Stray Cat Strut: Interview with Travis of Madison's Stray Cat Bicycles

A year and a half ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Travis Youman.  I was at The Brink Lounge in Madison for a Madison Bike Winter planning meeting and this guy sits next to me and proceeds to complement my “Dean Martin” style Nutcase helmet.  Being the first guy to ever complement me on my accessories, I had to chuckle.  I quickly noticed his “British flag” Nutcase helmet.  And that was that.  We’ve been friends ever since.

Travis Youman Panda shot by .... Travis Youman

If you live in Madison, you’ve seen either Travis, or his wife Shannon–even if you haven’t realized it.  Their Stray Cat Bicycle CompanySashas” are lit up with Christmas lights and wherever they go, clapping, cheers and whistles follow.  Travis has this thing for lighting.  He’s borderline obsessed with bike lights and other accessories.  This isn’t a bad thing.  If you need lights, he’s the person to hit up.  If you need a classic, clean, affordable,  single speed commuter, he’s your man for that too!  What he does, he does well.  One bike.  Two color choices.  One speed.  One low price.

Travis and Shannon with their Christmas lights

Where in a previous post I talked about Nick Ginster from Fyxation knowing the Taiwanese market, Travis knows the Chinese market like the back of his hand.  I have no clue how he comes up with all the information he has.  It’s not my place to know.  I’m just smart enough to go to him for answers.  Looking for answers?  Check out his blog!

The Sasha in green. Photo by Travis Youman

Travis is not just your average bike geek, he’s also an amazing advocate for urban riders. He’s at many of the city meetings, plays a role in Madison Bike Winter and volunteers at several of the city and Wisconsin Bike Fed events.  His motto is “May Use Full Lane” and is trying to get the city to put these signs up on more streets.  As a bike fed board member, I am so happy we have people like Travis working for the daily commuters.  I am happier still, I get to call him a friend.

Travis working Ride the Drive 2012.

You know the drill.  I ask people questions.  Travis couldn’t outrun me so here it goes…

1) What’s in your stable right now?

Whoa, talk about an open-ended question.  My current stable:
Sasha (gray), bone-stock (freewheel) except for 25mm tires instead of the 23mm that comes on it.
Sasha (green), fixed, no rear brake with an FSA Metropolis handlebar.
2008 Trek Madone road bike
2007 Iron Horse MkIII (you’ll have to pry this out of my cold dead hands before I give it up)
Prototype Stray Cat CX bike (sorta)
Custom 2005 IH Chimpira freeride hardtail (overkill for Madison, haven’t ridden it in a while)
Iron Horse Sunday downhill bike (it lives with my parents back East where there are more places to ride it)
1999 Marin Treviso (replaced by the Madone, but can’t bear to get rid of it)
~12lb Reynolds 853 brakeless fixie that was the impetus for Stray Cat Bicycles

Our steeds for RW24 2012 -- Aaron's Sasha is on the right.

Aaron Crandall coming in from his RW24 lap on his Sasha while Dan Hobson heads out

2) What is one of your fondest bike memories?

The “Pick me up at the border” ride: ~90 miles from Madison to the Illinois border and back, starting at midnight and ending up back at the capitol square about 8 hours (and ~5 beers) later.  It combined everything I love about bikes, utility, fun, friends, beer and the ability to see the world like you’ve never seen it before.

*I had the pleasure of doing PMUATB with Travis–one of the best birthdays I can remember!

Travis (farthest to the right), Nathan Vergin and one of the ride organizers at the end of Pick Me Up At The Border.

3) How long have you been involved in the bicycle industry and how did it all start?
If you believe it, it all started on a North East bike forum.  I was working a corporate job I hated, but spending all of my time (and money) figuring out parts for my own bikes, and those of friends.  I posted something prescient about exchange rates and how certain parts were going to be getting more expensive over the next year, and it was picked up by another member who was a product manager for Iron Horse at the time.  They were expanding rapidly at the time, and apparently I sounded smart enough to warrant an interview.  I started as an Assistant PM, but they were growing so within a few years I had my own categories, including Tommaso road bikes, Iron Horse road bikes and bicycles under the Columbia Sportswear brand.

4) You always seem to keep up with changes in the bike industry–especially with accessories–where do you see the industry going in five years?
I see the “industry” desperately trying to break out of its niche status as an activity to become a more common form of transportation.  Up till now bicycle development and the marketing dollars that go with it have been focused on the activity of cycling – road biking, mountain biking, cycling for exercise (hybrid, comfort bikes, cruisers) and so on.  Using a bicycle as transportation is probably the fastest growing aspect of cycling, whether it’s cargo bikes like the Big Dummy, lightweight single speeds or full-on Dutch bikes.  All are growing based on what people’s needs are, and you’re starting to see more resources devoted to both the development and marketing these bikes.

