Bicycles take Skokie shop owner on ride of his life
Employees Elliott Schachte, of Chicago, and Dan Koob, of Morton Grove, with Larry Binder, owner of Al's Cycle Shop in Skokie. | Natasha Wasinski~For Sun-Times Media
SKOKIE — After seeing thousands of bicycles come and go during a nearly four-decade career in the industry, Larry Binder’s favorite is still the classic Sting-Ray he rode as a child.
Marketed by Schwinn as “the bike that changed young America’s riding habits,” the bicycle, with its high handlebars and banana seat, made a lasting imprint on Binder. So, too, did the summers he spent working at Al’s Cycle Shop in Skokie.
Binder today is the owner of the long-standing bike shop at 8118 Lincoln Ave., which he purchased in 1985 at age 25.
“I knew no matter what I was going to do it was going to be something mechanical,” said Binder, who has a degree in automotive technology.
He noted: “When I started, and I was a kid, it was incredibly busy here.”
A 14-year-old Binder began assembling two-wheelers at the Skokie shop during the 1970s “bike boom,” when more bicycles than cars were being sold in the United States.
Since then he has witnessed a fair number of changes in the market and ridership.
After Chicago-based Schwinn outsourced its production in the early-’80s and went bankrupt in 1992, Binder had to carry a new line of bikes.
He became a dealer of Trek, headquartered in Waterloo, Wis., and has been more than pleased with its product, he said.
The number of bicycle options has also grown over time, particularly for women.
The downside is that the availability of bikes at big-box stores puts a damper on Binder’s business, though the expertise, options and service he offers don’t compare.
With so many choices at one’s disposal, staff at Al’s Cycle Shop assist customers in determining what they want out of a bike and encourage test rides before purchasing.
“There’s really a lot of choices out there and it can be confusing to the customer,” Binder said.
Most of the shop’s customers are recreational riders, he said, though he does see a fair number of people who use bikes to commute, exercise and race.
The most popular category is a classic fitness hybrid, which is good on roads and light gravel trails.
A suspension hybrid has the same size wheels as its fitness counterpart but offers a softer ride with the addition of shocks.
“When you add all that it makes it a little heavier,” Binder said.
Comfort bikes — characterized by thick wheels, low-bar frames and upright seating — are ideal for seniors, Binder said.
The store also carries the “good, old-fashioned” mountain bike and a variety of aerodynamic bikes for racing.
Sportier bikes designed with more-expensive components are for serious riders willing to spend of thousands of dollars, Binder said.
“You aren’t going to ride these to school,” he said.
Repairs and tune-ups are other longtime services of Al’s Cycle Shop.
Binder said a lot of the work is related to typical wear and tear — wheel truing, freeing up seized cables, tire replacements — as well as bikes involved in more damaging accidents.
Luckily there is hope for bikes that fall victim to the force of car, Binder said.
“It’s fixable if the frame is intact,” he said, adding that a well-maintained bike could “last forever.” Just like those early memories of a boy on bike.