THE FAMILY WITHIN – INSIDE VELO PASADENA
How one man’s obsession for racing, riding and selling European brands helped build a community
The local bike shop. It’s what every city in America once had. It’s what every city in America needs. Luckily, even in the car-crazed capital that is Southern California, there are still plenty of bike shops. Luckier still for some, one of those shops is Velo Pasadena. It was 32 years ago when Hrach Gevrikyan, an immigrant bike racer from Armenia, moved to Pasadena where, prompted by his father to quit the racing game and plan for the future, he opened a small 560-square-foot bike shop.
Over 30 years later the shop has moved three doors down and is unquestionably the best and, sadly, probably the last remaining independent pro bike shop in the area. If ever there was an example of sensory overload, it would be the moment you cross the threshold of a shop stuffed to the rafters with high-end, European road bikes
When it’s not a bike shop, Hrach’s heralded collection of old race bikes that hang from the ceiling (with the spill-over housed in a annex across the street) number in the hundreds and creates a space that doubles as a veritable museum of bygone steel-frame days. A virtual mother lode for any aspiring cycling historian, this is where you find beautiful remnants of long-forgotten bike brands—Olmo, Rossin, Legnano and Gianni Motta—along with vintage models from current brands like Pinarello, Colnago, Time and Look.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Contrary to the growing trend of major brand-concept “superstores,” three decades later Velo Pasadena remains a family-run operation, with a lean crew of a half-dozen employees. When Hrach isn’t running things, his wife Nevrik is there, along with their 28-year-old-son Matthew.
And if Hrach isn’t in the shop, he’s either out on his bike or traveling to a bike launch in Europe—two places where we run into him frequently. On the day we visited, there was Hrach entertaining a collection of young and old riders picking up their supplies for a weekend of group rides and races. And that is where the true magic of the shop resides—customer service, which at times can be especially difficult when they’re forced to haggle with knuckleheads who come in with the expectation of paying internet prices.
“We definitely enjoyed the business more in the ’90s before the internet, social media and so many people coming in expecting us to price match. Back then we were having fun running the shop, but now it’s more about fighting to survive.”
Three decades is a long time to run a bike shop, but it’s his dedication to both his own family and the larger family of neighborhood cyclists that keeps Hrach in the game.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
RBA: When did you first get interested in riding bikes?
Hrach: When I was a teenager in Armenia, I was actually a gymnast, but my brother was a cyclist. When I was around 13 I started stealing his bikes to ride around the neighborhood, and almost right away I knew I wanted to ride bikes. Within a year I started winning races and would go on to win over a dozen national titles in different age groups.
RBA: When did the American experiment begin for you?
Hrach: In 1980 my family was able to move to New York. At the time I was all but sure I was going to quit racing. Between a new country, job and the language barrier, it was just too overwhelming to even think about riding bikes. But one day, when my brother and I were walking in Central Park, we saw some guys riding some Colnagos. My brother told me to go talk to them, which wasn’t easy because I didn’t speak English that well. One of the guys was Johnathan Cooper, and he told me to call Fred Mengoni to see about getting some help. I had my cousin call because he spoke better English, and Fred told us to come over for a visit the next day.
When we got there I told Fred that I had been a good racer in Armenia, and he just grabbed my legs to see if they were strong and said, “Okay.” Right then he rolled out a 56cm Benotto and gave me a pink wool jersey. “There’s a race in two weeks; we’ll see how you do.”
At the time I was working in an auto-body shop making $60 a week, so I had to ask my dad for some money to buy some shoes and a helmet. Luckily, as soon as I mentioned Fred’s name, the guy at the shop gave me a discount!
RBA: So how did the race go?
Hrach: It was a big race, like the Central Park GP, and there were a lot of top guys there. I got in a break of about 15 guys and finished in the top 20. I was so happy, but Fred said I was no good. I got so mad that I started cussing him out in Armenian and had my cousin tell him that he was stupid. I was so angry that I started crying, because I felt like I’d won and he didn’t appreciate how hard I had to work. Eventually, I calmed down and thanked Fred for the support.
Fred just looked at me and said, “Are you finished? No one talks to me like that. I like you!” He let me keep the bike and said there was another race in two weeks.
