Finding the right bicycle along with skilled wrenchers knowing the ins and outs for repairs is no farther than South County’s 100-year-old shop in vintage Wakefield, where this bike business started just two years after the 1918 deadly Spanish Flu pandemic in the United States.
Even then a pandemic didn’t deter a business around bicycles and today the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is creating high demand for bike sales, repairs and fixups here at W.E. Stedman Co. and elsewhere around the country.
This bike shop keeps bikes and riders on roads, paths, beaches and just about any place two wheels — or even one wheel, three wheels or even a four-wheel surrey— can turn.
It is more than a bike shop, though. Stedman’s promotion and cultivation of bike riding makes it a cultural icon for many riders, enthusiasts and Rhode Islanders liking this durable invention made popular when first appearing in 1817 by the handiwork of German Baron Karl von Drais.
Since then the bike has remained a staple in childhood memories, a boredom-breaker for adults seeking fun ways to exercise, a cheap way for transportation and more recently a reason for meeting others and developing friendships through groups of riders no matter experience or skill.
Stedman’s has delivered on that promise over and over, say many long-time aficionados of wheeling and shop customers who also go there often like a local pub, to tell stories and re-live races long ago.
“One of the things I most like about the shop is it’s a welcoming place where you could hang out and talk about races, plan on going to races and on rides and just relax and joke around with friends,” said Peter Bates, who has been a groupie at Stedman’s — as it’s commonly known — for many years.
Another one is Alan Arsenault, a customer and rider on weekly jaunts for more than 40 years. “You couldn’t ask for a finer bike shop. If you made one from cloth, this one is better than good.”
David Burnell is another member of the clan of Stedman followers for decades.
“Stedman’s has been and is an important part of shaping local cycling in terms of not only furnishing material needs, but also nourishing a cycling community. This is a place that brings experience and love of cycling to all levels of cyclists,” he said.
A fixture both in location — where it has been located for the last 100 years — and in business, it needs no advertising.
You won’t find store staff pushing bikes on television and not even full-page ads in local newspapers. There’s only a website and Facebook page, which offer more news and information than prices and sales pitches.
Word-of-mouth — and good words coming from those mouths — are what it depends on and has received for more than a century.
It is a bike rider’s bike shop, where like a church the faithful know they can find each other.
In this upcoming summer when anything — maybe everything — has the potential to be turned upside down, bicycle riding is already surging beyond its usual increase in popularity from warmer weather and a desire to get exercise outside.
The signs are all there, said Jim Walsh, owner of Stedman’s. “It’s just crazy. We’ve been non-stop since March and people are just turning to their bikes like never before.”
National statistics back-up that claim. The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has been intense with millions of Americans out of work. But amid the catastrophe, there’s been a small bright spot: Bicycles.
Specifically, people are buying new ones, fixing up old ones, and riding more than before, according to writer Joe Lindsey for Outside magazine, which covers national trends in travel, sports, health and fitness
There are a number of shops and bike makers doing a brisk business, especially in certain categories and Stedman’s is right there with them, according to Walsh who has people lined up outside his door every day for service or completing a bike purchase.
According to the NPD Group, which tracks retail sporting goods sales, children’s bike sales in March were up 56 percent compared to March 2019. Adult leisure bike sales are up a whopping 121 percent, Lindsey wrote.
“In April so far, we’re up over 200 percent” over last year, says Adele Nasr, chief marketing officer at Aventon, which produces a line of affordable casual and commuter e-bikes, the magazine reported.
Interest is so high that Aventon is having trouble keeping stock on certain models. Preorders for medium Pace 500 step-through commuter bikes, which sell for $1,399, carry wait times of more than two months, Lindsey wrote.
“Everyone is pulling bikes out because it’s one of the few things they can do with their family,” said Walsh.
Riding and owning a bicycle appeal to that open-air exhilarating feeling people crave no matter their age, kind of bike or where they go. Its uses, whether an enjoyable pastime, mode of transportation or for service delivery, crosses generations and that was not lost on Stedman’s founders.
The shop was founded by W.E. Stedman, known as “Bicycle Bill” and his son Everett, who first worked with his father and then took over the business in 1955 when his father died. Everett continued working there into his late 80s after turning over operations to Walsh, once a young apprentice at the 196 Main St. shop located at the corner of Woodruff Avenue.
While a century of operation shows staying power to survive economic pressures as well as benefits, there is another reason it’s around today.
