Interviewed by Scot Hinckley
Alex Kostelnik/2020 Cycle Interview
When I moved to Seattle’s Central District neighborhood, I unwittingly struck gold when I stopped into the local bike shop to get a tune-up on my beloved 1998 Bontrager. Now, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the prevalence of cookie cutter shops with cookie cutter bikes and cookie cutter disgruntled employees is on the rise. They’re unwelcoming at best, and at worst they’re flat-out intimidating and unpleasant to spend any amount of time in. 2020 Cycle is not this kind of shop; what it is, is the kind of shop you’d open if you and your friends were into bikes and genuinely wanted your shop to be a haven for the average cyclist. I’ve spent hours (and hours and hours) at 2020 over the past couple of years, sometimes getting great advice and sometimes just having a chat. Alex, Chris, and Daniel handle everything between the three of them, all while making it a really fun place to be. I finally sat down with Alex to do an informal interview/conversation because I think he and 2020 Cycle’s story is the type of thing that gets far too little attention in the world of bicycling. We hunkered down with some Mexican food from the truck across the street and this is what came of it.
So the thing I was thinking is that we should just start at the start and cover your background. By that I mean your background with bicycles and geographically since I guess I’m trying to put the emphasis on the local thing.
Is that the question?
Unfortunately. I guess it’s more of a lead that I’m hoping inspires an answer.
OK, I was born and raised in Seattle, about 8 blocks from here. Well, born 8 blocks from here but I was raised in the Greenlake neighborhood. I bussed to the Central District from, like, ‘74 to ‘82. I went to T.T. Minor Elementary School, which is only 3 blocks from here. Now it’s a shitty charter school. Then I went to Kimble on Beacon Hill, and then I went to Meany just about 6 blocks from here, and then I went to Garfield…
Oh yeah, I’ve seen that one! It’s nice. (I still get excited when I know what someone’s talking about when it comes to seattle stuff)
Is that his school?
And Bruce Lee. Both of them, kind of exciting.
I thought you were going to say Bruce Springsteen, but then I remembered he’s from NJ.
Yeah, Thunder Road is somewhere else. Anyway, my last year I had this fantasy of being able to walk to school so I petitioned the bussing program to let me go to my neighborhood school for the end of High School and I hated it. I went to Roosevelt at the end and I didn’t like it. I liked Garfield. My mom grew up in Everett. She and my dad met because my dad got a job at Boeing. Not the normal kind of job at Boeing; he worked for Bill Boeing personally. Bill had helicopters and my dad flew the helicopters for, like, his Cascade winter home. He’d fly them there so they could go to and fro skiing in, like, 30 minutes. Multiple helicopters. Like limos, except they’re helicopters. And then he decided that Bill and his friends were all a bunch of martini clinking freaks; they were really conservative. My dad was really outspoken and really liberal. When my dad was in his early 30s, he wrote a manifesto on his portable typewriter where he espoused his beliefs, and this was in 1962, and he said that he believed the United States should disarm immediately and let ourselves be invaded so we could just stop oppressing the whole world. He wrote, “at least there will be no ash in our mouth”.
That’s kind of when we were just starting to get into regime change, isn’t it?
Uh huh, the whole world was having a revolution until the assassinations starting coming in, along with the heroin. But that’s another story. We’re still there, worldwide revolution I say. Oh yeah, Seattle…Well, I’ve always been here and my mom’s a very Northwest woman. She was jobless forever which is probably why we never moved. I fell in love with this neighborhood because I spend my childhood years here, going to school. That’s why I wanted the shop here. Geographically, that’s where I’m coming from.
So you just honed in on the Central District, and that was that?
With good associations and some knowledge of what it was like; a good feel for the neighborhood. When I saw there was an espresso shop and that tavern had turned into a Mexican grocery corner store, and the junkies weren’t there any more, I was blown away. I saw the neighborhood was at a new point, that it was reviving, and so I was inspired to have a business here. Plus my girlfriend lived down the street. I’ve always been southern-facing as a Seattleite. When I was a kid, I had black friends. I didn’t have to pretend I did later and wonder who they were. I’ve been kind of psychologically primed for this neighborhood since way back. I just never left, really.
It’s sort of an accident; I’m not obsessed with bikes because I’m environmentally conscious or anything, I just never got a car.
Yeah, I’ve never owned a car my whole life. To this day, 44 years, no car. I’ve borrowed them, I’ve rented them, I have a license.
I guess when you live in a city, or here which isn’t exactly downtown, but it’s still packed in enough to where you can get around.
