By Aimee Caruso
Valley News Staff Writer Sunday, May 07, 2017
West Lebanon — For more than two decades, bike mechanic Todd Chewning worked in brick-and-mortar stores, repairing and tuning up bicycles as customers brought them in. But last year, he did a 180. Now, he takes the shop to the customers.
Cowbell Mobile Bike Shop lives in a white Ford Transit van outfitted with neatly organized tools, bike parts, accessories, a workstand, and, for when he or his clients need a lift, an espresso machine. The cargo van is roomy enough for company, a plus for the personable West Lebanon resident.
“Some people like to hang out in the van and watch and talk,” said Chewning, 47. At regular bike shops mechanics are often “kind of hidden” away, but working in the van makes it easy to talk bikes with clients.
“It’s very cool,” he said.
Chewning has always been into cycling — growing up, he’d raced BMX. But he hadn’t planned to become a bike mechanic. He’d studied drafting in college, just as the industry started going digital.
“I couldn’t sit in front of a computer,” the Baltimore native said.
He took a job in a bike shop after college and stayed in the field, earning mechanic certifications and working as a service manager. About 10 years ago he moved with his wife, Kim, to the Upper Valley, where he managed a new bicycle shop at Eastern Mountain Sports and later worked at the Bike Hub. When the Norwich business closed in early 2016, Chewning opted to shift gears. A mobile repair business was something he’d had in mind for a long time, and it would fill a need; convenient bike services for busy, active Upper Valley residents.
The mobile approach has caught on, with shops popping up across the country, some representing franchises. Chewning considered the franchise route, but they take “a pretty big cut,” he said.
His father, a mechanical engineer encouraged him. “Anything they can teach you, you already know,” he’d said.
For the first few months, Chewning worked out of his Subaru Impreza. Then, with assistance from his parents and in-laws, he bought the van, which his friends helped him outfit. He looked to Upper Valley SCORE, in Lebanon, for business advice, including a course on building websites, and eventually dedicated a rainy afternoon to building his own site, cowbellmobilebikeshop.com.
His services range from simple, inexpensive repairs, such as replacing a tube ($10), to a complete overhaul ($150), and he also offers ride support for group rides. Cowbell Racing, the business’ cycling team, is sponsored by Ibex and World Bicycle Relief, a nonprofit that provide bicycles to people in developing countries. Most of the 15 or so members race cyclocross.
“We all hang out and have a lot of fun,” said Chewning, who also is a bike dealer. He carries KindHuman Bicycles, which are custom-built in Canada.
He takes clients within a roughly 25-mile radius of West Lebanon, and also maintains the bicycles for Dartmouth College’s Bike Share program. For corporate clients, he offers onsite bike repairs and maintenance classes for employees.
Bumps in the Road
The mobile business model has its bumps.
For one, getting the OK to carry certain brands of parts is an uphill slog.
A lot of companies are not completely open to the mobile model yet, Chewning said. And while he carries everything from patch kits to brake pads, bottom brackets to blinky lights, there’s only so much room in the van for stock, so some repairs require ordering a part. Now and again, for jobs that involve painting, welding or, for example, in-depth suspension work, he refers cyclists to other local businesses, which is fine with him.
“There are a lot of people who want to support all of the different (bike) shops, and that’s good,” Chewning said.
Most of his business is concentrated during the warmer months, so to create a more consistent workflow, he plans to bump up the number of classes for kids and adults he teaches in his garage, a bright, tidy space in which bikes have displaced cars.
But despite the obstacles, he loves his new path.
The highlights? Being outside and meeting people, and “having a different place to work every day,” he said.
On a recent Thursday, he started the morning at Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford.
Farm Manager Luke Joanis had his hands full — the busy farmstand and cafe would open that weekend for the season. But some things can’t wait.
Cycling “is the basis of my mental health plan,” said Joanis, who rides most nights after work and aims for 7,000 miles a year in the saddle. “I’ve met tons of good friends, and it’s just a healthy pursuit.”
But the bottom bracket on his beloved black Cannondale was creaking with each turn of the pedal, not ideal for a peaceful ride in rural Vermont.
Joanis often works on his own bikes — he’d taken a class with Chewning a few years back — but he didn’t have the right tools for that particular repair. The little tube-shaped bracket was stubborn, but after some wrangling Chewning was able to remove it and replace it with a new one. About 40 minutes after arriving in Thetford, he headed south to Hanover, where a Dartmouth College math instructor met him on a side street.
Edgar Costa wheeled his Belgian bicycle up to the van, its back doors open to the street. He needed longer brake cables, which would make the bike easier to box up, and Chewning retaped the handlebars and adjusted the rear hub and bottom bracket.
He normally works on the bike himself, Costa said, “but when it takes more than a couple of hours, I don’t have the patience or time.”
As Chewning worked, a Dartmouth security officer rolled up on a mountain bike to chat for a few minutes about the Bike Share program. It’s not uncommon for people he knows, or strangers, to stop in and say hello.
“Everybody just wants to know what’s going on,” said Chewning, who often hears comments like, “Wow! You can actually repair a bike in a van? That’s so cool.”
In addition to interactions with passersby, he also enjoys the element of surprise each stop brings, and navigating challenging repairs is part of the fun, he said. “I love getting bikes that are not working right to work nice and smooth.”
Despite its youth, the business seems to be riding along smoothly, as well.
Last year was a good start, and this year is on track to be “very nice,” Chewning said.
“I don’t think I’ll be a millionaire, but I’m doing what I like to do,” he said. “I think I’ll do fine.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.