Austin is a sports-minded town, and not in the traditional, rabid-fan way of chest paint and chugging contests. (Disclaimer: There's a fair amount of foaming at the mouth during UT football season.) You'll find more runners, cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes than you can shake a stick at – in fact, you couldn't make a dent with a wrecking ball. If the apocalypse were to come tomorrow, Austin would be one of the worst places to live, because all the zombies would run, bike, and swim faster than you.
Despite the numbers, there are more than enough businesses to cater to these obsessive tendencies. In parts of South Austin, within a one-mile radius you might find ten different bike shops. So what sets ATC apart from the masses?
For starters, the people who work here.
Though turnover at most bike shops is high, at ATC the employees tend to stick around. And when one of the chosen few decides to break ranks? ATC sends him off in style. Last Sunday, amid many tears, beers, and grilled sausages, fellow employees and shop-goers said goodbye to Austin Howell, bike mechanic and musician, who will be moving to Dallas to pursue other music opportunities. Austin began working at the shop in 2008, and has been commander-in-chief of ATC's playlist ever since. One can only imagine what will happen in his absence. Band of Horses replaced by the Backstreet Boys? Modest Mouse by Lady Gaga? ATC needs you, Austin.
Austin, said to be a "hummer" ("Which is fine...for a couple of hours," Adam says) and someone you could always depend on to show up on time no matter how late his show went the night before, will be sorely missed. Since he's not the kind of guy you can drink under the table, other ATCers drank themselves under the table on Saturday night in way of consolation.
The staff is small at ATC, but extremely knowledgeable, and most work as mechanics as well as sales people. Brad Wimberly has been on staff since 2003, George Schmitz since 2005, Adam Stroobandt since 2006, and pro mountain biker Tristan Uhl, a recent addition, joined in 2010. Missy and Don Ruthven have owned and run the shop since 2001, when they purchased it from founder Jon Hill. Hill had started ATC in a business park in North Austin, then moved it to its current location in 1997.
Don, originally from Washington State, was a competitive swimmer in high school and college (Penn). Missy, from Houston, ran track at UTSA and went on to get an MEd in exercise physiology at UT and to compete as a pro duathlete. They met when Don volunteered as a lab rat for one of Missy's triathlon research studies. Experiments confirmed that Don was, indeed, an acceptable specimen, so they began training together. Don, using the "Why-don't-we-get-something-to-eat-after" angle, eased his way into bona fide dating status. (Note: It is extremely easy to begin dating a triathlete...as long as you can keep up in at least one of the three sports.)
Before purchasing ATC, Missy and Don had shopped there and had been regular attendees of the Saturday ride, which was legendary even then. Missy had also been sponsored on the shop tri team. But at the time, Don had been working in real estate, and Missy as a nurse. They bought the shop without much (okay, any) retail experience, roughly two months after the 9/11 attacks and in the midst of the .com crash. So there were stiff headwinds in the beginning, and sometimes the shop was more work than they had bargained for. In the first two years, Don was at ATC literally every hour it was open. Luckily, the store continued to flourish along with the growing sport of triathlon.
From the beginning, it was completely hands on – in addition to day-to-day sales and upkeep, Missy did most of the ordering for apparel and the swim shop, and Don ordered bikes and did all bike fits. Don has only recently relinquished the reins of matching bike to rider to prodigy Adam Stroobandt, who (no joke) remembers the seat height of most of the customers he fits. And the shop is still minimally staffed, with Don and Missy frequently manning the counter, though they often pick up additional help in the summer. That minimal staff, however, is as knowledgeable a group as you could hope for, most with years of experience and most actively competing in multi-sport events themselves. In other words, if your bike is your baby, these are the kind of babysitters you want.
ATCers often enter races as a team. (Don, along with Corey May and Tim "Lovin’ Dovin’" Dove [both ATC fixtures], ran the 3M half-marathon on Sunday. Corey was the fastest of the three, setting a PR, but word is he won't even make it on the ATC podium at the Blue Norther Duathlon next month...or so says the competition.) Free race entry, coffee, pizza, unlimited heckling, and heavily discounted equipment are just some of the many employee perks. Carl Burnham, an Aussie who worked at ATC last summer, perhaps says it best: "ATC made me realise that if you do something you enjoy with a good bunch of people you won't work a day in your life." (Granted, maybe if you spend years tuning up Cervelos and talking triathlon, you'll get tired of it, but it's still a lot better than TPS reports.)
When they took over the shop, Don and Missy had the intent to change ATC's reputation as triathlon-only to a store that also serves the needs of pure runners, cyclists, and swimmers year-round. In that vein, they expanded the inventory. The shop is, today, literally packed to the gills with equipment, including everything from run-of-the-mill commuters to aero weenie specials like 3T aero bars and top-of-the-line ZIPP Firecrest wheels. (A big space-saver was getting rid of the endless pool, although that was pretty cool in its own right. Unfortunately, the city did not agree.) ATC is the one of the largest Cervelo dealers in the country, and has a wide variety of always-popular Cannondale and Kestrel bikes, as well. ATC also keeps many parts in stock that other shops have to special order.
People come into the shop from all over the state and U.S. for the selection of bikes, wetsuits, and clothing, particularly during large events like the Capital of Texas Triathlon, AVIA Austin Triathlon, Longhorn 70.3, and Austin Marathon. The most common comment from long-distance visitors is "I wish we had a shop like this in my hometown." ATC has earned a large fan following from athletes south of the border, as well, and printed Mexican-themed swim/bike/run shirts to hand out free last May at CapTex.
That said, ATC has not completely escaped the past and very persistent perception of being "elitist." Many of the people who darken its doorways are, in fact, quite fast. However, ATC sells far more road bikes and commuters than it does time trial bikes. And Don can be easily misread, as some people mistake his dry humor for sarcasm... Alright, sometimes it is sarcasm, but at any rate he'll always tell it like it is. The same is true of all ATCers. They really are friendly, but are often first and foremost athletes or bike aficionados, not mattress salesmen. They won't give you a hard sell on anything, but they are more than happy to help. And they'd really rather help you get what you need than the highest sell. No, really. As mentioned above, they're not always very good at being salesmen.
Now, it's true that ATC's Saturday shop ride is not, as has been asserted by critics, a beginner-friendly ride. It's more the ball-busting-train-of-pain type, but that also makes it unique in Austin, since many other shops around town offer no-drop rides. Beginners are, of course, always welcome on ATC rides. It's a good way for the ambitious to take themselves down a peg (ATCBlogger speaks from experience), although it's best to make sure you've got a buddy who knows the route, or a decent map. On this ride, a tradition since 1999, local and visiting tri and cycling superstars are sincerely and openly, without pretense, out to tear your legs off. BUT, you do get free breakfast tacos after, whether you trail in alone or with the lead pack.
ATC is the kind of place that's appropriately and "weirdly" Austin. The evidence is all in the details. The security bars on the windows are shaped like armadillos and other classically admired figures, and two parakeets, Sunshine and Bluebonnet, live by the back window, happily coexisting with rows of Continental and Vittoria tires. And you'll always find the shop personalities in full tilt, the counter that looks like a bar (and serves that dual purpose on BYOB Wednesday and Saturday nights), the bits and pieces that hardcore tri nerds like, and the air that reeks of grease and sweat (thankfully, figuratively speaking). Whatever else ATC is or is not, it's real, and one-of-kind, and definitely worth a visit.
(All opinions expressed here are ATCBlogger's. I am not, for the record, a shop employee, though I do now have an ATC koozie with my name on it.)