People: Ric Hjertberg: the ultimate wheeler dealer
Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 24, 1996

People: Ric Hjertberg: the ultimate wheeler dealer

"We couldn't understand why he was being so mean to us. He cut everything related to cycling--those neat state maps, bike path construction. Like all people who are mean to bicyclists, people who yell at you or throw Coke on you, we believe it's because the person never had a really nice bike." The mean man in question is former California Gov. George Deukmejian. And what Ric Hjertberg decided to do to soften the pol was to build him a tricked out, envy-of-all-your-friends bicycle. "It was the California State Bicycle," he said.

Did it work? Did the governor cast a more favorable eye on the cycling community after receiving the knockout bike? "I do think he was a little nicer. Anybody who gets a really nice bike automatically becomes nicer."

Hjertberg is the owner of Wheelsmith, the world-class bike shop known to insiders as "a head shop for cycling junkies." "We do get the guys who like to talk titanium seat railings," admits Hjertberg. The store is the official supplier of the U.S. Olympic cycling team.

Hjertberg started the store 21 years ago with his brother, Jon, after graduating from Harvard in economics and working in bike shops.

The store, located in a garage-sized space on Alma Street behind the old North Face, was an oddity: a bike shop with no bikes. The brothers sold tools, made wheels, did repairs, kept antique cycling memorabilia and played jazz all day on the radio. Most days, there seemed to be more conversation passing over the counter than money. "Our approach was kind of the Zen of cycling," he said. "I wouldn't exactly call it a business plan.

"But it was a good time to do it," he said. "It was after the Vietnam War. We all had permission to do something alternative and more ecological." In addition, gas prices were rising, conservation became the new byword and technological advances in bikes drew more people to cycling. "There was this huge influx of talent in the bike industry. More people building bikes, more innovation. There hadn't been that much innovation since the Golden Age of Cycling when practically every inventor worked in a bike shop."

Hjertberg considers it his "destiny" that he became a wheelsmith and bike merchant. "My ancestors had a nail-making factory in Sweden," he said. "I seem to have inherited this unavoidable fascination for fasteners, small metal objects and steel."

Now, the little place on Alma has been replaced by a huge store on Hamilton Avenue that not only repairs bikes but sells them. As an even larger marker of success, Wheelsmith opened a second store in Los Gatos on July 5. Hjertberg has plans for eight more, three more in the Bay Area and five in Southern California. The original wheelbuilding business, run by his brother Jon, is now in Montana. "An empire," he jokes.

In retrospect, nothing else would have worked as well, he said.

"One of the abiding themes at this stage of life is that you are starting to be what you do," he said. "By doing this, I feel like I'm killing 12 birds with one stone.

"No, that's terrible," he quickly adds. "Killing birds is terrible. I feel like I've satisfied 12 things by doing one. It satisfies my artistic side, my mechanical side, my social side and my physical side. Riding is just healthier."

Hjertberg estimates he has ridden between 100,000-200,000 miles in his lifetime. "It's pretty unusual that a week goes by and I haven't ridden at least 100 miles." Lately, he has added riding a tandem with his 7-year-old daughter, Christina, to his patchwork of "exploring" and commuting. "I'd call this the premier place to ride on the planet. Revisiting places I know is enough for me."

As for Deukemejian, Hjertberg has yet to pass him on the road riding his special edition Wheelsmith bike. "I like to think he's still riding it."

--Diane Sussman 

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