Working for 50 cents an hour at Meramec Cycle, his father Velmo Chappuis’ shop in south St. Louis, Jim Chappuis met Olympic cyclists like Joe Becker, who came in for parts and repairs.
“My dad did all his work,” said Jim.
Almost 30 years later, Jim bought the Bike Center in University City from Becker.
It’s this kind of connection you can find all over the bike business in St. Louis. Three quarters of the shops in the region today are linked in some way to a few owners who got things rolling, starting in the 1930s.
These founders and their families built a strong tradition of neighborhood shops that expanded cycling in the Gateway City. They offered rides and events that lured more people into the sport and supported improvements like the Katy Trail. Young bike racers sponsored by local shops have gone on to international success. Many local bike store owners today learned the trade from these owners or the people who took over their shops.
Our poster of the connections among today’s bike shop community shows the influence of these founders. Below, we’ll take a closer look at their history and their legacy.
The Chappuis-Blackwood Family
Velmo Chappuis, “Chap” to his friends, opened Meramec Cycle in 1933, the first in a long line of stores owned by the Chappuis and Blackwood families. Velmo raced with the St. Louis Cycling Club, and his family lived above the store where Jim Chappuis worked in the 1950s.
Velmo helped his brother, Gilbert, buy A&M Cycle Company in 1941. Fred and Luella Herman first opened Arsenal & Morganford Cycles in the 1920s, one block south of the current site. A&M remains to this day the oldest continually operating bike shop in the St. Louis area.
The Blackwood family came on the scene in the 1970s, when Velmo’s nephew, Henry “Bud” Blackwood, left a stressful career as a Colonial Bakery executive to join the business. By then, Meramec Cycle had grown into South Side Cyclery and Velmo was ready to retire. Bud bought South Side in 1976.
Ken Blackwood was in high school and worked for his father, Bud, before he bought Granada Cyclery.
“My Dad was very good at what he did,” Ken said. “He knew how to manage people.”
Ken’s brother, Tony Blackwood, now owns South Side Cyclery.
In all, 12 members of the Chappuis and Blackwood families went into the business.
“At one time, there were 18 stores in the family,” said Bob Blackwood.
Jim had the largest operation, with as many as five stores at one time.
“Jim Chappuis was one of the biggest Schwinn dealers in the Midwest in the 1980s,” said Mark Laytham, who worked for Jim at Creve Coeur Cyclery and now owns Ballwin Cycles. “It was not unusual for us to sell 30 to 40 bikes on a Saturday.”
Brad Blackwood didn’t plan to follow his father, Ken, into the business. “All of us kids worked here. He’d pay us two bucks to clean bikes and stay off the sales floor. I saw how hard my dad worked and the sacrifices he made. Now, here I am.”
He joined the fourth generation of shop owners in the family when he bought Granada Cycling from Ken in 2019. He loves helping people get into the sport.
“Someone will buy a hybrid to get off their blood pressure meds, get in better shape, and then try a sprint triathlon,” said Brad. “You see them fall in love with cycling and make huge changes in their life.”
Raymond Florman Sr.
Raymond “Ray” Florman Sr. was a master bicycle mechanic, frame builder, bike racer, and coach who gave many young champion racers their start. He excelled in all these things despite the fact he was born without a left hand.
“That was the first thing everyone noticed about him, and then forgot because he never allowed his disability to slow him down,” said competitive cyclist Ed Ruesing.
Using a tandem lever to activate the front and rear brakes with his right hand, Ray at age 15 won a live turkey at his first race: the St. Louis Cycling Club’s annual Turkey Day Race. He went on to win the Missouri State Championship in 1936 and 1937 and came close to making the 1948 Olympic team.
Ray opened Normandy Bicycle Shop in 1953. His son, Raymond Florman Jr., worked there from the age of 12 and raced on the shop’s team in the 1950s. “There were no custom jerseys then,” said Ray. “We had T-shirts imprinted with Normandy Cycling.”
