said “Ask him, he’ll be there.” And he was.
At the opening, DeStefano gave a nice speech, and hung out afterward eating cookies with everyone. He told the story of Matt walking into his office several years ago and telling him, “With all due respect, bicycling in your town sucks.” Since then the city and Elm City Cycling, the main advocacy group in town with which Matt is associated, have worked together closely with strong results.
Last summer the economy was booming, gas prices were high, and both shops did incredible business. They couldn’t keep stock on the shelves, their distributors were running out of basic things like locks and tubes, and things were looking rosy for both shops.
Vintage jerseys, classic bikes,
signs, photos, articles
Yale asked Matt to move the second shop to a larger space nearby, and he moved in August, happily paying the higher rent and taking on an extra staff person; around the same time he put in a big order for bikes at their original store.
Then came October. All at once the economy tanked and gas prices went back down, and “from one day to the next” Matt knew his business was in trouble. The Devil’s Gear II closed a month ago, on December 1st, Matt’s birthday.
His original store is still going strong, despite this setback. They put flyers on bikes all over town, host events, show up everywhere, and generally manage to keep in the midst of all things bikey.
Matt’s goals for 2009 are to “sell bikes and promote bike culture.” In practice, this means more rides and more repair classes — education and building community.