Yeah, you can easily get by without a car. It’s not bad. You can do it, I’ve done it my whole life. The thing about cars is that I don’t think they’re evil, I just think that there’s too many of them and they’re treated like appliances. They’re taken for granted and overused. The great thing about not owning a car is that everyone you know has 6 of them. They’re everywhere, you’re tripping over them, so it’s not hard to get access to one. Once you can get over that crackhead mentality of crying because you don’t have a car at your disposal and overindulging using it by taking it 3 blocks to go to the store. It just gets out of hand. My friend Carl, he has a Crown Victoria that he only uses for special occasions when he wants to have a “car” experience. It’s the way you’d say, “Oh, I’m gonna fly my light aircraft today”. It’s a gas guzzler, an ex-cop-car. But he said “I don’t care if gas is $20 per gallon, I can flex my ankle and fly up a hill at 60mph and be like god”. It’s just become mundane because it’s overused, but it’s actually this fantastic experience as long as you keep it special.
I guess it’s hard to keep that mindset on a commuting basis, you know. Because when you commute, the most mundane of all activities, you’re crawling along with the entire city.
Yeah, so I’m a non-car-owning Seattleite who owns a bike shop because I was a mechanic for so long that I finally decided to quit complaining and have the shop that I kept saying could be so cool instead of being an unsatisfied smart-ass.
Where did you work before? I know you were at Velo…
I was at Velo, U-District Cycle, then at Montlake, REI. REI was actually the last bike job I had and that was in 2005.
And then you just decided to do your own thing and open up 2020?
Yeah, that was the end of me being somebody else’s employee. (At this point Alex gets a phone call to let him know that the house he and his wife have made an offer on will be theirs. Well, almost, because they have to do an inspection. Anyway, it was a jubilant scene. Good stuff.)
OK, so you gave up the health insurance and steady paycheck and whatever at REI...
…And my bags being searched every morning as I’m going into work.
As you’re going into work?! Into work? Weird, OK, so REI was out the window and you just…
I threw caution to the wind; I took out two credit cards. I had NO money to start with.
Two credit cards?! Holy crap. So you just signed a lease and bought inventory with the credit cards?
Yeah, like 8 tubes, a Redline frame, a pile of used bikes that my neighbor had in his yard, a pot for tea, and a record player. Then I bought a fireplace. That was the next purchase. One of those fake ones with the fake flames. Most of the time we were just sitting around with the neighbors chatting, listening to records, and drinking tea. It was just a hang out. That’s how I got started; I paid my start-up expenses. I paid off the credit cards in 6 months.
So you signed the lease, and then you didn’t even have the money to pay next month’s rent unless you made it?
Yup, and I did. I started repairing bikes, I sold that whole pile of used bikes, I remember watching it shrink. I think we still sell the most used bikes of any shop I know of.
Do you remember the first thing you sold? Was it a repair, or an actual thing?
The first thing I did was, well there was this old black guy who came in and I cut him a slice of cake that my sister had made. Then we sat down and talked about religion and the neighborhood. So the first thing I sold was a friendship I guess. Then I sold an inner tube, and then a really nice Bianchi touring bike that was fairly trashed. It was old, from the 80s. Anyway, that first customer is still a friend of mine. He’s actually playing a show here in a week and a half. He’s in a band called Your Heart Breaks. He’s also the manager of a metal band. He even has his own TV show he does called “Boating With Clyde”. He takes people out on Lake Washington and interviews them in his row boat. Super cool dude.
When did you finally get an employee?
I started out with a co-worker from REI, and I had never hired somebody in my life. I was never a boss before and I didn’t do the best job. But in all fairness, neither did she. I fired her and she threw the keys at me. We made up later to acquaintance level. So that was my first employee and that was probably 9 or 10 months in. I did everything myself at first. I was closed on weekends so I could sleep. I ran everything by myself. I had a spiral bound notebook that I kept everything in. All repairs, everyone’s phone numbers, everything.
Your hours seem reasonable now, but were you just open all day when you first started just to be available?
The days weren’t long officially, but I would stay over by myself after we were closed. I had to be closed just to breathe and catch up on repairs. That was almost every night and every morning. So after I’d been open for a year, because I’d been successful, I put a sign on my door that said “gone fishing” and I went to Hawaii. I just split and totally flipped out on the beach because I’d been working non-stop for a whole year. Just shut the shop for 8 days.
So now that your store’s been open for awhile, who do you think it caters to? Or do you think that it caters to anybody in particular?