“I wouldn’t have gone anywhere as a racing cyclist but for Ray Florman,” said Ruesing. “Ray coached me, lent me equipment, and drove me all over the place.” Ruesing was Missouri State Champion in 1956 and 1957 and won the 1957 Tour of Somerville, the oldest bike race in America.
Ray sold Normandy to Jim Chappuis, opened another store in Florissant, and moved a few times before he opened A-1 Bicycle in Kirkwood in 1960. He was known for supporting junior racers who became national champions, including John Howard, Lon Haldeman, and Susan Notorangelo. In addition to the stock-in-trade family bikes, he carried high-quality Italian and English racing models.
“My love of cycling really kicked into gear when Ray offered to assist me in getting to a few races,” said Howard. “I remember Ray’s treasure-filled basement, sleeping on a cot, looking up at his collection of racing equipment.”
Ray drove Howard to races across the country in his blue Ford Econoline van, prepped his bike, and set him up with lightweight racing wheels and top-of-the-line Clement Seta tires. Howard won six National Championships and raced on three Olympic teams between 1968 and 1976. He was the first American to win the gold medal in road racing at the 1971 Pan American Games, a victory that inspired Greg LeMond to get into bicycle racing. In 1982, with Ray as his crew chief, Howard finished second to Lon Haldeman in the Great American Bike Race, the precursor to the Race Across America.
In the early 1980s, Ray spearheaded a plan to resurface the Penrose Park Velodrome, which had been damaged by a sewer main break. Many local and national champions trained there. (Read the latest about the renovated Velodrome in our July/August 2019 issue.)
Ray’s influence on American bike racing continued in the 1990s, when A-1 sponsored the Spirits of St. Louis junior team coached by Jim Schneider. Kevin Livingston raced with the Spirits and went on to compete in the Tour de France six times, twice on Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team.
His son, Ray Jr., took on more of the day-to-day business at A-1 in the early 1970s, but his father continued to work. “He loved it. I recall him unloading bikes from the truck when he was 80,” said Ray Jr. His brother, Rich, joined the family business in the 1990s.
Dirk and Sven Sprogoe bought A-1 in 2015 and renamed it Billy Goat Bicycle Co.
“We bought our first road bikes here, so to me it’s always been our shop,” Dirk said.
He remembers a race Ray organized that went around Busch Stadium during the VP Fair.
“Back then, there was hardly ever a crowd for bike races, but people coming to the fair would stop on the bridges, the stairs, and the road to watch us. You felt like a pro with that crowd of spectators.”
Joe Becker was an Olympic cyclist who raced as a teenager on the St. Louis Cycling Club. He won the Elgin-to-Chicago race in 1949 at age 18 and the Florida State Championship in 1955. After graduating from St. Louis University, he joined the Air Force.
While in the military, Becker raced on the 1956 Olympic cycling team in Melbourne, Australia. All four members of the team were in the St. Louis Cycling Club. Becker was the only American to finish the road race.
After running a Catholic Supply store in south St. Louis for several years, Becker opened Bike Center at the corner of Pershing and Jackson in University City in 1970.
Paul Aiken, manager of the bike shop at REI St. Louis, walked into Becker’s shop when he was 9 years old to buy a cable for a bike he was fixing for a friend. Becker offered him a job fixing flats.
“Joe was always very kind,” Aiken said. “He cared more about his family and employees than bicycling.”
“Joe was a good businessman. He was very particular about making sure the bikes were right. I used to show up on Sunday mornings to train with Joe and hang around with his son, Karl,” said Bob Blackwood.
When Jim Chappuis bought Bike Center in 1982, he adopted the name for all his stores. After he moved the University City store, one café after another opened and closed on the Pershing site, leaving people to wonder if the space was cursed. Jeff and Erin Gerhardt brought cycling back to the corner in 2017 when they opened Cursed Bikes & Coffee there.
Karl Becker learned the trade from his dad, then worked for Rich Morris at Maplewood Bicycle and Ray Florman at A-1. He bought A&M Bicycles from Bob Blackwood in 2000.
