Driving down Market Street, it is easy to miss the world headquarters of Slingshot Bikes
. Housed at 342 Market St. SW, the building looks more like an abandoned warehouse then a custom bike shop, yet within the worn exterior it is a completely renovated and modern office space. As the current owners begin to discuss the history of the business, from the days before they were there, to their vision for the brand's future, it becomes clear that the space actually is a symbol of their goal to keep their product local and their commitment to the Grand Rapids community.
Aaron Joppe, current co-owner, was 10 years old when Slingshot Bikes was founded. The business opened in 1982 and has moved around downtown Grand Rapids over the years, while the brand has expanded worldwide. Always passionate about bicycles and cycling, Joppe remembered the company when he was ready to make a career change.
"I was tired of the nine-to-five, khaki pants, business casual Friday environment," says Joppe. "I'd been in communications for 10 years and was tired of it, and was looking for something else to do. I remembered that Slingshot was in Grand Rapids so I looked them up and inquired about a possible national sales position and, low and behold, they were hiring at the time."
Joppe says one conversation led to another and he ended up purchasing the company in 2007. He currently co-owns the business with PJ McDonald. The two knew they would need a talented welder to continue to build the brand's reputation as a leader in innovation. Joppe says they'd interviewed several different guys, but hadn't been successful in finding the qualifications they were seeking until John Muezenmeyer happened to see an ad on the message board hiring a TIG welder.
Muezenmeyer was a perfect fit, having had a long and successful history in the bicycle industry. He first worked for Slingshot in 1987, but left the company in 1989 to start his own bicycle manufacturing business, Nukeproof
. He sold Nukeproof to a company in Ireland in 2000 and went into the motorcycle manufacturing business for several years. He is now working out of his home workshop, creating the bike frames, and is in the process of becoming a co-owner of Slingshot.
Slingshot is a well-known brand that has withstood the test of time in the cycling world. "You don't hear many bike companies talk about how their customers are calling up wanting their 20-year-old bike restored," says Muezenmeyer. "We get that all the time."
Their reputation has taken on a cult-like status with its customers and Joppe, McDonald and Muezenmeyer are excited to continue to develop a progressive line of products for cyclists.
Their most progressive goal currently, and the one they are most enthused about, is to return Slingshot to being a U.S.-made brand, as it was up until 2000-2001.
When I came in," Joppe explains, "it was all made in Taiwan. Little does the bicycle consumer realize that 99% of all bikes are made in China."
When he first bought the company, Joppe says it was not financially possible to bring the manufacturing back to the United States, but it was something he hoped he'd eventually be able to do. In 2011, Slingshot premiered its first U.S.-made product, the DD-M1, a mountain bike.
"There are still some leftover manufacturers who still manufacture all in the U.S.," says Muezenmeyer. "We are still trying to utilize those people -- California, North Carolina, wherever it might be -- where they're making a component. If they make it in the U.S., we want to try and spec it with them and continue to use U.S. made products."
Muezenmeyer says they expect that by 2012, they will be able to manufacture all of their bike lines in the U.S. and will try to utilize Grand Rapids based-companies as often as possible."
"We utilize local people like Magnum Powder Coating
on West River Drive to do our powder coating," Joppe says. "We want to keep as much as we possibly can in Grand Rapids. Everything is possible from the chroming that we are going to be doing, which is going to be very unique to the whole industry, to the local painter that we have. We have the powder coater, but we also have a wet painter in Hudsonville. It's basically as many parts and pieces that go on the bike, we want to pull (those parts) from the U.S. and steer customers in that direction."
Slingshot has four different product lines currently in stock and they are planning to add a road bike and a commuter bike as well as returning to the company's BMX roots.
Their plans for expansion are well timed given continually increasing gas prices and the rising bicycle culture in urban environments, opening a whole new market of cyclists, particularly in Grand Rapids.
"A lot of the young culture in Grand Rapids are cycle savvy," says Muezenmeyer, "so there is a huge market. All over the country in towns like Grand Rapids that have that culture there, you see them riding. I go by Kendall College and that little umbrella is always full of pretty nice bikes."
Most owners of a Slingshot bicycle are riders who already own a couple of bikes. Rudy Malmquist of Mindutopia is one of those. "I've known about them for years and years being into biking in Grand Rapids. This is my first time owning one. I've had it for 4 and a half years."
Malmquist says his Slingshot gives him a comfortable ride and he appreciates the way that the bike utilizes energy. "The thing I like is the energy return that you get from a Slingshot. (If) you're riding and you hit a log or something, when it returns from the spring, it scoots you forward. It's a unique way to not waste that energy."
He also appreciates the commitment of the company to the sport. "I was running the trails out at Egypt Valley State Game Area and I bumped into Aaron out there, testing out a new bike on the weekend. It's his day job, Monday through Friday, but its not. He's not in it for the day job. He's in it because he really digs this stuff. It charges me up too."
Joppe, McDonald and Muezenmeyer are looking forward to the additional bike paths they are expecting Grand Rapids will soon add. They are also excited about the Western Michigan Mountain Biking Association's 50 in 5 Years initiative, which is a plan to add fifty more trail miles over the next five years.
They are also committed to local bike trails and volunteer their time doing trail maintenance around the area, particularly in the Cannonsburg area.
It's clear that these guys could sit around talking about the cycling industry and bike culture for hours and never grow bored of the conversation. They will be at several local events this summer with their bikes on display including the Ice Man Cometh Challenge
, Ore to Shore
and the USA Cycling Professional Criterium National Championships
being held in Grand Rapids. They look forward to sharing their excitement and knowledge with veteran and beginning riders.Charlsie Dewey is a professional writer located in Grand
Rapids, MI. She also contributes articles to the Windy City Times in
Chicago.Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Photos of individual bikes are courtesy of Slingshot