It's a pretty safe bet that most of us don’t remember our first wobbly steps as a toddler, but when it comes to riding a bike, pretty much everyone remembers the thrill of the first perilous time when they let go of the training wheels and stayed upright, even if for just a few moments. Learning to ride a bike is one of the most important social milestones of childhood, the experience of freedom, and acceptance into a new realm of childhood. It’s a rite of passage that stays with many people for their entire life.
Brainerd native Jerrad Sheflo never forgot that early thrill. He still gets it on certain rides, challenging to push himself, to pursue his biking passion. Biking has been a part of life for Sheflo since he was young. Jerrad started racing BMX bikes as an eight-year old youth. His father Mark taking him to races and urging his son onward, as any father would, saw an opportunity to support not only his son, but the local community at large by opening the Direct Connect bike shop, catering to the world of BMXers. After his parent’s marriage ended and the bike shop closed, Jerrad’s interest in the sport waned during his high school years. His father Mark opened another bike shop called Freedom Bikes, but even with a shop in downtown Brainerd their primary function was still BMX biking and vending at BMX tracks and serving the BMX community. Over time, as BMX popularity faded so did the shop, ending the early chapter of the Sheflo bike story.
Jerrad went on to a career in customer service in the automotive industry and is now the fixed Operations Director for Pleasureland RV. He has had a successful career, but admits his personal life had some rough spots. He knew he needed to change. It took some time, but he managed to rid himself of some bad habits and turned his life around. A return to biking had a lot to do with his healthier lifestyle. “I started biking again passionately, and became extremely involved in the bike community.” Jerrad soon realized the biking world had changed, dramatically, since his childhood. There were a lot more choices, different brands and styles to fit just about any experience level. One thing that hadn’t changed much, however, was the shopping and buying experience. Based on his own experience in customer service, Jerrad was disappointed, but at the same time, he saw an opportunity to change that too.
He proposed the idea of a new bike shop to his father, with the possibility that when his son Geoffrey was home from college that he might help there too. “I just felt the need for a certain niche of shop in town, really on a whim,” he says. “We put together a short business plan and within six weeks we had our license, and within three months of that we had opened two weeks before Christmas, in the middle of winter in 2016 in Brainerd” From there, Muddy Bikes has grown organically, with a strong emphasis on customer service.
Muddy Bikes has an 1,850 square-foot show floor, and a 1,500 square-foot service center. In addition, they have a smaller, 700 square-foot repair facility. Muddy Bikes currently employs six staff members, two full-time, Jason Oman, their service manager who is a father of four, and Sheflo’s son Geoffrey. Sheflo is proud that his dad (Mark Sheflo) hangs out to greet and talk with customers, so it’s truly three generations of the family being in the shop now, “from grandpa down to grandson.”
The bicycle industry, if you're not aware, for 2020 is an estimated $52.7 billion global industry. It's changing every single day in the sense of what products are available; there's always the latest and greatest, who's got the cutting edge of this or that. Sheflo says it's just like every other market in being competitive, but what he found out that still holds true, in spite of all the change, is customer experience is still the most important thing.
“Every day at the store, I’m preaching about growing your customer base by doing what's right for them,” says Sheflo. “I truly, truly believe that and that landed with me when the passion of biking is what made me better.” For Muddy Bikes, high end road and mountain bikes are pretty much their niche, and yes, Sheflo agrees it's a completely different world and a different market with so many different manufacturers in the market now, but his customers also come from all walks of life.
When we talk about our brands, we talk about Muddy Bikes, says Sheflo. We are our brand. We offer a very wide variety and niche of different brands of bicycles, but once you walk through our door, none of them are identifying who we are. He doesn’t believe a bike shop should be identified by the brand of bicycle it sells versus the brand of the service that they offer. Sheflo believes that bikes are an avenue to a healthy lifestyle for some people, and hopes that more people realize that biking could be the catalyst for them as well.
Another change in the bike world is that northern Minnesota is now a biking destination, meaning, people come from all over the country to ride the many trails systems and experience the pristine wilderness experience of Minnesota. Muddy Bikes, located “right on the Paul Bunyan trail,” which goes from Bemidji to Brainerd, is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the growth of trail riding. In the very near future, trail will connect to the paved Cuyuna Trail, which will then lead all the way along the Mississippi River outside of Brainerd and all the way over to the bike trails of Crosby-Ironton.
The Cuyuna Trail System is a bright spot in the northland with probably some of the best maintained and groomed year-round trails in the state of Minnesota. The Iron Range area in particular has benefited from grants to develop trails from Tioga, Grand Rapids, and Virginia to Lutsen. “All these towns are now starting to develop a jackpot trail from Tofte to Lutsen and all trail systems developed off of retired mining community grants so they’re all directing their attention towards outdoor rec, hiking and biking,” says Sheflo. For Muddy Bikes, the rental business is growing because of that.
The organic growth that Muddy Bikes has experienced is something that Sheflo is trying to spread back into the community through youth involvement in biking. Reminiscent of his youth, Sheflo sponsored some youth race teams through Muddy Bikes, but something was missing; a kid’s program. That all changed when Justin Aylward walked in the door with an idea, and a plan. All he needed was some backing. Sheflo jumped at the chance to help fund the program. “We got together and started talking about it. Justin came up with the Muddy Minionz.” The program started with Aylward’s kids and a handful other kids that attended a race meeting; even the parents were pretty intrigued. “It took flight and quickly grew to almost 65 kids like that,” says Sheflo. “This thing organically wants to expand.”
To help grow the Muddy Minions, Sheflo and Aylward started a 501-C3 nonprofit organization named R.Y.D.E. (Recreational Youth Development and Encouragement). Following a holistic approach, R.Y.D.E. focuses on three core recreational activities; biking, camping-hiking kinds of outdoor activities, and fishing. “All these things already have pre-existing programs in the community that we can work with other nonprofits, to help get other kids involved, kids that we’re already connecting with and help them stay into recreation.”
Muddy Bikes continues to grow, building their niche in the market, while focusing on their mission to provide an exceptional customer experience, and promoting a healthier society and a healthier tomorrow. Sheflo hears stories about his customers who go out on a mountain bike trail, even though they haven’t been on a bike since they were a kid, and they don't realize until somebody who’s riding with them says they laughed out loud for ten minutes straight. They didn't even know, it’s so awesome! To me that that warms my heart. That's what biking is supposed to be.”