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« Short Hops Riding into 2009 »

Feature Fri Jan 02 2009

Chicago's Cyclocross Patron Saint

Covered in Mud, Beer and Blood, the Pony Shop tends to Chicagoland's Cyclocross Grass Roots

Pony Shop Evanston CyclocrossThe bastard cycling discipline of cyclocross is a strange subculture of sport. A hybrid of road and mountain biking, with cross-country running tossed in and stirred well, cyclocross is a mutant and is equally fun, humiliating and painful. Short races of a mile or so, usually held in a municipal park, cyclocross racers must ride at full-tilt through mud, grass and short pavement sections, occasionally dismounting to hop over barriers or run up a steep pitch.

The races are short, an hour for those at the top of the sport, less for mere mortals, and the competition is fierce. At the start of a race, cyclists fighting for position through the first winding chicanes push each other out of the way, bump shoulders and, more often than not, come crashing down with those caught behind piling atop. Usually, everyone comes out bruised but back on the bike, teeth bared and clenched as they struggle through lap after agonizing lap.

For northern Europeans, the popularity of cyclocross is similar to how football is here in the States: their Super Bowl, the World Championships, draws tens of thousands to spectate, eat hot, steaming frites, and drink tall steins of beer. Cyclocross there is a religion - a Sunday cult that waits 'til everyone is out of church before starting with the sinning.

In America, though, the sport is underground, legitimized by increasing popularity, but still retains a certain scurrilous ethos. The cost of entry into racing is low - a modified mountain or commuter bike will suffice for racing in the lower categories. Cyclocross is spectator friendly - and it encourages spectator participation. Races everywhere have that corner, where spectators mingle with racers, usually imbibed if their own race for the day is done, and where all scream encouragements at and high-five passing teammates, friends and complete strangers.

Because 'cross races in America are often held in city parks, even those unfamiliar with bike racing at all are out in force. As mom races, dad watches over the kids while warming up and assembling his bike. Bike punks tailgate and ring cowbells to urge racers on. People from the surrounding neighborhood come out to see what the fuss is all about. 'Cross is a strange muddy circus.

And such a sport also has its own culture, lexicon and rituals. The church for the 'cross racer is the bike shop, congregating twice-weekly at the midweek practice session and Sunday's race. There at the shop, advice is dispensed, recommendations are made, and goers bow down at altars of carbon fiber, rubber and titanium, emblazoned with brands such as Grifo, Colnago, Dugast. At cyclocross-specific shops, this time of the year is the busiest - 'cross is hard on equipment, with broken frames and wheels common sights at races. At bike shops everywhere, Mondays are a dreaded day when racers drag their busted bikes in for immediate service.

Good bike shops cater to the crowd that insists on rare boutique parts and bespoke frames, but also the beginner, who thinks it'd be fun to try a race out, just to see how he or she would do and doesn't have much of a budget to do so. A good bike shop can be small or big, cluttered or spare. Whatever its appearances, a good bike shop is run with passion for the sport and care for the customer, and one such shop here in Chicagoland is the Pony Shop in Evanston at 1224 Chicago Ave.

Pony Shop Evanston Cyclocross

The Pony Shop's been a fixture of Evanston since 1969, having relocated once in its near-40-year history. The newer space is smaller, more intimate. As one walks in, high-end road and cyclocross boutique bikes from manufacturers such as Look and Colnago are displayed next to more pedestrian, but no less capable, machines from Redline and Cannondale. In the back are hybrids, mountain bikes and children's bikes. Few bike shops can sustain a business solely catering to the racer with a bounty of disposable income, and the Pony Shop is no different.

To the right is the countertop and work area, covered in catalogs, stickers, spare parts and other ephemera of the sport of cycling. And usually behind the counter, in a shop apron and with tools in hand, is the owner of the shop, Lou Kuhn. Unlike some other shops with their absentee owners who neither ride nor understand the sport of cycling, Kuhn is an individual dedicated to the sport. He's out at races, atop the products he sells. Knowing this, it's easy to see why when people ask what shop is the best around for 'cross specific equipment, more often than not, the answer is Kuhn's joint.

Pony Shop Evanston CyclocrossThe repute of the Pony Shop as the cyclocross shop in Chicago is likely linked somewhat to the explosive interest in cyclocross in Chicago. Certainly, the Pony Shop wasn't the only factor in the number of races on the calendar and the huge numbers of racers toeing the line, but it's likely one of the primary ones. Kuhn doesn't see 'cross as some short-term fad, he's in it for the long haul.

