Part I: From Pro Cycling to Pro Shop
At 36 miles per hour you can only speak in short expletives. The road was flat to rolling and the tail wind was sincere. Three of us were heading back to the bike shop to work on this Saturday morning. The boss was on the front steadily upping the pace to 33, 34, 35, 36mph. I firmly believe the only reason it topped out at 36 was because 0f that wonderful stop light. This stop light allowed me to stay on the wheels, clear my vision, and not throw up.
“Jesus, Ryan!” Jim said, his short expletive used. It wasn’t as much scolding as exhausted admiration.
Ryan Littlefield is the boss: the owner of Contender Bicycles in Salt Lake City with his wife, Alison. We’d ridden a pre-work ride that turned into a late-for-work ride, but he was the boss so I was okay. Jim, Ryan and I turned around before the rest of the group and decided to take full advantage of the formidable tail wind. At the infrequent stoplights, I’d usually start the pace, followed by Jim, then Ryan. I was pretty sure I couldn’t hang on if Ryan came around right after me so I forced Jim into that spot. More than a few times we topped 35mph and twice we hit 38. When we made it back to the shop I went straight to the refrigerator and guzzled whatever sugar beverage I could grab, hands shaking, knees trembling slightly; I’d never ridden that fast for that long. I definitely hadn’t done it repeatedly after each stop light. For the rest of the day I was wrecked and the task of selling bikes was more difficult than ever before.
Littlefield on the bike is a humble destroyer. With a substantial history in top level domestic road racing, he consistently maintains a level of fitness that allows him to flip the switch back to race mode and gracefully ride almost everyone off his wheel. In his racing years he helped create, manage and race for the Brackman Brothers Bagel team, later known as the Einstein Bagel team, a small but noteworthy team in the mid nineties. They raced throughout the western states, traveling to the east coast and California when the race was appropriate. Frequently the team would race against the top domestic teams of the era like Nutra Fig, Navigators, LA Sheriffs and U.S. Postal. This team eventually became the launch pad for several top professional cyclists, including Garmin-Cervelo rider Dave Zabriskie, with whom Littlefield is still very close, and other notable world class and top domestic riders including Levi Leipheimer, Mike Sayers, Eric Messenger, and Burke Swindlehurst.
A solid racer in his own right, Littlefield was also became the brains behind the team, acting as team director and road captain all at once. During my time at Contender Bicycles, Littlefield was the reigning Tuesday Night World Champion at the local raceway, and had been for the previous seven consecutive years. He was also without question the nerve center of the store. He doesn’t travel to races anymore but can certainly light it up with the healthy road racing talent in the Salt Lake Valley.
Contender Bicycles is commonly called a Pro Shop. The inventory selection tends toward the high end with a dominant road focus. With a strong presence from Orbea, Time, Pinarello and BMC, the amount of incredible bikes on the sales floor is staggering. The store layout is basically two large showrooms with exposed brick walls, stained concrete floors and very high ceilings. One room showcases a couple of hundred built bikes on a variety of different display racks, and an enormous wall of frames, lit by floor to ceiling south facing windows. The other room houses even more bikes clothing from Rapha, Assos and Pearl Izumi, as well as accessories, SRM power meters and a long display of wheel sets suspended along the length of the ceiling. There is also a decent sized service department and a private bike fitting area. Contender is truly a dream shop for those passionate about high end road and mountain bikes, whether selling them, simply perusing, or purchasing. They sponsor charity rides in the region, lead group rides from the shop, and organize a strong club of passionate recreational riders and seasoned racers.
Littlefield bought Contender in 1999 and has grown the business to one of the best known shops in the country. This is largely due to Littlefield’s reputation as a cyclist and as an expert in the field of bicycle retail. He’s an accomplished mechanic in his own right but seems to thrive on connecting people with bikes, especially high end, high quality bikes. This is perhaps a reason why he chose the path of bicycle retail versus professional cyclist. Dave Zabriskie claims that, “had Ryan wanted to pursue pro racing he could’ve for sure. I think he chose the bike business because he loves to seal a deal. He is a people person and now he has one of the most successful shops in the nation.” His passion and reputation become immediately evident as soon as you walk in the store, whether as an employee or a customer. I remember we’d get phone calls frequently where the customer would ask for Littlefield only to inquire whether we had 60mm valve presta tubes in stock or something else that any of the employees could have answered. He showcased his passion and abilities without a hint of arrogance or greed. This has afforded Contender a very loyal following over the years.
Ryan and Alison run Contender with their two dogs Leo (whose goalie skills are supernatural) and Cyrus, who possesses a big dog ego in a small dog body. Alison raced frequently at a high level until sidelined by recurring back injuries, recently undergoing her sixth surgery. She still rides and plays an active role at the shop. The Littlefields are always looking for ways to make improvements to the store and grow the business, and while Contender Bicycles perhaps doesn’t actively seek to be the shop other “pro shops” aspire to be, it is.
Part 2 will examine the history and riders of the Bagel Team with interviews from Dave Zabriskie, Mike Sayers and Burke Swindlehurst.