Champaign Cycle has been around the block, so to speak. Originally opened in 1969, the business has been instrumental in enriching Champaign-Urbana’s active bike culture for the past 45 years.
During that time, Champaign Cycle’s owner, Peter Davis, has played a huge role in initiating cycling groups, events, and spaces all over Champaign County, including the Prairie Cycle Club, the mountain bike trail at Kickapoo State Park, a rail trail from Champaign to Danville that is currently in the works, a number of Community Used Bike Sales (which benefit Habitat for Humanity), and a series of bicycle tours designed to introduce community members to area museums. He’s an avid cyclist himself, and for decades he has led group rides to destinations throughout Champaign County.
But Champaign Cycle’s established reputation doesn’t mean they are getting stuck in a rut. A few months ago, Champaign Cycle expanded to a new location in downtown Urbana. The Urbana location—newly renovated and just across the sidewalk from cheerful yellow and red bike racks near the corner of Race and Main—is jam-packed with every cycling accessory and type of bike imaginable, including colorful commuter bikes, sleek hybrids, tons of mountain bike gear.
According to the new location’s manager, Alex Hegeman-Davis (Peter Davis’s son), there are some key differences between Champaign Cycle’s two locations.
“The Champaign location tends to be a more high-end store, and for that reason, it’s more of a destination. At the moment, we’re thinking the Urbana location is more of a commuter store, so that’s the way we’ve gone with our stocking. But we’re paying attention to what people here are interested in, so our focus may change over time.”
He said he has noticed folks in Urbana have been particularly interested in commuter bikes in unusual, bright colors, so they have stocked styles and colors that they hope will appeal to the community’s eclectic tastes.
But the differences between the two locations shouldn’t pigeonhole how people think about Champaign Cycle’s Urbana location. “We can do everything, and we can get everything. There’s not really a product we can’t get for someone. We have the ability to do every kind of service, and I think that kind of sets us apart from other bike stores in the area,” said Alex.
Champaign Cycle is a true family business: Alex told me he “came into the business 33 years ago when [he] was born.”
“I used to run the register when I was like, eight. I learned how to ride when I was five, and I did thirty miles when I was seven on a single-speed kids’ bike. I’ve been around bikes my whole life, and I’ve seen bike culture continue to change and expand throughout the whole country during that time.”
Alex is currently transitioning into taking over the business from his father. He has big shoes to fill, since, as he put it, “Champaign Cycle has been part of the C-U cycling community pretty much forever.” To learn more about Champaign Cycle’s influence in the community, I spoke with Peter Davis about some of its rich history.
Smile Politely: How did you first get involved in cycling?
Peter Davis: I came into the cycling business as a business person. I was not a cycling enthusiast initially. My old college roommate was the cycling enthusiast and was my original partner, but he left the business 40 years ago. So for a long time, this was a business for me. But about 30 years ago, I started riding, and I’ve become more and more of a cyclist. I’ve found it’s a very doable activity. You can participate at the level you’re comfortable with. These days — as I’m now 67 — it’s a matter of keeping moving or stopping moving. The beauty of cycling is that it’s low-impact, great aerobic conditioning, and it’s very social. Personally, I only want to ride with other people. I like riding with other people so you can support each other and challenge each other.
SP: Champaign Cycle has been a leader in C-U bike culture for decades. When you look back on how you’ve contributed to C-U, what are some of the highlights?
Davis: We’ve evolved into a very community-active business. We do much more than sell bikes. We’ve realized that supporting the sport is important to the growth of the business, and we’ve also learned that supporting the community in general is best for everyone. So over the years, we’ve been involved in many organizations and events that benefit the people of C-U.
One example was starting — along with a few other people — the Prairie Cycle Club (PCC) in 1971. I was involved in getting the PCC’s first century, which is a 100-mile race, off the ground. I’ve held every office in the club (except for secretary!), led rides since 1988, and supported their event Champaign-Urbana Across the Prairie (CUAP). CUAP is PCC’s annual tour, which is coming up on August 23rd. It includes several different ride choices and is designed for all types of riders.
I was also involved in starting the Kickapoo Mountain Bike Club. We circulated a petition to develop a mountain bike trail at Kickapoo and got 150 signatures. That indicated to the park administration that there was enough interest to start the trail. I also donated some of the original funding, ran their first several races, donated for trail signs, and aided the 2014 trail renovation. We’ve been involved with them ever since.
I’ve also worked on developing a new rail trail, which will run 24.5 miles from Champaign to Danville. Champaign County Development and Conservation, a local preservation group dedicated to making Champaign Co a better place to live, has been working on this rail trail for a long time. They just completed the purchase of the land, which will now be developed into a multi-use path for runners, hikers, and cyclists. I’ve been on their trail committee to get the land purchased for the past seven years. The rail trail will be a tremendous recreational activity for the people who live in this area. The beauty of a rail trail is that it entirely isolates you from cars, so it’s a great place for beginning riders, families with kids, and people who are getting older.
Champaign Cycle has organized community used bike sales for the past 5 years, which benefit Habitat for Humanity and bike sellers/buyers. We’ve raised about $20,000 over the past several years.
Another highlight is that we are the equipment sponsor of the Illini 4000, which is a student organization here at University of Illinois that raises funds for cancer research. They have been in existence for 6-10 years, and we’ve ben involved with them for the past three or four. They are a group of students who solicit contributions and ride from the east coast to the west coast, 4,000 miles. We supply their equipment, including bikes and parts, and support them as they ride 4,000 miles, which is a huge undertaking.
SP: Tell us a bit about the weekly rides listed on Champaign Cycle’s website.
Davis: We can’t take credit for all of those rides — they are organized by a lot of different groups, and we just publicize the information. There are weekly rides are organized by Prairie Cycle Club, Champaign County Bikes, the Bike Project, and other groups.
I do lead some rides, including a Wednesday night ride that is designed to introduce people to group riding and riding longer distances. On that ride, we go 12-14 miles and introduce people some basic things about riding their bicycles.
Over the years, I have organized about thirty century-length day tours, and we have organized a variety of day tours, including the current museum series tours, as well as the Breast Cancer Awareness Ride. We have done Art Gallery Tours, the C-U EcoTour, and trail days at Kickapoo. We want to give people opportunities and events in which they can use their bikes in different ways.
SP: What kind of bike is your top seller?
Davis: In numbers, hybrids, which are recreational/commuter bikes. But we sell a huge variety of bike types, so it would be a mistake to concentrate on just that one.
SP: How would you characterize the biking interests of your average customer?
Davis: There is no average customer. The riders in C-U are as diverse a group of riders as any in the nation. Cycling is a very diverse sport. People do it with many different physical output levels and for many different reasons. Our customers are long-distance touring riders, they are people who want to ride their bikes to the store, they are parents who pull their kids in trailers behind them, they are off-road riders, and they are racers. We stock a very broad range of equipment that’s applicable to all those different riders. Cycling just appeals to so many people on different levels.
SP: Besides the opening your new Urbana location, are there any new features or changes to Champaign Cycle that you’re particularly excited about?
Davis: The most exciting thing in our business is change. There is a continuing development of new products, and our customers’ needs are always changing. We’re developing new interests and gaining new skills in our personal cycling. There’s lots going on and the second location in Urbana is just one indication of that.
Alex mentioned another delicious-sounding indication of changes within Champaign Cycle: a new group ride designed to help cyclists check out wild fruits in the Champaign area. “A map has been developed for it, so we’re going to be taking people, especially families, on those rides soon,” he said.
Now that’s a sweet ride.