“Karl was not about the up-sale,” said Amy Becker, Karl’s sister. “One of his customers told me Karl sold him a bike for $10, so he could get to work. He wanted people on a bicycle they would enjoy.”
After Karl died suddenly in 2018, customers donated more than $2,000 for the renovation of the Penrose Park Velodrome in his memory.
The Gerhardts bought A&M from the Becker family in 2019 and plan to add a coffee shop similar to the setup they have at Cursed in University City, where Becker’s Bike Center once stood.
Tom Fleming at Urban Shark called the link “a circle of bicycle love.”
Donald Humphries co-founded the Touring Cyclist with Carol Boedeker in 1973 during an oil shortage and a boom in bike sales.
“He killed two birds with one stone, investing in the shop and putting his three sons to work,” said his son, Ben Humphries.
As the founders of the Adventure Cycling Association were hatching a plan for the 1976 Bikecentennial cross-country ride, Don was heating up the bicycle touring business in St. Louis with weekend bike tours.
“People who had never ridden bicycles would start with those tours,” Ben said.
By 1978, Tom Yarborough was running the St. Louis Bicycle Touring Society for Don, offering day rides, weekend trips, and overseas bike vacations. Those riders helped fuel the growth of Touring Cyclist to become the largest dealer in St. Louis in the 1980s, with eight stores.
Touring was just the beginning. Don was an early supporter of triathlon, charged his managers with putting on some of the area’s first mountain bike races, and built a BMX track in north St. Louis County. Annual weekend warehouse sales drew hundreds of customers, who lined up 20-deep to buy bicycles.
“Back then, if a store did a quarter million dollars in a year, it was doing pretty well. Don would do that much in a weekend,” said Ken Blackwood. “He would advertise that sale on every TV channel, in print, and on the radio, and we’d all be busy because everyone was thinking bicycles.”
“When hybrid bicycles came on the market, Don bought all he could because they worked well for his day tours,” said Glenn Meyer, who worked at the Manchester Touring Cyclist store. “At a meeting of the top 10 Specialized dealers, some of the dealers complained about lagging hybrid sales. Don asked to buy their stock, since he was selling every hybrid he could get his hands on.”
Don was also an early supporter of the Katy Trail.
“When we heard that the MKT Railroad was going to close, Don said, ‘They’re going to build a bike path there, you watch,’” said Mark Rathz, who was general manager at The Touring Cyclist. “We had clipboards in every store with a petition to convert the MKT to the Katy Trail.”
“He spent a lot of time lobbying lawmakers to make [the Katy Trail] a state park and fund the maintenance,” added Ben.
The recession, the internet, shrinking margins, and the pressures of running eight stores took a toll on the business. By 2011, only the Bridgeton flagship store remained, but Don’s influence continued through many current shop owners who got their start at the Touring Cyclist, including the owners of Big Shark Bicycle Co., Sunset Cyclery, Momentum Cycles, and The Hub Bicycle Company.
“Don trained a lot of young men to have enough power to make things happen,” said Ed Foster, who managed the South County Touring Cyclist store before opening Sunset Cyclery with his wife, Kit.
Paying it Forward
All these connections and shared history have made for a friendly business community that, despite narrow margins, is doing more than ever to promote cycling.
“All of us have worked together at one point,” said Ron Clipp, co-owner of The Hub. “If you don’t buy a bike from me, I hope you’ll go to a good quality local shop where they’ll take care of you.”
The Hub, like many area shops, offers free bike maintenance classes and weekly shop rides that get people more comfortable in the saddle. Big Shark presents two professional race events each year and many other rides and races. Shops frequently trade inventory when they need a bike or part for a customer. They support neighborhood schools and charities and sponsor teams.
“We believe that if you want to have recreational rides and competitive rides and charity events and all the different types, be it gravel or cyclocross or road or advocacy, you can’t sit on the sidelines. You have to be in it,” said Mike Weiss, owner of Big Shark. “It’s not a terribly lucrative industry, but it’s a passionate industry.”
Author: Janice Branham is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.