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About Utah: Iconic bike shop led to Moab's salvation in '83

Published: Thursday, May 3 2012 10:10 p.m. MDT

Bill Groff, along with his brother Robin and dad John, started Rim Cyclery and the mountain bike revolution in Moab in 1983 after the uranium mining industry collapsed.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

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MOAB — As with many genuine historic sites, you could drive right past the place without having a clue about its significance.

Just another bike shop in a town full of bike shops.

But hold on a minute.

The fact is, you could search the planet, from one tip to the other, and not find a bike shop much more iconic than Rim Cyclery of Moab, Utah.

It was right here, a block west of Main Street, where the worldwide mountain bike revolution got its jumpstart.

It all started with the uranium bust in 1983.

When the price of uranium dropped to $14 a pound — from a high of $45 just a few years earlier — not only did it put many Moab-area mines and businesses out of business, it rained down especially hard on the Groff family.

John Groff was a purchasing agent for Atlas Minerals, son Robin was a mining engineer, and his other son Bill was an airplane pilot who ferried mining executives from place to place.

Suddenly out of work, the three Groffs had no idea what to do next — until Bill came up with an idea.

He loved to ride bicycles and he loved to fix bicycles. And, he'd just returned from a trip to Salt Lake where he visited a bike shop and had to wait a half-hour just to get waited on.

"We'll show them how to run a bike shop," he said to his dad and brother, and then somehow talked them into opening a bicycle shop in Moab.

They each put down $1,500 and rented a building a block off Main Street from the bank for $100 a month — such was the depressed state of the Moab economy at the time.

In front of the building they put out a sign: "Rim Cyclery."

Bill's plan was to sell road bikes. That's what he rode. That's what everybody rode. But Robin had another idea. He'd heard about a new kind of off-road bike that some people in Marin County, Calif., and Crested Butte, Colo., were using to ride in the mountains. The first of these "fat tire" bikes had been constructed in 1977. By 1983 a small bike manufacturer in San Jose, Calif., called Specialized started mass-producing these "mountain bikes."

Rim Cyclery purchased several mountain bikes in its initial inventory, including one of the first Specialized StumpJumpers ever made, and Robin started riding the fat-tire bikes with friends on some of the jeep trails and wildlife paths in and around Moab — including an old motorcycle route east of town known as the Slickrock Trail.

As it happened, a photographer from National Geographic, Ken Redding, was in Moab and snapped some pictures of the mountain bikers on the Slickrock Trail.

These photos made their way to Crested Butte, Colo., where they were seen by Hank Barlow, an off-road enthusiast who was about to launch a new publication called Mountain Bike Magazine.

The premiere issue came out in June 1985 with a cover picture of two bicyclists on the Slickrock Trail and the Colorado River in the background.

Almost overnight, Moab turned from mining ghost town into adventure tourist mecca, with mountain bikes leading the way.

In short order came the Moab Fat Tire Festival, an event that eventually expired from its own success; the Moab Stage Races, which saw a young Lance Armstrong come to town; creation of dozens of the world's best mountain bike trails, from red rock rides straight out your motel room door to legendary epics such as the Kokopelli Trail and the 100-mile White Rim Trail; and the creation of guide companies to feed you, supply your bike and show you where to ride.

Hard to believe now, but 30 short years ago, none of this existed.

Consider this statistic: In 1983, Rim Cyclery was one of the world's leading seller of mountain bikes — and it sold 15 the entire year.

Today, more than 4 million mountain bikes are sold every year in the United States alone.

Moab sells more than its share. It now has four bike shops, another four full-time tour guide companies and a whole slew of sag wagon businesses offering pick-up and drop-off service to bikers.

Few would dispute its status as mountain bike capital of the world.

The Groffs have observed all of the above from their perch a block off Main Street.

The second generation is now running the operation, but Bill and Robin still drop by regularly.

When the subject of Rim Cyclery's position in the legendary pantheon of bike shops comes up, Bill, for one, tends to shrug it off.

"I'm really not sure it carries much water," he said on a recent spring morning in front of the shop. "Selling bikes is a tough, competitive business."

"You want to know the biggest plus of all this happening?" he then said before answering his own question. "The biggest plus is we all got to stay here and live."

Call it the greatest perk of the revolution.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com

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