We cater to moms with duct-taped Burley trailers with their kids inside on their way to Montessori school. People who ride in the rain, in the snow, it’s those people. Then it radiates out from there. If you were going to make a tree, the trunk of the tree is them. We’re super practical commuter people, me included. But when we started out, we were doing a TON of fixies because that was right in the middle of the fixie craze. We were building a pair of Velocity wheels every day, in all the crazy colors. We were getting all the crazy single-speed frames, we were converting bikes to single-speed. We had all those kids here. It was before people started turning them into trials trick bikes which they seem to now. It was a completely different sort of culture I think. That kind of came and went, and we moved away from it when you could buy Velocity wheels at 7/11 because it was just everywhere. It wasn’t what we wanted to make our life-bread. It would be like basing your life on wide leg pants or something.
Something that could just up and disappear.
So we very heavily dug into putting the call out to all of our commuter people and sort of reconfigured as a commuter shop and we’ve been that way ever since.
It does seem like part of the vibe of the shop is “if it works, it’s good” if that makes any sense.
Yeah, totally. It reflects our personalities, like I can’t sell bikes that Chris and Daniel don’t like. They won’t sell them. They’re totally stubborn. So we have to have things we understand and believe in. What we believe in is practical stuff. Wearing normal shoes, dressing in wool rather than spandex. It’s what we already do so it just reflects our personalities. The shop is very much a personal enterprise for the three of us. We’re not trying to be something else, I mean except for the crazy fixie thing that happened in 2006. We kinda got swept into that.
I’ve seen bikes in here for repair that are wicked expensive racing bikes on the other side of the rack from bikes that are being given a few extra years on their already long life.
We’ll fix anything if it seems like a good idea, which is almost everything. Bikes are really simple; they’re fixable, there’s nothing to them. That’s what’s so great. It’s never gonna be that expensive, and it’s never gonna be impossible. You can weld it, whatever, you can fix any bike. If we size up a customer and ask ourselves, “does this person really care about this bike?”, then OK, let’s fix it if the answer’s yes. I don’t care if there’s seaweed hanging off it. We’ll quote them a price, we won’t tell them they need a new bike. I learned that from working with really mean mechanics for the last 20 years. People who would make customers cry.
And we’ve all either had experiences with those people or heard about them.
I worked with them. I worked with a guy once who would make people beg for their bikes back. He wouldn’t let them have them back so he could finish telling them what was wrong their bike. Everyone in the store would hide, and customers would be crying. After seeing all that, I decided that there’s no such thing as a bad bike. If someone cares about it, then that’s their special ride, and I don’t need to know anything more. Torturing customers is just not something that needs to happen, there’s no reason for it.
So tell me about all the used bikes. My favorite at the moment is the Roberts (a beautiful hand-made lugged frame, gorgeous).
We like to keep the patina, always. Have you seen Antiques Roadshow? What’s the first mistake you can make with an Empire Era chair? Refinish it. Don’t do it, don’t refinish it. Leave the scratches. You want to see the history. We do that with all these bikes. We get the guts good so it won’t kill you and it won’t break. We guarantee every bike as if it’s new, and I don’t think anyone else does that. We back all of these 100%. Then you leave it funky. Why would you remove all the flavor?
And then the big new thing is the Sealth. You had your shop for however many years and then you had the idea that you wanted to have your own frames. I know about it, but I think it’s definitely worth talking about for the interview.
The Sealth is patterned after my bike. I have a bike that was made for me by Dave Levy. He started TiCycles a long, long time ago. Dave is now onto 2 or 3 other ventures. He built me a CroMo touring bike in the 90s and it became my favorite bike. I rode it for 12 years straight. There were a couple of things about it that weren’t perfect. That’s the risk you take with a hand-made bike. With a known bike, it’s like a pair of Levi’s 501s; you know what you’re getting. With a custom bike, there are ways to go wrong, and my bike was a perfect example. He’s one of the best frame builders around, it’s not about that. It’s not about the quality of the build. He made my headtube too steep, so whenever you put bags on the front, it would flop to one side. It was a nightmare when I was using panniers in the front. He wanted to make it a sporty touring bike, and I now grit my teeth when I think of when he said that. It was too sporty. He made the bottom bracket too high, because he wanted it to be sporty. The only two things I changed for the Sealth are the bottom bracket height and a more relaxed head tube angle. Other than that, it’s a carbon copy of my bike. I’m making everyone ride my bike.
So it’s a classic touring bike, as interpreted by Alex?
