Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Building Community

A few years ago Rob Vandermark, founder of Seven Cycles, possibly in an attempt to fill every hour of every day with work, opened a shop near us that combined two of my passions, coffee and bicycles. But the Ride Studio Cafe is so much more than a coffee shop that sells bicycles or a bike shop that sells coffee.

I initially starting frequenting RSC because they were serving up some pretty darn good espresso drinks. Ride Studio Cafe came into being, at a time when I could list on one hand, the other cafes in Massachusetts where I could get a properly pulled shot of espresso. And like any other endeavor that Rob undertakes, he approached this one with passion and the desire to do it right. So naturally there would be a proper espresso machine and properly trained baristas. Now it seems, all the big coffee chains have switched over to using super-automatic machines so they can hire a few ambivalent high school kids, in need of some money to pay for ipod apps, to press buttons and make consistently mediocre espresso, which is then drowned in large enough quantities of overly steamed milk, so as to hide any remote essence or flavor of coffee.

The sight of ceramic mugs warming atop the La Marzocco machine gave me the first indication that I would like the place. I hate paper cups. Espresso drinks do not belong in paper cups. Espresso cups must be properly warmed. Timers and thermometers and real tampers are another key sign that the coffee may be good. If you arrive first thing in the morning, you can watch the barista adjust the grind, which can vary greatly depending on weather. The grind must be tuned regularly to get the precise volume of espresso in a specific time. If you see this happening, it's probably safe to order a straight espresso, and then expect to get a drink that is sweet and rich and full of flavor, without adding sugar or drowning it in milk. But don't get me wrong. I like my milky espresso drinks too. Latte art was something we discovered when we lived in New Zealand, where we had the best female barista in the world (judged so at the world barista championships) working at one of the coffee shops in town. Good latte art doesn't guarantee good drink flavor, but it tends to be a good predictor. You really can't get a good pattern unless you have good espresso crema and only have micro-bubbles in the steamed milk. The feel and flavor of a rich creamy 3 ounce cortado or 5 ounce cappuccino will forever spoil you compared to the foamy monstrosities served up by the chains. Which brings me to volume. Quantity is not quality. If you have a milky espresso drink, the ratios should be such that you can actually taste coffee! And this brings me back to the cups warming atop the machine, with no 20 ounce cups in sight!

Within view of the bar is a small collection of very nice bikes, as well as some pretty flashy bike clothes. In the midst of the shop are tables and chairs where one can linger over a coffee, read a cycling magazine or have a conversation with one of the many other cyclists coming in for a coffee or to meet friends to ride, or maybe to take a bike for a test ride. Cycling videos are often playing on a TV screen, and sometimes one can even catch a live bike race, or a replay from earlier in the day.

In the early days on Sunday mornings, a few folks from Seven came out to lead a ride with anyone who showed up. The Sunday morning ride has now become a fixture, along with a Saturday morning ride, as well as rides on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Presiding over all this was Rob, who must never sleep, since he was still running Seven as well as RSC. But there was no pretense. If you didn't know that the guy washing the cups, or pumping up bike tires, was the founder and president of Seven, well, you wouldn't guess it. He just comes across like a really nice guy running a shop. He is very quiet but loves to listen. Rob is one of those people who can make you feel like you are the most important person in the world.

But what is really going on at this shop is almost subtle. Ride Studio Cafe has been building a community. Over time, the RSC club was formed, complete with a kickoff party, cool jerseys with embroidered logos, and regular rides and events. The race team came next with various racers specializing in different disciplines from road to cyclocross to long distance. More rides, more events and more parties followed.

There is a fee for club membership, which includes the very nice jersey and enough other benefits to make it seem like a bargain. But there is no charge for the weekly rides and special events. One of the first events was a wonderfully hilly ride and party to celebrate the Giro hill climb time trail. I also remember getting the chance to meet an elite world class cyclocross racer at one of the parties and a couple of pro mountain bike racers at another, as well as getting the chance to ride with bike designers from Seven on the Sunday morning spins.