Intertwining fates in 1985 of young college student Walsh, who never imagined becoming the “adopted” son of the childless owner of a fabled bike store that was family run, cemented them.
Their unique connection — love for biking, comradeship and the deep father-son relationship missing for both — became the resin making an unbreakable decades-long bond that secured the shop’s future.
When Everett Stedman no longer could meander through the building that had as much history as biking itself for him and the light in his eyes began to fade, Walsh held the candle to see ahead.
In that glimmer, Everett Stedman saw a bright vision for his bike shop and Walsh —now molded to be much like himself — to continue traditions and enthusiasm beyond simply making sales and repairs.
Walsh and his wife, Amy Janes, recalled during a recent interview among the lines of bikes in their shop — including a bright yellow electric-assisted peddling kind — the history of a business catering to self-propelled transportation.
Their shop in its original two-and-a-half-story Second Empire-styled building, as much as the business, are intricately connected, both said.
The business started in 1911 a few blocks away, at the corner of Robinson Street and Woodruff Avenue, in a backyard and focused on former Indian motorcycle sales and repairs.
Founder William Earl “Bicycle Bill” Stedman and cousin Archie Brown saw a need and income from fixing these two-wheel motorized vehicles, according to Lennon Schroeder of South Kingstown who wrote a history of the shop for Stedman’s website (westedman.com).
In 1920, they would move to the current homestead, a circa 1870s building, just a few blocks away. It included the Armstrong Carriage company and had served as a shop for Dr. Horace Wilcox, where he made his “Fenagen” mouthwash and tonic. By the 1890s, Dr. Wilcox’s brother, Ben Wilcox, was selling bicycles out of the building.
W.E. Stedman Co., as this business and many others at that time were known by adopting the name of an owner, occupied half of the building. It included a general store, gasoline pumps outside and until 1925 sold motorcycles.
The other half, until the bike shop later acquired the space, included over the years a barber shop, photography studio, A&P grocery store, IGA grocery store, paint store, dance hall, Masons’ meeting hall, Mechanics’ meeting hall, the Indian Motorcycle Club, and several doctors’ offices.
When Archie Brown died of pneumonia in 1926, ownership passed to partner Stedman. He and later son Everett ran the shop that also included selling bicycles and renting space elsewhere in the building, according to Schroeder.
More than a business, a community of friends and the cultivating of a culture for biking was taking hold on that street corner.
Helping to establish that centerpiece in small South Kingstown — in the heart of the Village of Wakefield whose many homes date back to the 1890s and earlier — became the calling of Everett Stedman who in the 1960s turned the business into bicycle-only sales and service.
“I used to rebuild wheels for one-dollar labor,” said Stedman in a 2008 interview with The Independent newspaper. “Now we get $25 for rebuilding a wheel. Spokes used to cost three-for-a-nickel. Now they’re a dollar and a half apiece.”
“Every so often people in this country go through a mania for bicycles. The last time was in 1975,” said Stedman who in 2016 died at age 90. “Boy, that was a busy year.”
In the 1970s due to an oil crisis and rising costs of gasoline, bicycle sales saw a boom, which many thought would give the industry a strong foot-hold as an alternative mode of transportation in the United States.
Time magazine in 1971 claimed that it was “bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history.” Consumers were being told that the era of cheap and plentiful gasoline was about to end.
“They said the only way to get around would be on a bike,” Stedman recalled in the interview. “So all these people bought all these bikes, never used them, and now they’re bringing them in to me today and want me to fix them.”
Stedman will repair anything, as long as it’s fixable.
“Fixing them is a profitable business,” he said. “If there’s nothing wrong with them, a little oil on the chain, new tires, new tubes and it’s good as it ever was. Some of them look brand new.”
In that same interview — some 88 years after his father moved into that building — he talked about the community of cyclists that had developed and still lives on today.
For years, Stedman and a group of about 15 to 20 avid cyclists would go for a Sunday morning ride, starting at the shop and ending up in places like Voluntown, Conn. And you can bet that Stedman wasn’t riding a featherweight, titanium and carbon fiber racing bike, he preferred the old kind.
“We went for 50- to 70-mile rides and we’d be back by noontime,” Stedman said. “They were good, fast rides.”
When Stedman died, heir-to-the-legacy Walsh observed with a laugh, “He would ride his bike further than he would ride his car. I think I’m doing the same now.”