I knew I needed to get in better shape, so I would be training at night riding through Brooklyn and over the Queensboro Bridge. At the next race I finished second and Fred was so happy. Afterwards, he gave me $800 to help me out, and he would start driving me to the races in his Toyota Celica.
“Cyclists prefer to shop for a variety of bikes and products, and those big concept shops, with all their rules and controls, can’t provide the kind of product choices that we do.”
In 1981 Fred wanted to put me on a team for the Coors Classic along with Harvey Nitz and Dale Stetina, but he couldn’t get it all together. Eventually, I got on a team put together by Doug Knox out in Santa Barbara. I flew to Colorado and was wearing a suit, which was the European style of going to the races, and no one was there to pick me up. Eventually, I saw two guys walking around with shaved legs, and when I asked them if they were to pick me up, they got a little mad: “What are you wearing a suit for?!”
Kent Bostick was riding with us, and the team was the Santa Barbara Cycling Club. We were riding some Rossin bikes that Doug supplied, and I ended up finishing 16th overall.
When I got home, Fred came over to talk to my parents, and that was when he offered me the opportunity to go to Italy for a rider camp sponsored by Fiat. I said no, because I didn’t want to leave my family. Fred, being very Italian, told me he was proud of me for sticking with my family, but then as a cyclist he was sorry for me for not taking the opportunity.
RBA: It was around then that you moved to California?
Hrach: Yes, my family moved here to Pasadena, but I moved to Santa Barbara to keep racing and work for Doug at the Hendrickson bike shop. Unfortunately, I had some bad knee problems, and Doug paid for me to have surgery, but they never got better. It was during a visit to my parents’ that my dad pulled me aside and said it was time for me to start thinking about my future. That was in 1988, and soon thereafter I opened up my shop.
AND SO IT BEGAN
RBA: What’s it like running a bike shop these days?
Hrach: It’s not easy. We definitely enjoyed the business more in the ’90s before the internet, social media and so many people coming in expecting us to price match. Back then, we were having fun running the shop, but now it’s more about fighting to survive.
RBA: What does it take for a bike shop to survive?
Hrach: The two most important are to create a customer base and then work on having them come back. We are lucky that we have loyal customers who understand the culture and community we’re trying to keep alive and are willing to spend a few extra dollars to help maintain it.
RBA: Are you worried about the proliferation of the big-brand-owned concept/superstores?
Hrach: Not at all. In fact, I think they are good for us because the majority of cyclists prefer to shop for a variety of bikes and products, and those big-concept shops, with all their rules and controls, can’t provide the kind of product choices that we do. We spend a lot of money on inventory so we can offer the consumer choices when they need it. If there’s one thing you rarely hear in our shop it’s “I can order that for you.”
RBA: What is it about European bikes that make them so special?
Hrach: I think it’s because if it comes from further away, it makes it more special. Why do you think so many people here buy Porsches and BMWs instead of a Corvette? I love the bikes from Time. It’s a shame more people don’t know about all the forward- thinking engineering they are responsible for. Still, no matter where a bike is from, it still all comes down to what’s in your legs.
RBA: Do you have a favorite bike?
Hrach: I’d say my Pegoretti would definitely be one of them. I grew up on steel bikes, and Dario’s bikes just ride so well.
RBA: How did the bike collection start?
Hrach: A long time ago some guy came in and wanted to trade an old bike for a new one, and now I have about 130 bikes, a bunch of frames, as well as parts and memorabilia.
RBA: What about a favorite racer?
Hrach: It would probably be Jan Ulrich. I like how he was always challenging, and the gears he
pushed, he was always in the big ring!
RBA: What’s your best tip for being an independent bike shop owner?
Hrach: It’s different for everyone and the location, but for me, I’ve never been concerned with being so big. We keep our overhead low and do our best to cater to the enthusiasts who know what we’re selling. Most of all, you have to love cycling. I wouldn’t have ever succeeded if I was just a businessman. You have to ride, you have to know and love the sport.
RBA: Last question, what is it about the bike?
Hrach: The relief it brings. I don’t need a psychiatrist. I just ride my bike, and the best thing is to be able to go out for a ride with my son.