Portapedal: A Bike Shop, not a Sitcom

A couple of weeks ago, I went looking for Portapedal, a new-ish bike shop in Tempe, Arizona specializing in portable bikes.

When I found the correct address, this is what I saw:

Porta Pedal Parking


And this is what I imagined would be inside:

Brady Bunch Stairs

And I was partially right. Inside that suburban ranch house was an architect — but a real one, not a domestic comedy fictional patriarch architect like Mike Brady.

Al Cappello is an architect who has run an architecture firm out of that house with the asphalt lawn for 25 years with his business partner Jeff Looker. During the construction boom in the Phoenix area, they employed 15 people. Things were swell. Then the construction bubble burst, and things weren’t so swell for the architecture business.

Al and Jeff decided that they had to go to Plan A: Bikes and Guitars

In 2007, they opened Acoustic Vibes Music, a store for high-end acoustic guitars and other instruments, located in one wing of that Brady house. About a year ago, they opened Portapedal Bikes in another wing. They still keep the architecture business alive, but it’s pushed into a corner.

Readers, you may recall that I have a thing for folding bikes. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned to you that I am also a guitarist — this is a bike blog after all.

I was in heaven.

Looking around, I saw Moultons, Bromptons, Terns, Bikes Friday, and Montagues, and other brands that traditional bike shops tend not to carry — or maybe they carry only one brand.

I spent about an hour there. And I got the trophy I was after. This photo:

Ted Rides a Moulton
Don’t break it… Don’t break it… Don’t break it… Don’t break it… Don’t break it…

That’s me riding a $13,875 bike. A Moulton Speed. This isn’t my dream bike. I just wanted to show this photo to Stuart, a friend of mine who is a metalworker and a bike connoisseur. To him, Moulton bikes are welding porn.

Moulton bikes aren’t really folding bikes, but they break apart easily for shipping. They are designed by Dr. Alex Moulton. From what I understand, he is kind of like the Buckminster Fuller of bikes. These bike frames are made with a space frame design, which makes them light and very rigid — and it means that they have have lots and lots of pretty little welds, if you like that sort of thing. The bike I rode weighed less than 20 pounds.

Moulton Speed Price TagIt was a solid bike, and it rode very very well. The subtle suspension absorbed the stiffness of the frame and small wheels.

To me, it was terror. I realized that I hadn’t ridden a bike with drop bars in about eight years. I kept grabbing for brake levers where there were none. Every time I did, I thought of my checkered history with test rides, and the price tag of the bike I was currently riding.

I wondered how much it was worth for me to be able to say, Haha Stu! I rode a Moulton and you didn’t!

Not that much.

I got the photo and got off the bike. I was relieved to hand it back to Al.

The other bike I tested was also a Moulton, but with flat bars and brake levers where I’m accustomed to finding them. That bike was also really nice — although not quite as expensive. I think it was this one, which sells for a mere $2,295.00:

Moulton TSR 9

What I found interesting is how few of their customers are commuters — especially since they sell Bromptons, Terns, and Bikes Friday; great bikes for multimodal commutes. Tempe does have a light rail system that can connect commuters to downtown Phoenix. Nope. Al said that about 85 percent of the folding bikes he sells are sold to travelers.

When I test rode both bikes, I had to will myself to ride in the lane on Southern Ave. in Tempe — in lieu of the sidewalk: tempting, empty, and safe. And then it made sense to me that the local market for high-end folding bikes would be mostly people who want to survive until their next vacation. Tempe has 165 miles of bike paths, but none of them are in front of Portapedal.

It’s fascinating that Al and Jeff thrived as architects during a period when Phoenix and it’s ‘burbs spread out in car-centric glory. And now they see the future on two wheels. There’s no Mea culpa about it. It’s more like the cliche, “When one door closes another door opens.”

The bursting of the construction bubble gave Al an opportunity to pursue his passion. He likes to say, “The worst day in the cycling business is better than the best day in the architecture business.” But Al recognizes the career change follows a shift in his thinking: from sprawl to anti-sprawl. Portapedal is ahead of Phoenix’ curve in this thinking. But Phoenix’ is slowly changing. Maybe one day there will be bike lane leading to their open door.

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