Ensuring the Legacy
Walsh joined Stedman’s group of loyal bicycle wrenchers -- as those who fix them are called -- and apostles of the sport as an acolyte in 1985 during his first year at the University of Rhode Island.
While neither man knew that this single job would link them together and forever with a history bigger than both, it satisfied the need for help in the shop for an owner and the desire to fulfill a passion for bikes in the young man.
Walsh was a racer, a fixer and closet perfectionist as a young man, he admitted in a recent interview, with those traits still carrying over today.
“I like the tactics, everything about racing,” he said, which began for him with a junk Raleigh brand bike he got from the trash as a young kid and fixed it. His mother died when he was in high school and he became very self-reliant as his father worked and cared for him and his four other siblings.
That old bike served him well, he said, until the seriousness of racing and biking took hold.
He acquired a customized Whitcomb USA bike and then later a red Colnago he used when first working at Stedman’s. At the time, he said, he would bike four or five times a week and twice on some days.
The now 52-year-old denied he was a fanatic back then until he tells a story about an overseas race.
“I told a customer we don’t race seriously and with that light shined back on me. He says, ‘No, you don’t take it seriously? You only took your bike all the way to Belgium to enter a race.’”
“I said, well, I guess that is pretty serious in the grand scheme of things,” Walsh said with a laugh.
Then, in the shy way that is part of his everyday demeanor, he also added that he still bikes all-year round, especially in the winter.
“I’ll take a fat bike, you know the one with the real big tires and we’ll go out and ride the trails and do all that. It’s a lot of fun,” he said, smiling as he talked about this passion.
In the fall and early spring he’ll use a somewhat-chunky “gravel” bike, one with wider-than-average pleated tires to grab the dirt and leaves while in the summer he’ll return to a sleek and fast road bike with thin tires roots of his enthusiasm still tunnel deep.
He said he still races, but not with the tough competitive streak that drove him every weekend to races, sometimes two or three hours away from his home in South Kingstown. His wife Amy looked at him. The smile faded a bit.
“We’re all getting older, you know. People are developing families, one guy is having knee surgery. It’s different today,” he said with a sigh. “And then there was acquiring the business. That takes a lot of time.”
Carrying on the Legacy
Walsh now focuses on selling bikes and making people happy with them — trying to infect customers with his contagious passion regardless of any era with a pandemic.
“In one way, it’s so much fun to see someone come new and see that look on their face,” he said, a bright smile widening as he mimics the satisfied look he has seen thousands of times in 35 years in the shop.
“There’s nothing worse than the ‘ughhhh,” he said, crinkling his nose as if smelling something foul. He put on a large frown and look of boredom coupled with his own angst when recalling the times someone bought a bike because someone told them to do it, not because they really wanted one.
“I’m nodding my head. Get out of here, I don’t want to sell you something. It’s no fun,” he said.
Deep within he also likes the intricacies of fixing a bike. “I get enjoyment trying to fix something, working with your hands, that I fixed that. It wasn’t working and it came in and I was able to fix it and now he can ride it,” he said.
That part of him as the perfectionist returned as he told the story of ranking the highest among his siblings tested at Brown University for engineering aptitude — with one sibling going on to become a doctor and two others engineers and the fourth a speech pathologist.
He preferred, though, biking, people and the business of biking, even over his studies at the University of Rhode Island where he never completed his degree. He preferred this use his engineering skills and aptitude coupled with his passion and dedication.
“Success. It’s like winning a race. I fixed it. It’s innate,” he remarked in his often stream-of-consciousness explanation of his feelings. “A long-time friend was standing over me and said, ‘You can’t help yourself. You have to do it right.’ I said, yeah, it took you how many years to learn that about me?”
However, he sees both his mother and father — and Everett — in himself now that he’s growing older and preserving both his passion, this 100-year-old business and a general love for bicycling in South County.
“I’m the cranky person who can fix a bike and the guy who can sell. That’s where I think I’m both, I’m like my father and my mother in a sense. He was mechanically inclined and she was more caring,” he said.
Then a long pause came. Everett Stedman seemed to enter the room.
“My joke is that all the things I used to tease Everett about are now in my head. On a day that not much money came in, he would say ‘That’s not going to pay the electric bill.’ I’d tease him and say ‘You can’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.’”
“Now all those little things have changed now that you’re the owner and I wonder about keeping the lights on,” he said.
