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Neutral Cycle: Garage Start-Up to Building Bike Community



Neutral Cycle was started in 2008 in a run-down garage by founder Tim Chao who was a student at the University of Illinois. Located one-block from campus, the “shop” served students and families in the neighborhood. It was basically a repair shop operating as a home business that would informally teach people about riding.

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Today, Neutral Cycle has two shops and a sister company, Neutral Design Studio. Unlike other bike shops, the team looks at design and biking issues simultaneously to develop innovations and support rapid growth. I met with Tim recently to learn more about their novel approach.​


Two Complementary Parts to the Bike Shop

We met in the War Room of Neutral Design Studio which is the research and development side of the business. The firm also provides web-design and marketing services. According to Tim, the name Neutral refers to common meeting ground which opens up possibilities. Tim who has an engineering and physics background, points out there is an interesting synergy by looking at design and biking issues simultaneously. He reflects on the early days as more people became involved in the start-up, one student had a floating bike design for his

graduate thesis. It's not clear if it made ever made it to market.


It took time to build momentum but as the team applied their creative energies, they became more serious and started with renovations of bicycles and opened a second shop on campus. Having a campus presence ultimately opened the team’s eyes to the possibilities for growth. They realized the burgeoning opportunity to support growing consumer awareness of using the bicycle as transportation. They started selling bikes and then designed the highly successful rental program which doubled the size of the business.


Success with Bike Rental Program

International students are a large component of the student body at the University of Illinois. In the past, they would usually buy a cheap bike and either leave it at the end of the year or deal with trying to sell it on Craig's list. With the rental program they can ride a $400 bike for an entire semester for $69.99 including any maintenance. Compared to a mass market bike, the quality is visible and reflected in a better riding experience.

Using the Neutral Design Studio, students can reserve a bike online before arriving at school, choose the right size and even pick out the color. The bike is designed for getting around on the pancake-flat terrain of central Illinois and includes a single-speed. Price-sensitive students know with confidence what their transportation with cost them. They can get to class and find their way around campus with ease. Students don’t have to worry about reselling when they leave the area.


Neutral Cycle storefront in Urbana, IL

Looking Ahead: Building Bike Community

Tim sees Neutral Cycle transitioning from a bike shop to building a bike community as a way to reach new segments of riders. Tim speculates that the future for many independent bike shops like his will be linked to building support for a culture of using the bike for transportation.


There is a power to this logic since data shows that 60% of the population wants to ride but something is holding them back. As infrastructure improves (bike lanes, snow removal, etc.) people become more encouraged to ride. This in turn gets more people riding which itself encourages others. (e.g. My neighbor is doing it, why not me?) The change in lifestyle supports a stronger culture which increases support for biking.


For Neutral Cycle, building bike community means the new bike service for employers they expect to launch this summer. Dubbed Active Chambana (a mash-up of the name Champaign-Urbana), it is intended to bolster the culture of bike commuting in the area. To design the service, the team employed lean start-up techniques that would make any entrepreneur’s heart glow. These included the involvement of prospective customers very early in the process to quickly identify the minimum viable proposition for market success. Applying these principles, Neutral Cycle surveyed over 350 organizations in the community including public sector, departments in the University, and private employers. Their goal was to better understand how these groups view biking as a component of wellness programs. Not surprisingly, riding competitions, incentives, and discounts emerged as key themes.

Since then, more discussions and interactions have occurred as organizations have embraced the concept with multiple employers expressing interest. Tim is excited by the progress and engagement occurring around Active Chambana, which will encourage individuals to use the bike to explore the area and stay active through physical activity.


Matt Crosby, Store Manager at Neutral Cycle

Neutral Cycle store manager Matt Crosby underscored the shop's philosophy of trying to get people on bikes that would not normally ride. Certainly the international students are an example. He also expects the new, Active Chambana initiative, to reach others who don’t typically think they can ride to work with a bike, including parents with children. Matt himself pulls his 1-year old daughter in a bike trailer as he gets around town.


Matt speculates Americans are about 10 years behind the Europeans in looking at bikes for transportation and not just recreation. Getting people to change their mind-frame is the team’s goal; helping people to see that they can get from point A to point B with their own legs.


​He acknowledges a lingering stigma associated with biking with some folks looking at cyclists as a bit odd or even worse, someone to harass. Matt sees it as an education issue and a need to help non-riders see the situation differently.


Changing Attitudes About Biking




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