What Does It Take to Own A Bike Shop?
Updated: Jun 17
Conversation with Luke Grieve: Owner FC Pedaler Knoxville, Tennessee
During High School, my parents chained my bike in the shed to try and make me do my homework. But I had tools, so I just cut the lock and took off. That was the last time they ever locked my bike.
Nothing was going to stop this kid from using a bike to chase his passion. From ramping his first Duke of Hazzard Big Wheel to becoming one of the most reputable bike shops in Knoxville, Luke has stories to tell and wisdom to impart to help others find success in chasing their passion.
For anyone thinking a bike shop would be a dream come true to own and run, you’re right. But talking to Luke, you quickly learn you must first have a deep love and admiration for the bicycle and your community of riders to make a go at this career, or it could result in something superficial and unfulfilled.
Luke’s origin story conjures a similar nostalgia and joy as many a kid of our day. From the Big Wheel to the Huffy, he found freedom and adventure on a bike. From his first drift (and subsequent wreck) on his Dukes of Hazzard Big Wheel, he has always loved to pedal.
I’ve always had a bike. I’ve constantly ridden bikes my entire life. It was a release for me. It was a good way to get out and get my mind off everything else. Just me and the trail. It was freedom. It stuck with me.
In 1998 Luke got his first job out of high school in a local bike shop as a mechanic. He spent his time honing his skills building and maintaining bikes with expert precision. You get the sense he will never lose that fascination with bikes. Any bike, new or old, he’s at home keeping the two-wheeled physics fighters on their path. This background as a bike mechanic has set him apart as a shop. You can read the rave reviews from customers who get their bike back from Luke better than factory fresh. Having spent his life on a bike, in shops, building new bikes and wheels, Luke knows what it takes to be a great mechanic and run a great shop. The pegs in the shop are filled with service tickets and are a clear indication of this.
Because of our service capabilities, we are certainly different from most shops. I also want to carry more inventory. We moved to a bigger shop two years ago. We went from a 1,000 square foot space to a 2,200 square foot brick and mortar stand-alone building, with a (vacant) lot next door. So I’m excited about that. But what brings people back is our mechanic service, and that is mostly what we do - offer experienced servicing for bikes.
When asked about the catalyst to finally becoming a bike shop owner, he credits his wife, Petty. They've always been there to support each other's passions. In 2003, Petty was interviewing for a zookeeper position at the Birmingham Alabama Zoo. While at the interview, Luke was busy chatting up local shops in case she got the job. She called to let him know she got it while he was still in one shop, and they hired Luke on the spot. As a skilled mountain biker herself, Petty is not only his riding partner but kayaking, craft beer sharing, adventure traveling, friend hanging, love of this life. And so it only makes sense that she is also an owner in the shop.
We did two years down there from March 2003, then came back to Knoxville in 2005 because she got a keeper job at the Knoxville Zoo (currently a Lead Curator). Upon moving back to Knoxville, I did two years at a local shop here, and it was then that I realized, why not open my own? It was really that simple. Most people could tell that I was passionate about it and could see why I wanted to do it. My family was also supportive. And we love Knoxville.
The challenges of starting and maintaining a business are immense, a bike shop is no different, even more so in the retail environment. When Luke started out, he sought insight from the shop owners he respected most. This set him on the best trajectory possible. When asked to share the biggest challenge, Luke talked about the changing market dynamics of Knoxville.
When I opened there were eight bike shops in Knoxville. It’s doubled in the past 12 years, which is how long I’ve had my shop. This large amount of bike shops for our relatively small city has been the most difficult thing to compete with, on top of the internet. But I’ve come to accept that, and we’re different. I’m service-based, that’s something you can’t get off the internet. I prefer to educate people about bikes so they can make an educated purchase. Reviews and online research can be useful, but sometimes confusing and overwhelming. I like to help simplify all the information for people.
Between the new location, service model, and his stellar reputation, FC Pedaler continues to see growth. This is exceptional considering that 66% of all new businesses don’t make it past the 10-year mark. For all those shops and brave souls that make it past that initial leap from turning a passion into a career, there is risk in losing some joy in the sport. Luke seems to have found the sweet spot by feeding his love of the sport through the pride for a future “ride center”. It’s work, but it’s worth it.
Yeah, it’s a lot of hours, but I’m not a high-stress person in general. I take things as they come. It takes the right personality, I’d say. Not every year’s going to be great, it’s going to fluctuate quite a bit, especially considering the weather and time change with shorter daylight hours. But I’m used to it. I’ve done this for so long, it’s just part of it. My goal has always been to get people into the sport and keep people in it. We organize rides every week. Pouring rain is about the only thing that would stop us.
Luke continues to build his community through these weekly rides. His main ride is on Tuesday nights, with an additional Thursday evening ride starting in Spring 2020. He’s also built a 16’x30’ deck on his shop to host his post-ride “grill and chill”. Additionally a pump track for skill-building, demos, and just good ol’fashion shenanigans. His vision of turning FC Pedaler into a ride center is quickly taking shape in our mind.