Yeah, and it started with me interpreting it to Dave, who mostly got it. Then I rode the shit out of it for 12 years and worked out every quirk. Then I fixed the two things that always bothered me and that’s what everyone’s riding when they try the Sealth.
What’s it like when you load it up?
It’s amazing. It likes a load. It’s itching for a load. It’s light, stiff, strong, and has a super long wheel base to keep it stable. The bottom bracket is the lowest in the industry, lower than most people would do. Your center of gravity gets nice and low. It takes a whole chain plus 5 more links to hook up the drive train. You gotta buy two chains. That’s how long the wheelbase is.
How big a tire can you fit on it?
We’ve tried up to 45c and we haven’t found bigger ones to try yet. It’s fatter than hell. I bet you could even get a fender in without any problem.
And it’s made in Seattle, right?
Hand-made by the guys at Bombus Bikes, designed by me, and the frame tubing is from Mississippi, union made by the United Steel Workers. I like to say that it’s a fair-trade-shade-grown-gay-whale-civil-rights-stop-the-war-bike. We’re trying to sell 10 per year, I’m not trying to set the world on fire. Grant Petersen, that’s his job. To set the pace for a look, a feel, and style. He does it beautifully, and has been for several decades, and I love what he does. It’s just not my style to tell people what’s cool. I’ve spent my life running from those people, though not from Grant, but the people who’ve said “this is what’s cool”, that’s the last thing those people ever said to me because I’d just leave. I’m an outsider, but I don’t want to create a new inside from my outside. I don’t want a gang of me. And I don’t have huge needs, I don’t want gold-plated spaghetti, I just want spaghetti.
Tell me about the 2020/Fuel Cyclocross Team. You’ve never once told me about the team. I had to randomly find out, which I weird.
We have the weirdest relationship you’ve ever seen in the bike business. My friend Dani has a beautiful series of coffee shops here and she also started High 5 Pie.
I’ve had that, it’s delicious. I had the chocolate cream.
Absolutely, the apple’s good too. Sam, our team captain, came to me and he came to Dani and he said, “you’re my two favorite things in the Central District so I want that to be the team”. He didn’t look at who could give him more money, or more exposure, or bike parts, or who was most dedicated to cyclocross. Sam is the kind of guy who comes here with a bottle of whiskey and we hang out talking Romanian politics and he loves going to Fuel to get coffee. It’s the weirdest sponsorship you’ve ever seen, and it’s just because some of us are good friends. That’s why I sponsor them. Plus they’re an amazing team, they’re really competitive. They’re not assholes; they’re the nicest group of people who will ever kick your ass on a race track. They’ll bring their families, it’s diverse, full spectrum. They don’t live in breathe cyclocross racing. They’re super fun.
Are there any other sort of local tie-ins that you like to do with the shop? Things you can do because you have a bike shop?
Music. We have shows from time to time. My life is defined by mics and bikes. Recording music, producing music, and bicycles. I put on shows here because I’ve gotten older and I’m not trying to go to a bar and get laid any more. I really don’t go to shows anymore. I have my own specific, special shows here. They’re very one-off. Every one of them is like it’s the last one. It’s only friends, and it only costs like $5 to go to one. But I’m not a venue, you can only play here if you’re a friend of mine or you’re my favorite band. It’s not a normal venue. It’s a total community activity. It ties me into all of my neighbors and everybody around me. It’s not a normal bike shop thing to do.
The last thing I’m going to hit you with is a two-fer. You can go whatever direction you want with this. Comparing the “olden days”, do you think bicycle culture is more diverse now? Less diverse? I seems that the range of bikes you can buy are starting to get narrowed down more and more.
I think there’s more people doing the same sort of stuff that we all did. There’s just more of it.
Do you think there’s any lack of some new company doing something weird and new and cool for bikes?
When American industry re-tooled and re-found themselves in the world of bikes in the latest bike revival, which has been up and down since about 1890, China had already come along. Game over. There was no reason to make it here anymore. Now you just have frame builders.
I heard that Italians will buy more bikes than cars this year for the first time since World War II.
Well, we’re running out of fuel and everybody wants to be back in the city again. So now they’re all happily riding through the towns and making their market stops. Housing is more dense, which also makes it great for bikes. The bike revival right now is a perfect storm of a bunch of factors. The great thing about a bike is that it’s perfect, and it’s been perfect for a long time. I like to say that a bike shows off it’s guts because it’s so proud of them, but a car hides them. The basic thing doesn’t need to change, people just need to ride them.