But I also get to meet and ride with plenty of other enthusiast cyclists like myself. These are folks who just love to ride bikes, enjoy having a good coffee and like having a place to hang out. At some point, a friend bragged that our bike club had a clubhouse! And I have come to realize she is right.

I can show up any time on a weekend and find friends. I can show up for the various scheduled rides, or come in later in the day and it is highly likely I will find someone or even some group to go ride with. I know the baristas by name and they know me by name and what I drink. It's like Cheers, but with coffee and bikes!

Patria joined after the first year and has brought so much energy and enthusiasm. While Rob is the quiet hard-working guy in the background, Patria is the exuberant face of the shop.  She's helped to expand the rides and events, and is so warm and friendly and welcoming to everyone. Like Rob, she seems to thrive on working way more hours than anyone should, and like Rob, she brings a love of cycling and a way of building community that just make this place special.

Thanks to Patria and a growing dedicated staff of baristas and bike folks, Rob is able to spend a bit less time at the shop midweek, but he's still there on weekends and holidays and still comes out to do bike fittings and still seems to work every hour of every day. But he also is able to get out and ride occasionally. We always love to see him out on a bike. He has earned that reward!

We've had some really great rides and events this year. The Studio created some training events for the Rialto-Trade Pan-Mass team, and invited others to join in, thus helping raise awareness of their fund-raising in a subtle and friendly way. Another special event was for the randonneurring community. A ride and party gave folks who had never heard of randonneurring or had some interest in these longer rides a chance to learn more and meet some randonneurring celebrities. For cyclo-cross, there are early (as in wee hours of the) morning parties to watch European events and the world championships and eat waffles. Lots of events, lots of food and drink and lots of fun - always.

I recently wrote about the Fall Five, a truly fun, individual, group race that brought out the competive spirit in a few non-racers like myself. This was a solo - race at your own time effort, but many of us still ended up connecting regularly at the shop. Racing together without racing together. And of course it concluded with another great party and some pretty awesome prizes.

Last Monday, I took a day off from riding my bike. I was running some errands (in the car) and happened to be in Lexington. I stopped in RSC to pick up coffee beans and saw a couple of friends who'd just finished a ride. A short while later, two more friends came in and ordered coffee and sat down. Next thing I knew over an hour had passed. Then Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Rob posted a note on the blog and facebook that RSC would be open at 7 on Thanksgiving serving up free porridge for anyone who was riding, along with a note about a last minute group ride at 8:15. The community came out in force, and the place was packed when we arrived. There was Rob behind the bar, making porridge and espresso for lots of grateful cyclists wearing their Ride Studio Cafe jerseys and vests.

I believe Rob is brilliant. He didn't just open a coffee shop or a bike shop. He has created a community and a community space and I for one am quite thankful for that.


  1. What a wonderful post -thanks for sharing. RSC shipped a bike I bought from Lovely Bicycle and did a fantastic job! Next time I'm in the area I'm definitely stopping by!

  2. Oh hi Pam, I am glad to hear that!

    "I believe Rob is brilliant."

    After getting to know RV over the past couple of years, I think it very possible that he is a genius. I don't mean that as a compliment, just as a fact - in the psycho-diagnostic sense.

    But all that aside, I am genuinely thankful for our wonderful little RSC club house. And for meeting you! Hope you are enjoying the long weekend. I am off to (hopefully) finish my frame bright and early tomorrow morning : )

  3. Pamela: You are far too kind. I am very touched. I really appreciate this telling of your experience at the Studio. It's been an honor to get to know you and John; I may never have met you if not for the Studio. This makes it all worthwhile. I'm glad RSC has become part of your cycling route. Hope to see you this weekend.

  4. Pamela,
    This seems like an appropriate time to chime in and tell you how much I enjoy your writing, and how much it inspires my wife and I on our little tandem adventures. I have followed you for a LONG time, on tandem@hobbes and here and am always entertained and delighted by what I read and see. Thanks for sharing!
    Paul Webb