If life indeed is a highway, there’s no doubt that Byron Thornton would want to ride it all night long on one of his five bicycles — and then hop right back on it again the very next day.
The Columbus resident and Army-brat-turned-Baker-High-School-graduate admittedly eats, sleeps and breathes bicycling to the point that 21 years ago he left the automotive industry entirely to become a bike mechanic. He honed his craft at the old Mike’s Bikes store in north Columbus, then landed at Ride on Bikes on Broadway downtown in 2003.
“This is not like a job,” said the outspoken Thornton, 59. “I never thought that I could make a living doing this. Twenty years ago, you probably couldn’t have. You don’t make good money here. If you want to get rich, this is not the business to be in. You better do it because you love it. If you don’t love it, then just get the hell out of here, because you’re not ever going to be happy financially.”
It was in 2005 that the bespectacled Thornton got two big breaks. One was buying into a partnership at Ride on Bikes with veteran Columbus businessman Buddy Nelms, owner of The Loft among other things, and Jason McKenzie. The second major moment that year was getting struck by a car while cycling, with one of his vertebrae being severely compressed, but not to the point of surgery. He was placed in a body brace for two months and still feels the effects from the crash.
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“I hurt all the time,” he said. “I’m always getting up in the morning and it hurts. Driving my car down here and getting out of my car and walking in here hurts. But once I get going, I’m fine.”
That includes savoring the love of his life — which is cruising down the road or the riverwalk to a distance approaching 10,000 miles a year. That will include a scheduled 160-mile round-trip journey with friends Monday south to Georgetown, Ga., near Eufaula, Ala., as well as the yearly Bicycle Ride Across Georgia.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited recently with Thornton at Ride on Bikes to talk with him about his job as head bike mechanic, what he gets out of it, and why people consistently turn to him for their bicycle maintenance and repairs. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. How did you get started fixing bicycles and get your first job doing it?
A. I taught myself how to work on bikes at 16. So I already knew how to work on bikes. I found out that Mike’s Bikes was covered up with work to get done, so they offered me a part-time job repairing bikes. I would work up there on Fridays and Saturdays. Then they offered me a full-time job and paid me the same amount of money I was making when I was a (auto parts) pattern maker.
Q. As part owner of Ride on Bikes, what are your duties?
A. This is what I do. I don’t run the business. (Nelms and McKenzie) rely on me to keep service up. We have the best service in town, and we have the best service because of me. The guys in here do it the way I do it or they don’t work for me. There’s no getting around that. Don’t do it your way. Do it my way or just get the hell out.
Q. That’s pretty straightforward.
A. I’m picky about how I do things. I just explain to the guys how I want it done. I show them how I build a bike. I don’t care how you do it, as long as the result is the same as how I want it … Because when the bike goes out the door, it’s going out in my name. If a bike comes back and I didn’t work on it, I’m usually going to be pretty pissed off. Not at the customer. I’m just mad because the bike wasn’t right when it left here.
Q. Are you a perfectionist?
A. Yes, I am. I used to have to work within two thousandths of tolerance. You know the cellophane on a pack of cigarettes? That’s two thousandths thick. That’s because I was in the automotive industry, with disc brake anchors, steering knuckles, upper and lower control arms. I worked at Goldens’ Foundry for 10-and-half years and I worked at Perfect Patterns for 13 years. I quit Perfect Patterns and went to work for Mike’s for a year part-time and then two years full-time.
Q. Aside from repairs and maintenance, you put bicycles together for customers?
A. Yes. That’s called a pro build. I’ve had customers bring me a frame and a box of parts and I put it together. They either get (the parts) from us or they go online and get the stuff if they know what they’re looking for. There’s eBay, which is killing us. You can go online and pretty much buy a whole bike, but eBay can’t build it for you.
Q. And you can’t complain to eBay if something’s wrong?
A. They can’t send the bike back to eBay and say, adjust my gear. They’ve got to take it to me eventually.
Q. That means business for you?
A. When I first came to work here, they were averaging two to three repairs a week. The first week I went to work here, I did 15 repairs. They were just lined up waiting for me. Someone would come in the building and say, I heard Byron is here. It was some of my old customers from when I worked at Mike’s.
Q. You bring skills from your former automotive jobs to this one?
A. Oh, yeah. Pattern making taught me, for example ... you get a busted screw in a frame, most of your average bike mechanics cannot figure out how to get that screw out. If you snap that bolt right there (points to a bike), most of the mechanics are going to tell you they’ve got to get you a new stem. A stem is 40 or 50 bucks. I know how to get (the bolt) out. That saves them 40 bucks.
