How important are bicycles in the lives of Pete Balzereit and Sylvia Knust?
Just look at Sylvia’s ring finger.
“My wedding ring, it’s titanium,” says Knust, as she takes it off to show a visitor. “It’s cut off the end of a titanium handlebar. I took it to the jeweler, who also happened to like biking. They did a trade for a bike or something.”
While most brides dream of diamonds and gold, Knust --who married Balzereit in 1997-- went for meaning over metal.
It makes sense when you consider the two met because of bicycles and now own and operate A&B Cycle in Santee, a shop that moved to the city about seven years ago after previous incarnations in El Cajon and Alpine.
Today, they not only operate the shop on Mission Gorge Road, but often make family bike outings a part of their days off on Sundays and Mondays. You might see both of them pedaling around Santee Lakes or along the San Diego waterfront or Coronado with their two boys (ages 13 and 10).
It was because of an accident, however, that Pete and Sylvia started biking in tandem.
“The way I met Pete originally, it was in Alpine,” says Knust, 41. “I accidentally dropped a kitchen knife on my foot and it cut the tendon in my big toe. At the time I was working for the Forest Service and I was a firefighter and I had to stay in shape, but they said I couldn’t run, I couldn’t do all this exercise. But I could ride a bike, and so I went into the shop up in Alpine and one thing led to another and I started riding with them.
“Every Tuesday Pete and a bunch of his friends would go mountain biking up in Alpine and I would ride with them.”
Since then, the two have been pedaling side by side. And since Pete’s dad, Al, retired a while back and Sylvia quit her job in marketing to devote more time to the shop and her family, it’s been a smooth ride.
The two share the work, but Pete handles most of the repairs and mechanical jobs while Sylvia, says Pete, is the “PR princess,” updating the shop’s website and doing marketing.
“We like it because we enjoy it,” says Pete, 47, trying to explain why they do what they do. “I don’t dread coming to work in the morning. It’s the right level of stress with me to be OK, or lack of stress. And I think the interaction with the customers, it’s just fun.
“You get that person in that is all of a sudden on a bike, hasn’t ridden since they were a kid, you know, and it wakes the kid up in you again, like, ‘Yeah, this is a cool thing we’re doing.’ ”
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Pete always was interested in bikes. He can remember as a boy drawing pictures of machines that always seemed to run on chains and gears.
The whole mechanical aspect of cycling was what attracted him.
“I can remember even when I was on a trip with my dad in Oregon and I bought a road bike magazine and I was maybe 15, and I’d look at a certain bike and I’d go, ‘Oh, wow. This is beautiful.’ "
“It was something about the bike, not even so much as the transportation but just the simplicity, how awesome it is as a vehicle. So I connected with that.”
As he got older, he got hooked on mountain bikes when they became popular in the 1980s.
Eventually, he and his dad went into business together, opening their first shop in Alpine about 20 years ago, then opening a second shop in El Cajon. They soon closed the Alpine shop and, about seven years ago – looking for a better location– moved A&B Cycle into its current location on Mission Gorge, just west of its intersection with Cottonwood Avenue. (The A&B Cycle name actually is just a shortened version of the store’s name when it was in El Cajon, American Bicycle Company.)
Pete says his dad had long run his own businesses, so brought his experience to the cycle shop, while to Pete the venture just “seemed to fit” because of his infatuation with bikes and his mechanical acumen.
As the years progressed, Pete and Sylvia have evolved from mountain biking to more casual riding, and that’s reflected in the bikes they sell.
Now, their biggest sellers are comfort bikes, beach cruisers and “Townies” by Electra, that are geared toward adults who just want to go out for a fun ride on streets and paths rather than the serious cycles you’d see in competitive road racing or mountain biking. The seats are bigger and more comfortable and the handlebars more upright.
They also sell kids’ bikes, BMX cycles, all sorts of accessories and Pete handles repairs of all kinds.
Mostly, they focus on selling bikes for “fun and comfort.”
“What I’ve noticed over the years is the products that we carry tend to reflect also our age,” he says, laughing. “When we were younger we were into the fast stuff, but now connect better with the customers who are closer to our age. It just happens a little bit naturally. I guess you don’t notice until you’re in it.”
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Though he technically retired, Pete’s dad, Al, still comes in when needed to work.
But for the most part now, A&B Cycle is Pete and Sylvia’s gig, and they say they love having their own business and building relationships with customers.
They work hard, but then they can close up at 6 p.m. on weekdays and walk away. They look forward to their days off together and their life away from work.
But the job is satisfying. Both say they get the biggest kick out of seeing a man or woman come in, take a bike for a test ride around the block and come back happy.
“They’ve got this big grin as they’re coming around the corner,” says Sylvia.
“It’s the smiles,” adds Pete.
It’s why Sylvia has no regrets about leaving her marketing job. In marketing, she was trying to sell people things they didn’t necessarily need or know about.
Here, when customers walk through the door, they’re looking for something they want – and she can help them get it.
“It’s straightforward and something we believe in,” she says.
For Pete, to have his interest in bikes turn into his livelihood is more than he could have expected.
“And then to have a wife that likes biking, wow, what else could you ask for?” he says, laughing.