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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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RIP Yellow Jersey, Madison's outlaw bike shop
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Yellow Jersey has an outlaw frisson more suited to a Harley shop than one devoted to the most efficient vehicles on the planet.
Credit:Dave Tenenbaum

Unless you love bike shops -- the old style, with bikes and parts hanging in semi-controlled chaos, staffed by passionate experts who don't need to tap a keyboard to know the seat-tube diameter of a 1968 Peugeot PX-10 -- you may not miss the Yellow Jersey, which is leaving State Street on Monday, September 30 after a 42-year run.

If you do love these shops, you may still have been put off by the bloodcurdling, right-wing radio chosen by owner Andy Muzi, who can be old-world charming or "I've heard that question a million times" gruff, who loves equally to chew over bikes, Latin and world politics, philosophy, ethics and crime, not to mention a litany of other human foibles.

I love bike shops, and I love Yellow Jersey, and though I wasn't surprised at their decision to move to the village of Arlington in Columbia County, to concentrate on their online sales, I was saddened.

Arlington, 20-something miles north of Madison? It's not just a long way. It's in the flats, with, I'm guessing, roads that are too boring to ride.

When the former Yellow Jersey bike co-op coalesced in the late '60s, a good bike was hard to find, so a group of bikies set out to fix that by buying direct. In the early 1970s, about the time I bought my first Yellow Jersey bike -- an obscure Italian Frejus -- Andy took over the store.

The Jersey was not just popular -- it was synonymous with biking in Madison.

I soon recognized that Andy knows everything about bikes. As a bike commuter, I appreciate their routine of fixing on-the-spot, or at worst by late afternoon, so I can ride home.

I got a lesson in Andy's unique, highly personal business technique about 20 years ago, when a repair on a bike with hardened arteries had revealed further problems, and the bill for a $35 estimate rose to $60. As I fished out my wallet, I mentioned the estimate, at which point he pulled $25 from the register and said with finality, "Then that's the price."

That was hardly the only time the Jersey saved me money. A year ago, my road bike started groaning. I spent $250 at the manufacturer's store, but the noise persisted. The mechanics finally found a tiny scratch in the carbon and told me that their lawyer had instructed them to tell me that the frame was dangerous. I could replace the bike for, say, $3,500.

One evening, I spent an hour talking it over with Andy and his ace mechanic Tim Bouche. No way, they said. Eventually, Tim traced the annoying noise to a wheel. He adjusted it, charged me $15, and the noise went silent.

Of course, nobody is perfect, and I sometimes found myself tweaking their work or overriding their advice.

Yellow Jersey has an outlaw frisson more suited to a Harley shop than one devoted to the most efficient vehicles on the planet, and Tim, with his piercings and tattoos, was intimidating at first. Now I see him as a straight shooter who will talk guns, bikes or politics without inhibition.

Once upon a time, Yellow Jersey was the only choice in town to buy or fix a fast bike. But the biking culture has grown, for better and, sometimes, worse.

Bike choices have multiplied until a small showroom on State Street can no longer begin to display them all. And Andy says students no longer buy a bike when they reach Madison.

Last week, during the least-advertised moving sale in Madison history, Trekky, my wife bought a terrific Bianchi town bike for a song -- making that at least six Yellow Jersey bike purchases in the family.

Times may have changed, and yet, when a partner on the road asks me, "You still take your bike there?" I say yes.

Until now.

I never got used to hearing right-wing screamers on the noon radio, and I doubt this did much for a business reliant on bike riders. These days, the radio has been featuring another Andy Muzi passion, the original blues: Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Andy and I reminisce about which of these giants we were lucky enough to hear. And then talk some shop.

Sure, I get his point of view: State Street rents are outlandish for a shop that gets little ride-in business. But the blues sums up how I feel about the departure of Madison's most distinctive bike shop.

RIP Yellow Jersey. Ride in peace.


[Editor's note: This has been corrected to note Yellow Jersey is closing its State Street location on September 30.]

David Tenenbaum, a long-time contributor to Isthmus, is an even longer-time cyclist: winter, summer, spring but don't ever fall! "Citizen" is an op-ed that represents the views of this author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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