Q. What’s a typical day like for you?
A. I usually get here about 10:30. On Thursdays, I do a ride, so I get here a little later. I get here and go to the computer and punch up what’s available, find the ticket number, go grab the ticket, and do whatever it says needs to be done.
Q. How many bikes will you work on each day on average?
A. Some days it can be just one. I’ve had a bike that’s taken me an entire day to put together. It was just a new bike. Like that one right there, it’s $9,000 retail. It’s state-of-the-art everything. It’s electric shifting. We have another customer with that same bike and he broke a (manual) shift cable. He brings it in to my service guy to replace that one shift cable. He had to completely disassemble the front end to get the old cable out so he could run the new housing and the new cable, and then get it tuned up.
Q. You touched on the Internet’s impact. It has been profound?
A. Five years ago, there were 10,000 bike shops in America. There are 3,800 left. Because of eBay. You can buy parts and get stuff online a lot cheaper than you can from us, and that’s what a lot of people do. They’ll buy parts and components online because they kill our prices, but then they bring it to us to put together. You’ve still got to have a mechanic to build the stuff that knows what they’re doing. You can buy the best stuff in the world, but if you don’t know how to build it, and if you don’t have it right, it doesn’t matter. That’s why they need us.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
A. Probably the most difficult is the stuff that I don’t do anymore, which is the mountain bike stuff. My service guy, who’s not here now, we sent him to shock and fork school so he can actually take your fork apart, he can take the shock apart, and bleed brakes. From a fluid, messy perspective, I just don’t like to mess with that.
Q. Physically, are there issues you face, perhaps with working with your hands so much?
A. Oh, yeah, my hands hurt all the time. If you look at this hand compared to that one, this one’s more wrinkled, it’s drier. It’s got more calluses on it because I do more work with my right hand than my left hand. So it’s that and just from standing around all day, it does get to you after awhile. Like I said, I get up in the morning and I’m hobbling. But I just keep going. Once I get up and go, I’m good.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
A. Building wheels. I love building wheels. You give me a hub, a box of spokes and a rim and let me put it together. That’s my thing. I love it.
Q. Is it simple to do?
A. To most people it’s not simple because you have to get the wheel, first of all, round and get it true so that it don’t wobble. That’s the challenge with a new wheel is when you first build one, the first thing you want to do is get it true and get it round with as low a tension as you can. That’s so when you start to bring the tension up on the spokes, the wheel remains round and true.
Q. Spring is here, obviously. Are you going to see a spike in business with repair and maintenance work?
A. We are spiked already. There are slow seasons right before Thanksgiving, and right before Christmas it gets a little slow. And in January and February, we find projects to do around here because we get a little slow. That’s a good opportunity for us to clean the shop up and maybe build shelves or reorganize or do something to get ready for the busy season. But it has hit us hard this year. We are slammed with repair work right now.
Q. People are coming from all over the city?
A. People are coming from everywhere. They know we have the best service, and we’re it.
Q. Why is bicycling so popular here now?
A. From a health perspective. Some people commute. The River Walk played a big role in it, but now we have the Fall Line Trace as well. Go out and ride the Fall Line Trace or even walk it on a Sunday, and go from Legacy motors on out, and you see all kinds of people on bicycles. It’s just what people want to do. They want to get outside and enjoy the day. They want to see stuff.
Q. Finally, how much longer can you ride your bike?
A. I don’t know. I’ve got customers riding up into their 70s right now. I’ve got one that rides all the time. When he’s in shape and the weather’s good, he’s knocking out 300 miles a week.
Q. How much longer can you go as a bike mechanic?
A. I don’t know. I figure maybe five years. But, who knows, it may not be that many.
Hometown: He’s a “military brat” who came to Columbus in 8th grade, with his dad retiring from the U.S. Army
Current residence: Columbus
Previous jobs: A pattern maker in the automotive industry, he spent more than 10 years at Goldens’ Foundry and 13 years at Perfect Patterns before launching his bicycle repair and maintenance career at the old Mike’s Bikes in Columbus
Education: 1976 graduate of Baker High School
Family: Has two sisters, Elizabeth and Deanna
Leisure time: With five bikes at home, he loves working on them and taking them for a spin near and far, including the annual Bicycle Ride Across Georgia. He rides up to 10,000 miles each year