Longtime Austin fixture Freewheeling Bicycles closing its doors

Bike shop opened in a West Campus garage apartment 42 years ago

By Pam LeBlanc - American-Statesman Staff

Posted: 6:08 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Freewheeling Bicycles, a neighborhood bike shop that opened in a West Campus garage apartment in 1971, will close at the end of May, the store’s owner said Tuesday.

The business was still profitable but its location, at 2401 San Gabriel Street, “ended up being too expensive for a bike shop,” said owner Angela Prescott, 62. “Once the overlay plan went in, property taxes doubled, and that’s a huge thing to try to absorb. The percentage you pay out in rent is too high.”

Freewheeling was born 42 years ago, when Frank B. Cook was looking for a new bicycle and contacted a dealer who told him, “If you buy five, you can become a bike dealer, too.” Thinking immediately of four friends he could talk into purchases, he took up the offer, said Prescott, his widow.

When the shop opened, 10-speeds were the latest and greatest thing in the bike world, and no one had heard of a mountain bike. University Schwinn was the only other game in town.

The rest is classic Austin history. Cook, who died in 1999, would surreptitiously lug bikes with him to his job at the Austin State School, where he hung them from the ceiling and worked on them during the night shift.

The shop quickly outgrew the garage and moved next door to what was once Nau’s Pharmacy at 24th and San Gabriel streets. There it drew a clientele that prided itself on its knowledge of road bike racing. Even male customers shaved their legs (a habit among bike racers, who say it makes it easier to pick out embedded gravel after a crash), and discussed hot brands like Pinarello.

“It was just iconic. It was the roadie store in Austin,” said Hill Abel, owner of Bicycle Sport Shop, another long-time Austin bike store. “They provided such an incredible community service to the university area for so many years and put so many students on bicycles.”

The 10-speed eventually gave way to the fledgling mountain bike industry and, later, hybrid bikes. The shop expanded again in 1992, moving across the street to 2401 San Gabriel Street, the site of a former grocery store with a big parking lot perfect for test rides. Today it employs nine workers.

Over the years, dozens of University of Texas students worked their way through school assembling and repairing bicycles at Freewheeling. The shop hosted rides, sponsored a women’s soccer team, worked with local cycling clubs and supported the city’s growing cycling scene.

Prescott sold the property last year and has been leasing since then. She scrapped plans to relocate after looking at what else was available. Besides, she said, her children don’t want to be in the bicycle business.

“I don’t want to end up in a strip center,” she said. “I really wanted to stay in West Campus, but prices there are just too high.”

She thanked her customers and said business has been good, despite the opening of several new bike shops in Austin in the recent years.

“There’s such growth in bicycling right now, and if gas prices go up there will be even more bicycling in the future,” Prescott said. “I think there’s room for all these shops. Everyone has their niche. It’s a booming bike town and Austin will be taken care of.”

Prescott will lock up for good May 31. In the short term, the shop will sell vintage bicycle parts and Jim Franklin T-shirts online. It also will host a Bike to Work breakfast station on May 17.

“It has been a great ride,” Prescott said.