July 15, 2014

by Rachel Walker

The Bikesmith, one man’s vision in a 25-foot van.

Memphis resident Jim Steffen does not want to preach about bikes. He doesn’t want to sound sanctimonious about how being a bike mechanic soothes his soul. And he definitely does not want you to know he thinks bikes are pretty much the best things on earth.

Which is why when you get Jim, an entrepreneur who recently launched a mobile bike shop called The Bikesmith, on the phone, be prepared for him to downplay his accomplishments. Specifically, he won?t take credit for helping revitalize Memphis’s bike culture, even though his shop-on-wheels has ventured into neighborhoods where would-be bike riders collected battered and broken bikes so Jim could fix them. He’s also become the go-to mechanic for the city’s bike park rental fleet, and he’s fast becoming a familiar presence in the streets of this city, which was voted worst for bikes in 2011 by Bicycling magazine.

?Sure, you could say I am getting more people on bikes,? says Jim. ?But everyone’s working hard.?

That hard work is paying off. Just a year after earning that dubious recognition, the city was named ?Most Improved? for biking by the same magazine. It’s a legitimate accolade. Memphis, one of the first PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project cities, has installed 35 miles of bike lanes in the past two years and is working on two protected bike lane projects.

More, city officials are keen to help entrepreneurs like Jim get out on their own. Jim was one of five selected for MEM-Mobile, an incentive-based program aimed to stimulate the economy through mobile businesses. Basically, officials saw the popularity and success of food trucks and decided to encourage a similar model for retailers and service providers.

The man, the myth, the legend: Jim Steffen.

Jim had long fantasized about opening a bike shop in his retirement and trusted he had a market for The Bikesmith, which is housed in a 25-foot step van. His operation is simple: call him, tell him what you need and when you need it by. He?ll come to you and either make the repairs on site or pick up your cargo and return it improved.

His customers span the spectrum, including families with upwards of five kids whose bikes all need work, to bike commuters and amateur racers.

?I will work on any bike, but I really like to work on older bikes,? says Jim. ?It’s rewarding to keep them running. I don’t like to throw something out if you don’t need to, and a lot of times, with bikes, you don’t need to.?

So what’s it like getting bike maintenance on the fly? In a word: easy. Jim’s costs are generally lower than brick and mortar stores, thanks to low overhead, and he has a flexible schedule. He works with customers to make sure they get the repairs they need on a schedule that works for them. The only thing he doesn’t do is emergency roadside assistance.

So far, he’s got a steady stream of customers, which is all part of his grand plan.

?I don’t want to retire,? says Jim. ?I don’t want my goal to be to save up a pile of money and go play golf?not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just wanted to find something I liked that I could do for a long time. And I could work on bikes the rest of my life.?

Rachel Walker is a Boulder-based freelance writer and editor who loves to ride bikes, ski, and chase her kids around. She blogs about the fun and misadventures of parenting at Spawn and Survive. Find her on Twitter at @rodellwalker.

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