My biographical timeline can be separated into eras defined by what bike I was riding, from a grade schooler on a chrome bike decorated with Pizza Hut stickers best described as late ’80s radical to an overconfident 10-year-old feeling too cool on a green department store mountain bike with its own fanny pack to three BMX bikes that brought me from a preteen into adulthood to a more refined and capable mountain bike I bought to ride in Colorado. One thing I’ve learned through my journey is that nothing beats the feeling of kinship when swinging into your local bike shop for a tune up or just to see what’s new.

Machinery Row Bicycles, on the corner of John Nolan and Williamson Street, has been that bike shop for a lot of Madison locals and visitors for over 20 years. Ben Classon, general manager, says, “We try to make it a one stop shop. We’ve got a lot of customers that have been with us for a long, long time. We’re really thankful for their continued business over the years.”

Entering the shop is a treat all its own. It starts with a walk up overly reinforced steps that used to serve as a ramp for farm equipment. In the winters, farmers would bring in whatever needed service and repairs, so that space needed to have high ceilings and massive support beams. There was also a crow’s nest in the middle of the room that has since been removed.

Today, all that space houses a lot of different styles of bikes, including e-bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, and gravel bikes. Ben describes the bike scene as “very cyclical. It wasn’t too long ago, 10 or 15 years, that fixed-gear bikes were all the rage. Everyone wanted to have their single-speed fixed gear to ride around town. Present day, not nearly as many people are looking for that kind of stuff.

“We originally opened here with a focus on the road and the tri scene—Ironman Wisconsin. We used to be very closely tied to all that stuff going on with the race being right here. We used to deal with hundreds of triathletes every year that would be shipping their bikes to us and having us assemble things, get them ready for race day. Over the past 20 years, that has slowly declined to a level where we still sell tri bikes, but it’s not a large part of the market.”

These days, it’s mostly about e-bikes. Even Ben rides his e-bike from Monona to the shop when he can, and he says it’s even quicker than driving. Though some purists still take issue with the e-bike scene, those electric motors are giving a lot of people a second chance to get on a bike.

“If you go out and ride on the bike paths these days, it’s not unusual to see half the bikes people are riding right now are e-bikes. It’s a lot of commuters and a lot of people who are unable to ride something else. … We try to move and adapt with the market, and that’s one of the things about being an independent dealer that’s nice. We have a little bit more control over what we keep in our building and put on our floor.”

That flexibility also dealt them an interesting hand during COVID. “Bike-o-Rama is our large sale we do once a year at the Alliant Energy Center. We fill that place up with way too many bikes over the second weekend of March every year. That’s our start to the year. In 2020, that weekend lined up perfectly with right where Dane County Health began to enact health restrictions on large numbers of people in an enclosed space.

“That year, we set up our entire show, and three hours into our first day of it going, Dane County Health showed up and said, ‘We’re red tagging this. You got to shut it down. You got to get everyone out of here.’

“So we started that year without knowing what’s going to happen. We purchased a lot of inventory specifically to have for that sale and for the start of the year. A lot more inventory than anyone brings on that early. We brought all those bikes to the shop, and they sat here. For a couple weeks, we had no idea what was going to happen. There were questions of how we’re going to pay these bills. How are we going to deal with this?

“All the sudden, this little switch flipped in people’s heads. They realized, ‘I can’t go do things indoors with other people. I want to have something to be able to do outdoors.’ We started seeing parents showing up in force looking for kids’ bikes. Then basic riders looking for their first bike or to replace that broken one that’s been in their garage. We started seeing things just disappearing. Through that year, we literally went from thinking we might have to close our doors to we will sell any bike we can get our hands on.”

That’s the thing about being a community bike shop—it goes both ways. As the community helped Machinery Row during the pandemic, Machinery Row integrates itself into different community events; works with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA); and even sponsors their shop-affiliated road bike team, Brazen Dropouts. Though different biking trends come and go, the die hards of any group can find a home here.

“The owner of our business [Roger Charly], since the late ’70s, has put about 300,000 bikes out into the world here through all of his stores. If you see a bike, there’s a very good chance it came from us. They’ll be times where I’ll be looking at a used bike someone’s selling, and it’ll be ours. Or I’ll see a bike in California with our sticker on there.”

Machinery Row Bicycles doesn’t want to be the only bike store in town. Ben believes that when more people ride bikes, every bike shop benefits along with the city as a whole. People are healthier, there’s less pollution, and the biking infrastructure gets better and better. No matter what phase of life you’re in, there’s a bike out there for you, and Machinery Row Bikes is a great stop to start your search.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer who believes life is like riding a bicycle, so wear a helmet.

Photographs by Eric Tadsen.

Machinery Row Bicycles
601 Williamson Street
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 442-5974