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Spin out

Motor City beauty and awe on two-wheeled rentals and an elevated heart rate

MT Photo: Marvin Shaouni
Breaking the cycle: Business owners Kelli Kavanaugh and Karen Gage gear up to open shop.
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Published 4/30/2008

When a new business called Wheelhouse Detroit opens at the Rivard Plaza on the riverfront, it'll be a landmark event for a handful of reasons. For one, it's been more than 30 years since bike rentals were offered at a park or recreation area owned by the city of Detroit. That's something.

Friends of Belle Isle president, Mary Waterstone, recalls using the island park's rental bikes up to the early 1970s.

"My husband and I rented bikes on the island up until about 1972," she says. "I don't think there were any bike rentals after that year."

Kelli Kavanaugh (who, you'll note, contributes to Metro Times occasionally) and Karen Gage, co-owners of Wheelhouse Detroit, will reintroduce the charm and expediency of bicycle rentals to the city with a grand opening on May 2. Their shop is among a few uplifting additions to the Detroit RiverWalk, which includes a nautical-themed carousel and a new concessions kiosk.

They'll start with about 30 bikes, including a tandem, standard cruisers, city mountain bikes, kids bikes, tag-alongs, and trailers. Accessories, snacks, service and repairs will also be available. Most bikes will come from Kona, a U.S./Canadian-owned manufacturer with a philanthropic bent. For every two bikes the company sells, it donates one to a mobile home health care provider in Africa.

There's something about a bike rental place that says you're in a city worth investigating, like, say, Portland, Oregon, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Kavanaugh and Gage — both longtime cyclists and event organizers —agree.

Kavanaugh notes that Detroit is the "perfect city for biking. It's not a very dense city. And when you're on a bike, you can see everything, yet you're covering a lot of ground."

Motivated by an entrepreneurial spirit and equipped with their collective experience in small business counseling and urban planning, Kavanaugh and Gage knew they wanted to launch a business together. When they heard that the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy had slated a spot for rental bikes at the Rivard Plaza, they knew they'd found the opportunity.

"I think there's a growing cycling community in this city," Kavanaugh says.

"Back Alley Bikes just opened The Hub, which is a non-profit bike shop. Today in Detroit there are six different bike tours."

With advice from friends and a group of established and aspiring entrepreneurs called Open City Detroit, Kavanaugh and Gage put together a business plan and laid the groundwork for their new business. They made personal investments and received start-up funding through the Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund.

"We have friends who are small business owners," Kavanaugh says. "Liz at Canine to Five, Shawn at Pure Detroit, Clair at Bureau of Urban Living. ... They're big inspirations to us and have been a big help along the way."

Before the Wheelhouse idea was born, Kavanaugh and Gage, both Detroit-area natives, were already active in organizing bike events such as the Tour de Troit, the 40-mile bike tour that drew more than 600 cyclists last year. They will continue to stay involved but will offer a variety of new tours through their shop.

"The tours expose people to new scenery and new places," Kavanaugh says. "Places they might not have seen before. We show them Detroit's gems, like Indian Village and also the sewage treatment plant. We show Detroit as it is, I think. "

Rising green chic and attendant environmental consciousness, mounting gas prices and the physical benefits of cycling give Wheelhouse's future a somewhat shiny glow. Everyone from downtown execs on a lunch break to international tourists in town for the Electronic Music Festival might be inclined to take a minimum two-hour spin around the city for about $15. The shop will also offer daylong and weekend packages for those up for longer urban adventures.

Wheelhouse Detroit will be open Friday through Sunday until Memorial Day weekend, and daily after that, at Rivard Plaza, on the Detroit RiverWalk, 1340 E. Atwater, Detroit; 313-656-BIKE. Find more information at www.wheelhousedetroit.com or e-mail info@wheelhousedetroit.com.

Norene Cashen is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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