Is it a bike shop? A brew pub? A dealership? A ride meeting spot? A hangout? At the SplitRock Tap & Wheel in Marin County, California, they say it’s all of the above – and more.
“It’s really an attempt to meet all rider needs in this new era of bike sales and service,” explained Jason Faircloth, an industry veteran who with partner Justin Schwartz and the backing of private investors spent the past six months transforming the former Fairfax Cyclery into a kind of destination spa for mountain bikers.
Located in the heart of bustling Fairfax, next to the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, the 4000-square-foot SplitRock has everything a typical local bike shop would offer: full-service bike bay, generous inventory of bikes, riding apparel, components, and accessories. Indeed, there is lots of eye candy and cool gear.
There’s also a twist. SplitRock is the North American point of presence for Whyte Bikes, a revered U.K. brand that’s still in the process of establishing itself on this side of the Atlantic.
The connection to Whyte is Faircloth, a longtime bike designer and engineer who spent eight years doing product development for Marin Bicycles. Turns out Whyte is one of the core brands in the ATB Sales stable, a U.K.-based bike distributor that also distributed Marin in the U.K. until 2013. When Whyte decided to increase its U.S. presence, NorCal native Faircloth was the natural pick to lead the effort. He’s now Whyte’s U.S. president, with Canada also falling under his purview.
Like a number of European brands, including YT and Canyon, Whyte sells direct to consumers. If you order a Whyte bike and aren’t happy, you can send it back (within 30 days). But if you really want to see one before you buy, SplitRock is the place to go. And in case you’re wondering, the shop name comes from a popular local trail.
Gesturing at rows of bikes and free-standing display stands gracing the floor of the shop, Faircloth says, “Everything you see here you can order online. What this is, is actually a showroom.” Included are Whyte’s new 2018 S-150, and award-winning T-130 lines, both highly regarded bikes thanks to their radical geometry and innovative suspension designs.
And there’s more. In one corner of the shop is a service bay where walk-in repairs and adjustments can be made while you wait. And you don’t have to just stand around. SplitRock has seats and tables where customers can order food and beer while watching a Red Bull video or hanging with friends. Shop hours are 11am to 6pm Monday and Tuesday, 11am to 7pm Wednesday through Friday, and 10am to 7pm Saturday and Sunday. Beer is on tap all day, but the cafe has its own hours: closed Monday and Tuesday, open 4pm to 9pm Wednesday and Thursday, 11am to 10pm Friday, 10am to 10pm Saturday, and 10am to 9pm Sunday. Those hours may be expanded after the current soft opening, though.
On the menu are a Mediterranean plate, Caesar salad, sliders, gourmet pizza and variety of distinctive sandwiches served on Bordenave’s ciabatta bread. Beer and wine are NorCal boutique heavy with Sculpin IPA and Henhouse thrown in for good measure. Hard cider, soft drinks, and non-alcoholic beer also are available.
“We have something for everyone,” said cafe manager Megan Vinson. “No one is going to go away hungry or thirsty.”
Outside is plenty of parking, a real boon in Fairfax, where cyclists were banished from a popular grocery’s parking lot. “In its former bike-shop life on a Saturday the parking lot would be jammed with cars, but the shop would be deserted,” recalled Schwartz. “Now when the lot is full, we’re hopping too.”
Does SplitRock represent a trend? The bike-brew thing has worked for shops elsewhere. Portland’s Velo Cult, Gunnison, Colorado’s Double Shot Cyclery, and Sedona’s Bike & Bean come to mind. With its gourmet menu, long hours, and spacious setting, SplitRock takes the model a few steps further.
Display stands are on casters making removal quick and easy so you can clear the room for special events that could include everything from fundraisers and movie premieres to live music. And the emphasis is on quick turnaround for bike fixes – those situations we’ve all been in where you show up for a day of riding and your tire sealant has failed, you discover a broken spoke, or the shock makes an ominous clunking sound when you drop it off the rack.
“If we can’t fix it on the spot our goal is 24- to 48-hour turnaround,” said mechanic Ryan Fitzgerald. “We want riders back on the trail as soon as possible.”
A bigger question is whether a hybrid shop such as this can distinguish itself in today’s hotly competitive marketplace. Retail bike shops aren’t going away. New and casual riders still get their goods there just as they head to REI for outdoor gear or Best Buy for electronics. But the sophisticated mountain biker who’s a more high-end buyer often doesn’t need (or may think they don’t need) a bike shop to purchase, build, and maintain their bike. They’re happy to do all their business online, expecting lower prices, quicker service, and direct communication with manufacturers and vendors – along with free support when things go sideways. To get these buyers into a shop may well require things like on-demand service, guaranteed parking, micro brews, and tasty food.
Taking on multiple personalities represents a bit of a risk. But if anywhere is a good spot for a bike shop to stretch convention, it’s in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, the place where mountain biking was born.