The Bike Club is not your typical bicycle shop. Entering the Bike Club for the first time can be a bit intimidating. It feels more like a cluttered warehouse than a spacious store filled with wide rows of shiny new bikes, clothes and gear.
Although its front door is on Washington Street (Lee Highway) in the city of Falls Church, VA, veteran customers are more likely to enter through the side door, marked "Service", just a few steps from the shop's rear parking lot. Inside, dozens of bicycles, seemingly hundreds of tires, and uncounted wheels hang from the ceiling of the long, narrow building. Other bicycles are tightly wedged against each other running down half the length of the store. A narrow aisle separates the bikes from a rarely used counter.
Roughly in the center of the shop is a repair stand. This is the heart of the enterprise and it's where you're most likely to find Phuoc Van Pham, the owner. That is when the weather is cold. Other days, Pham can be found just outside the service door -- down from the collection of used bikes and bike frames lining the outside wall -- working on an outdoor repair stand. He's usually at one stand or the other, seven days a week. With the warm weather, the Bike Club stays open until 8 p.m. Other times it closes at 6.
It's been a long, mostly uphill road for Pham. A native of Viet Nam, he was too young for the military during the war there, but shortly after the United States pulled out of Viet Nam, so did Pham. For the latter part of the 1970s, he bounced around Southeast Asia, living in Laos, Korea, Thailand, and Japan. During that period, a Vietnamese family living in Thailand "adopted" Pham and he considers them his family.
His main occupation was as a kick boxer. Pham told SPOKES he was a state champion in his age bracket in Thailand. In 1978, a church group agreed to sponsor him to come to the United States and he was brought to St. Cloud, Minn. He worked in a motorcycle repair shop there for a few years before being laid off. So he headed east, arriving in Herndon, VA, to stay with his adopted sister. Her brother was working at NOVA Cycles in Herndon, so Pham began hanging around the warehouse, learning how bikes were put together.
"I didn't know anything about bicycles. I just watched and I learned quick," Pham said. Soon he was working full time assembling bicycles in NOVA's warehouse. His quick work was soon noticed within the company, and Pham was asked to work in NOVA's Springfield store when it opened. Eventually, he began traveling among the seven stores NOVA owned then in Northern Virginia, assembling new bikes and doing repairs.
It wasn't too long before the folks at the Bicycle Exchange and Bikes USA became interested in him. One manager asked Pham how quickly he could assemble bikes. Pham said he could build five to seven in an hour. The manager asked for a demonstration. After building three bikes in a half hour, the manager said he believed him. Offered more money to jump ship, Pham was soon working for the Bicycle Exchange and Bikes USA. At first, he worked in a warehouse in Alexandria assembling bikes. He didn't enjoy it and the pay wasn't what he'd expected. At the time, new bike orders were taking two days to be assembled, Pham said. One female customer started to walk away when told of the two day wait. Pham said he asked her to wait five minutes and he'd have her bike ready. He said he did.
Soon Pham moved into the Exchange stores assembling and repairing bikes. Business was booming and Pham's services began to be sought by the other stores in the Bicycle Exchange's chain, he said. By day he would work on assembling new bikes. In the evening he would make the rounds of the stores working on repairs.
"My name was real popular at the shops," Pham said in broken English. "Everybody wanted to be my friend." Pham's work took him to Bicycle Exchange / Bikes USA stores in Germantown, Baileys Crossroads, Potomac Mills, and even Raleigh, N.C.
In 1990, he was named Bicycle Exchange "Mechanic of the Year." In 1991 he was Bicycle Exchange's "Service Technician of the Year."
In 1993, however, Pham had a falling out with a service manager. When his salary was cut, Pham quit. His finances hit rock bottom. He'd been living lavishly, driving a Mercedes and owning a house in Springfield. Soon, his money was almost gone, he lost the house and the car.
Eventually, Pham found another job with the Washington Bike Center. But it was only a matter of time until Pham realized it was time to run his own shop.
"Then I did it." Leaving work at the Bike Center at 3 p.m., Pham set up a bike repair tent in the front yard of a mattress store owned by a friend in Falls Church. He worked out of a simple toolbox.
Using his $5,000 life savings and borrowing from his insurance policy and 501K plan, Pham was able to scrape together enough money to move a few blocks north into his present location, a one-time pizza parlor. The landlord gave him three months to get his shop stocked and running. But within about six weeks, customers began coming to him for repairs. Pham threw the doors open and has been open ever since.
In the beginning, he sold mostly used road bikes and a smattering of low end GT's. His bike sales now are primarily hybrid, mountain bike and BMX bikes. Most of his road bikes are custom build-ups using old frames and installing components to meet his customers' specifications. He also still sells used bikes.
Most of the business is devoted to repairs. Pham has hired one mechanic and two high school students to help him part time. "Service is what we pride ourselves on here," he said. Indeed, while some bike shops have a week or two waiting period for repairs -- a seemingly interminable period during peak spring and summer riding times -- the Bike Club generally is able to complete all repairs within the same day. And the store is open seven days a week. "I never closed the shop for three years," he says proudly. For the past two years, Pham has sponsored a BMX team of four riders. Last year, team members brought home 37 trophies, many of which are on display at the shop. Meanwhile, his inventory of parts and bikes continues to grow. "My dream is, I want everybody who enters to come in and I have what they want."