Yet, the lights don’t stay on, Walsh says, by selling people bikes they don’t need or making unnecessary repairs simply for profit.
Bikes and Biking Today
“I had one guy in here ask, ‘What’s the best bike in here?’ Walsh said. “I replied what are you going to do with it? Basically, what he wanted was me to say what the most expensive was.”
“But that’s not how I look at it. When you come in, if it’s a beach cruiser for $50 because you don’t want (a high end model) to get stolen while you’re at the beach, that’s the best bike for you,” he said.
“Your Bianchi is bad. It’s going to get ripped off and then you’re going to be bummed and you’re not going to enjoy your bike,” he added.
“But if you want to go out and try to keep up on a Sunday ride, then your Bianchi or something like that is the correct bike. Nothing drives me more nuts. You come in with someone who thinks they are an expert and saying what someone wants. You need to talk to the person to know,” he said.
The most popular bikes he talked to people about today are:
1) Gravel - Sometimes also referred to as adventure bikes, are essentially road bikes designed to tackle a variety of surfaces, carry additional gear and are suitable for all-day riding on roads less traveled.
2) Hybrid - They blend characteristics from more specialized road bikes, touring bikes and mountain bikes. The resulting “hybrid” is a general-purpose bike that can tolerate a wide range of riding conditions and applications.
3) Electric-assisted - These are bicycles with a battery-powered “assist” that comes via pedaling and, in some cases, a throttle. When you push the pedals on this e-bike, a small motor engages and gives you a boost, so you can zip up hills and cruise over tough terrain.
Brand new these bikes can range in cost from $375 for a basic no-frills bike and then upwards for more specially designed gears, frame and other precision components. Electric assist bikes generally start in the $2,500 range and can also increase with options.
Walsh said that the gravel bike continues to grow in popularity because of its multi-purpose design and the safety it brings for the average person wanting small recreational rides.
However, enthusiasts will also buy them and give them the firm run with performance demand over various surfaces — roads, dirt, leaves, gravel — and log scores of miles in a day, he added.
Among the changes for bikes today, he said, are hydraulic disk brakes, which are much better than caliper brakes clamping the tires, because they bring better control and can stop the bike faster.
He also said that electronic shifting is better for smoother turns through many gears often in rapid succession. Fitting a bike to the person is more refined with sometimes more measurements taken and more precision for how someone sits on the bike and its intended use.
Compared to 100 years ago, bikes today now have speedometers for racers that record a variety of data as well as attachable holders for cellphones.
Various Android and Apple apps provide data-collecting, such as miles, inclines, time-in-motion and, most especially, turn-by-turn directions replacing maps carried in a back pocket with the cyclist needing to stop to read it as routinely done 30 years ago.
Walsh advised against online bike-buying simply because it doesn’t offer the in-person expertise a shop can bring as well as continued support for the expensive bike over time. In addition, online sellers may offer bikes that require unique parts not available in bike shops.
“It’s that knowledge and experience to know what will work well with what kind of bike for the intentions someone has for using it, especially on the high-end models. It’s about compatibility,” he said.
Walsh likes compatibility. As an avid cyclist, he also hires in his 20-person shop the same kinds of enthusiasts as himself to work there, feel the vibe of the business and needs of the customers.
Kristof Hopkins of West Kingston is a 10th grader at South Kingstown High School and works fixing bikes. “I’ve been coming here since I was little. My dad started bringing me here and I just really like spending time with all the people and learning about all the new things.”
John Meegan, 51, is the service manager, and has been working on bikes since he was 14 years old.
“It’s absolutely chaos right now. It’s something I’ve always done and I like working with the mechanical things,” he said.
New to the shop is Dave Smith, but like the others he also has a personal investment in the work and knows his way around bikes.
“I’ve been riding and wrenching on my own bikes for years, so it seemed like a good fit. The guys are nice, the days go quick, the work is steady. I like wrenching. I like working on stuff, hands on, so it works for me,” he said, twisting and turning a rusty old chain trying to bring it back to life.
To bike or not to bike, that is the question, to borrow in a modified way from Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy uttered by Prince Hamlet. That answer is very simple to Walsh and all the Stedman gang who love to bike and want others to feel the same.
It is always “Yes.”
“The release, at the end of the day, you’re just drained, and you get on the bike and it just helps free everything,” said Walsh.