This is exemplified by his shop-sponsored cycling team that not only does he manage, but also races for, usually in the Master's races. Master's races are races for those grizzled veterans of cycling, usually men 30 years of age and older. While the riders in these races may show grey or a bald spot, by no means are these races slow, mind you; rather, they're often faster than the Elite Category 1/2/3 racers. Kuhn's been around for a while, having started racing bikes after a high-school athletic career in football.

As far as word of mouth brand-awareness goes, it helps to have a team and it helps even more to have a team full of riders who win races. Kuhn explains the beginnings of the squad: "We started the team last year on a smaller scale. The idea of it was to surround ourselves with people who love 'cross. We're associated with so many different teams and clubs, and they all do everything, as far as disciplines go. This team was just going to be 'cross and that's all we're going to do."

Team member Brian Conant echoed these sentiments when asked about how he came to become involved with the Pony Shop squad. "I met Lou in 2006 at a 'cross race via a mutual friend. We hit it off instantly. He loves 'cross, I love 'cross. With his passion for 'cross, he wanted to put together a cyclocross specific team. I said let's do it and I want in. For 2007, it was just a handful of us. 2008, I think we are a team of 18."

Pony Shop Evanston CyclocrossThis small-but-solid roster so far has seen some major results: Luca Lenzi and Conant are series leaders in the ChiCrossCup Men 1/2/3 category; Devon Haskell's recent three-day campaign in Ohio against some of the country's fastest female riders had her ending up on the podium and in the money every single day. Here in Chicago, the nationally-ranked Haskell raced with the Category 3 men, for the challenge of the larger, more aggressive packs.

When asked why she races for the Pony Shop squad, Haskell said, "Everyone there is friendly and welcoming and the shop isn't another bike shop that sells a couple cross bikes on the side -- they really cater to the cyclocross community [...] The team is full of cyclocross enthusiasts and it's great to be part of a 'cross specific team that shares a passion for the sport!"

Kuhn's support for the team bearing his shop's name also extends to the bare grassroots. "We took four collegiate athletes, college kids, and they're racing for free for the year," adding, "I don't know if this all does anything in terms of advertising; I just want to do it because I enjoy it."

Future plans? Kuhn wants to see the shop team grow, enlarge the roster, and incorporate junior riders to see those riders through the ranks to fulfil their potential. That goal is an easy one. Further on down the road, maybe just a dream, Kuhn would like to open a boutique shop just for cyclocross. A humidor for those $300 sets of tires, glass cases full of shiny, lightweight shifters and brakes. Maybe.

But besides that, now that the season has finally ended with the Illinois State Championships at Montrose Harbor in early December, the immediate focus is on the day-to-day operations of the shop itself: bringing in new lines of bikes for 2009 such as Ridley, a premium Belgium brand; selling bicycles to racers, commuters and casual riders; and maintaining and repairing those bikes when the shifting acts up or the hubs need to be rebuilt.

Kuhn knows that it's hard enough to make a living off of one's passions - and he knows full well that he's lucky that he's able to live and breathe bike racing, all the while supporting his family. Family being not just the family at home, but also all those cyclists who come to his Wednesday training sessions or race with the Pony Shop name on their jerseys. They are family too, and he's grateful for it.

Pony Shop Evanston Cyclocross

Photos by Naz Hamid

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Josh R / January 5, 2009 8:59 AM

My friend used to live in E-town, just around the corner from Ponyshop back in 2000. We were leaving for Chequamegon, but forgot to get spare tubes, so we ran in to Ponyshop grab some tubes. Folks there were very cool, and we ended up leaving late to just shoot the shit with these guys. Glad to see the same service exists - very few chain shops have this attention to detail. One other great thing about the Pony: Lou had a loaner set of tubular CX wheels this year. THAT is a great thing to offer to the newer ranks for cyclocross racers who want to familiarize themselves with wheel options, but cannot afford to drop the coin required to get a set of tubies on their bikes. Lou's vision is unique, and it is good to know that Chicago maintains a few shops with the experience in racing to actually meet the needs of a variety of cyclists.

LDEllis / January 5, 2009 1:20 PM

Ponyshop has been my primary bike shop since early 2007. They've always been there for me when I've needed them, always providing top-notch service with a friendly attitude. They've even gotten me into cyclocross. This year, I may enter my first bike race since my BMX days of the early/mid 80's. Ponyshop rules!

Mac / January 5, 2009 4:31 PM

Lou and the Pony Shop are mostly responsible for my metamorphosis from an out of shape 44year old bike rider to a 49year old cyclist and triathlete. I had a lot to learn because I had never raced on a bike in my life. But, no matter how many questions I had or how many mistakes I made, I was never made to feel out of place either in the shop or on any of the group rides. Lou and the guys at the shop will always have my gratitude, my friendship, and my patronage.

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