That goes doubly so for accessories and clothing, as manufacturers are realizing that not everyone wants to go out in full Lycra with more logos than a race car.  People need clothing that’s both technical (not cotton, breathes well, stretches in all the right places, etc) *and* “normal looking”.  If you’re riding less than ~5 miles you don’t need technical clothing at all.  If you’re riding 20+ miles, you’re probably going to be wearing full-on road cycling gear.  Everything in between is a crapshoot based on what the weather is like, what type a person you are, if you break a sweat just watching someone else ride a bike, and so on.  This goes for all aspects of “utilitarian cycling” whether it’s clothes, lights, footwear, bags and especially helmets.  The most popular helmet in this category is actually Nutcase helmets, who took a relatively boring (and hot) skateboard helmet and started putting fashionable graphics and colors on it.

The biggest impediments to this are the bicycle UNfriendly parts of the country.  I grew up in an area of the country (Westchester, NY) where it was impossible to ride a bike on the roads.  The topography and infrastructure (roads cut into the side of rolling hills with no shoulder, no bike lanes, and no sidewalks) made it suicidal to try to get anywhere by bicycle.  Later I lived on Long Island where it was almost as bad.  The topography was better (flat), but it was overcrowded with cars doing 10-15mph over the speed limit and no space left for dedicated bike lanes.  It was such an unfriendly environment that even though it was a bicycle company, I was one of the only people to (occasionally) ride to work.

5) You are heavily involved in bicycle advocacy, what changes do you feel need to be made to get more people out riding? 

Infrastructure.  Period.  I’ll ride in the center of the right lane (as per WI state’s DOT recommendations) on a 4-lane road like Monona Drive while traffic is going by, but very few “non-hardcore cyclists” will do it.  Bike lanes are good, but there are so many more great projects coming out of the planning boards these days.  The segregated bike lanes are a vast improvement, as are attempts to separate pedestrians (3mph) from cyclists (15mph) from motor vehicle traffic (30mph).  Bicycle “superhighways” are building on all that we know about successful bike paths (flat, separated from traffic and pedestrians, few intersections, and connect where people come from and where they’re going) and taking it to the next level by combining all of that into a real bicycle network.  All of this helps people who wouldn’t ordinarily use a bike for transportation to do so.

Second is normalcy.  If you see one person out braving the elements to ride somewhere, you assume he or she’s just crazy.  If you pass 2 dozen people out riding on your commute, 10 bikes parked outside the local restaurant you’re going to, and 1/4 of the people at your office commuting by bike, suddenly it becomes “normal” and people are more likely to give it a try.  Every time people see you out riding, it’s another step towards reaching that point for them.

6) Which cities do you feel have “nailed it” for the bike community and why?
Honestly?  None.  Smaller cities like Madison, Boulder and Portland were able to take advantage of their spacious layout to put in bicycle infrastructure, but it was all low-hanging fruit.  They never prioritized bikes, only worked to include them in the overall planning.  Adding bike lanes when you’re resurfacing a road is a relatively (politically) safe and innocuous idea.  Recently larger cities such as New York and Chicago seem to be taking the initiative, making the hard choices and doing things such as reducing lanes, eliminating parking or installing segregated bicycle lanes (cycle tracks).  London’s Boris Johnson just put out a 30+ page document detailing exactly the outcomes that he wants to achieve, and what he’s willing to do to make it happen.  These larger cities started at a worse point, but they’re putting forward the idea that bicycle planning actually might have priority over cars.  Whether that continues to fruition is yet to be seen.

7) What’s next for you?
Not sure.  We’re looking at a few options, including the possibility of a physical “shop” where we only sell our bicycles.  When we formulated the business plan (3 years ago) we anticipated the majority of our sales being internet sales.  Today the truth is we’re selling *far* more bicycles locally, and it’s allowed us to build up a local presence before trying to branch out.  We still don’t think that the traditional LBS model is the way to go; the markup from the factory to the end user is far higher than in other categories such as electronics, even higher-margin brands like Apple.  Having a small storefront or retail location would enable us to get our bikes in front of far more people here in Madison, and still avoid built-in costs like shipping, additional warehousing, and various profit margins built in.

That’s one of the great things about being a small company, plans can change at any moment (and often do).

Sadly, or not so sadly, this is one of my favorite t-shirts--and it's from Stray Cat Bicycles! Photo by Travis Youman

About Kierstin Kloeckner, Bike Fed Board Member

Kierstin is a personal trainer who lives and bikes in Madison and a board member for the Bike Fed. She writes guest posts for us here, but you can read more of her thoughts on how cycling fits into her life at her personal blog Two Wheels From Home

2 thoughts on “Stray Cat Strut: Interview with Travis of Madison's Stray Cat Bicycles

  1. Thank you Kierstin for the timely article. I had JUST emailed Travis 2 days a go about visiting his warehouse as I am seriously considering getting me a Green Sasha. Still debating over that or a road bike, but if I go fixie route it would be a Sasha. Great article and glad to know a bit more about the source.
    Norm

    • Norm,

      Happy you found it helpful! Travis really is a great guy and cares about his product. Enjoy your new ride, no matter what you choose!

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