Story by Benjamin Whitney
Photos by Anne Cleary
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you may not realize that Bellingham’s mountain bike scene is on fire. Flanked by mixed-use logging land and state parks, the area boasts more trails than après-ride beer gardens – though those are also plentiful. The terrain provides the kindling, but it’s the fervid bike fiends, such as Alleycat Bike Shop’s Duke Pakdee, who fan the flames.
Pakdee, a soft-spoken Chicago native, followed the trails long ago to the mountain biking epicenter of B.C. And although he’s spent years traveling the globe plying his trade as a mechanic for international road cycling teams, Pakdee has always considered B.C. the dream.
But even dreams have realistic limitations. “I overstayed my visa a few times,” Pakdee said, “so Canada and I don’t get along super awesome.” Laughing, he added, “They let me back in now, but if you want a hassle-free border crossing you probably shouldn’t come with me.”
Canada may not know what it’s missing. In the seven years he’s called Bellingham home, Pakdee has made a name for himself as a go-to mechanic for the most complicated and vexing of mountain bike components, such as suspension forks, which often need to be sent to manufacturers for periodic servicing and troubleshooting, a process that can take weeks. But if Pakdee has the part available, there’s a good bet that he can solve the problem in-house.
“If there is something wrong with a bike,” Pakdee says, “I think the customer feels better talking to the person working on it instead of spending all this extra time trying to chase the problem down.”
Alleycat opened in June 2013 in Bellingham’s artsy Alley District. Pakdee split his time between fixing bikes and engineering sound at the Green Frog, a bar and music venue located above his shop. But after several months he was already pressed for floor space and within a year he moved to a garage in the Lettered Streets neighborhood.
The move offered more floor space, but the garage wasn’t an obvious location for window shoppers and it was hardly visible to passing cars. Even customers who knew Alleycat was there might have trouble finding the door. Yet, people sought out the shop in increasing numbers.
“When I first moved to Bellingham, a friend sent me to Alleycat and I knew I was in the right place,” said local rider Haleahy Craven. “Duke’s the kind of guy who remembers you, your name and your bike after meeting you just once.”
Craven’s story isn’t singular. “I go to Duke because he never tries to upsell me,” said Joe Adams. “And he takes the time to explain the reasoning behind his recommendations.”
Adams, who grew up racing mountain bikes in Vermont, has frequented his fair share of bike shops and appreciates Pakdee’s placidity. “Duke’s just incredibly friendly and has zero attitude about bike stuff,” Adams says. “Alleycat is a judgement-free zone.”
Pakdee’s following grew to the point that he would often shuffle several bikes just to free up workspace and then shuffle again for storage. The shop was getting cluttered. Pakdee once again needed more space, but lacked the time or immediate desire to go out store shopping.
It turns out he wouldn’t need to. Just as Alleycat was gearing up for bike season, Pakdee’s landlord proposed moving him into a recently available storefront adjacent to his garage, on the corner of Girard and J streets. The move would solve a number of problems: more floor space for one, visibility from a busy road another; the storefront was even complete with showroom windows, a luxury Pakdee had gone without.
But June was high time for fixing bikes and not ideal for moving. More space and prime real estate also meant higher rent. “I looked at the numbers and was like, I don’t know,” Pakdee said. “But I did it. We needed more space!” So Pakdee and Alleycat’s two shop mechanics, Matt Church and Nate Simpson, spent two weeks during their busy season fixing bikes by day while renovating and moving by night.
All settled in – brand decals on showroom windows and all – Pakdee isn’t planning to slow down just yet. Nurturing a growing business in Bellingham isn’t easy; locals are loyal and the town isn’t lacking for skilled mechanics or bike shops. So what accounts for Alleycat’s steady growth over the past four years?
Pakdee, characteristically humble, shrugged. “You can’t be a shop that thinks it’s going to get everybody and everything,” he said. “If I try to cover the gamut from road bikes to kids bikes to fat bikes, I’ll spread myself a little bit thin.”
Not a natural salesperson, Pakdee isn’t eagerly competing with other shops for bike sales. Sure he’ll sell a bike that he thinks is rad or gear he’s tested and swears by, but his focus is decidedly on the service. “There aren’t a lot of mechanics that are trying to make a go of it as a mechanic,” he said.
And perhaps that’s just it. Pakdee has been working on bikes going on 20 years and riding them even longer. His passion is apparent, and not just because it’s the hot thing to do. As Adams suggests, Pakdee prioritizes his customers’ needs and their budgets.
Take dropper seat-posts as an example. Changing seat height once meant fiddling with Allen keys trailside. Dropper posts, now nearly ubiquitous, are a boon for technical trail riding as they enable on-the-fly adjustment. Though, should a problem occur and the seat height starts to sag, part kits are pricey and labor is time-consuming.
“I call it the dollars-to-sag ratio,” said Pakdee, whose customers apply varying degrees of tolerance to the dreaded sag. “Some customers will want a full rebuild for three or four millimeters of sag [in dropper posts],” he said, “and others will come in with 60 percent sag after using the quick release for weeks.”
Alleycat’s mechanics, who are all too familiar with this problem, work on a case-by-case basis. “It’s just like anything,” Pakdee said, “if you’re locked into one method you might not be able to find a solution that gets you there faster and easier.”
Writer: Inspired by the allure of the North Cascades, Benjamin Whitney moved to Bellingham from Vermont this winter. He writes about people, place and community, and is excited to contribute to the creative wellspring that surrounds the alpine.
Photographer: An always-say-yes attitude and a passion for storytelling through media brought Anne Cleary to Bellingham. She has employed filmmaking and photography to document and share adventure.