To nurture Luke’s vision as a ride center, there’s something truly special on the horizon. Catalyst Sports is developing an adaptive trail program in Knoxville, with FC Pedaler as the host shop for those needing adaptive cycles to feel the freedom and excitement of mountain biking.
This is a new thing for Knoxville and Tennessee. Legacy Parks and Contour Trail Design are building an adaptive trail for people with disabilities. They will be able to use handcycles and other specific adaptive bikes that will allow them to get outside, be offroad and experience the woods in a way they’ve never been able to do before.
Between Legacy Parks and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club (AMBC), anyone who rides, runs or hikes in Knoxville knows how lucky we are to have these visionary groups constantly striving to make Knoxville a beautiful, authentic, outdoor centric community. Luke reminds us that Randy Conner, the owner of Contour Trail Design, just so happens to be the OG of the AMBC. Mountain bike roots run deep in this town. In 2015 AMBC rallied Knoxville to beat out every other city in the country to win a $100,000 Bell Helmets trail building grant. It was this kind of passion with the partnership and support of visionary city leaders that spark and fuel something wonderful. Growing pains are only natural, but holding true will be key to maintaining the soul that makes our town and riding community so wonderful.
Knoxville has definitely become an outdoor destination. We’ve had a renaissance within the last 10-12 years. Which is ultimately why we have so many bike shops now. It’s good to have a variety of shops, but the size city we are, and the number of shops, it’s not sustainable, because it affects all of us. You go to a place like Cleveland, TN and there are two shops, and they kill it….we’ve gotten so many shops because it’s obvious more folks are riding bikes now, and some people see money in that. It’s a business thing. For me, it was never about that. I didn’t know all this was going to happen when I opened my shop. It was really about using my skills and experience, continuing my passion, and making it what I wanted it to be.
To help frame the day-to-day of the owner/manager we covered how he runs the shop, the accounting, the inventory, overhead, etc. Again, the idea of his shop was “not always about the money”, but putting the rider first. Obviously that doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying to make any, but turn it into something bigger. He continues to remind us that his vision was more about the longevity of the shop and doing what’s right for his customers.
I’ve not been one to borrow or carry a lot of debt. Unfortunately, we do miss some sales because of that, because we don’t have the inventory in some shops. But coming through the winter, I don’t carry much debt, and that’s how I’ve survived the 12 years of having my shop. I’ve worked at a shop that overbought and it came to ahead. I watched that go down and learn what not to do. The appearance of having a full store was more important than being able to pay for it.
Not surprisingly, Luke puts significant thought into the brands he sells in his shop. Marin is his mainline bicycle brand. But you can bring anything to Luke and he will help you either work on it, sell it, or if you are looking to buy, he will give you honest opinion and recommendation.
I love Marin Bikes and their history. Marin County is considered to be the birthplace of mountain biking - you should check out the Klunkers DVD. Marin Bikes was one of the first to produce mountain bikes in the early ’80s and became a company in 1986. They’ve had some designs that have been phased out, which has been good to continually progress the brand. They’ve always stood behind their products, we’ve had very little issues with them.
No trip to your local bike shop is complete without a gander at the gadgets. Helmets, pumps, lights, gloves, pads, tires, pedals, etc. Other than bikes, accessories help shops optimize the use of all available sales-generating space. But how shops fill that space can vary.
I would not put anything on the wall that I wouldn’t use myself. A lot of times reps will tell me I should stock this or that, but I have to evaluate if I would use it. Typically it’s got to be something that is useful to our consumers, the people that ride locally. Whether it’s a certain light for commuting or tires to take your bike from mountain to gravel. A rep will tell me I'll make more margin on a certain tire, but that’s not a tire that we ride around here, and so I’m not going to put it on the wall. Just my perspective. It may not be the best business perspective, but it’s honesty.
If you’re going to start any business, there has to be passion sustaining your drive. Otherwise, you’re going to get burned out or bummed out. You have to be able to roll with the punches, take a bad year or few months, but if you do things right it’s going to come back around. If you are looking to own a bike shop, spend as much time as possible working in one. Luke suggests 5-10 years. This will build your skillset and prepare you for the unexpected.
Our closing question was, “If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?” Not surprising he said that he’d be working on bikes or riding, for himself or for friends. There is no doubt in Luke’s mind that he was put on this earth to build, service and ride bikes. Now there is no doubt in ours.
Thanks to Luke for taking the time to talk to us, and of course sharing with you.
Please visit Luke at FC Pedaler at his new location at 1715 N. Central Street. Or even better, join him on one of the Tuesday night rides.
At Van Why our vision is to educate and inspire others on what it takes to live in this manner and thus follow suit; encourage others to take the leap of faith and follow their passions and to be a definitive resource for those wanting to build their passion into a life's purpose.