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The Putney Tradition (as told by Neil Quinn)

    All photos credit Bob George
1982 Neil Quinn Bob Gray Bob Anderson
1982 Neil Quinn Bob Gray Bob Anderson

 

The Cast of Original Characters

The founders of the Putney West Hill Shop were Bob & Becky Anderson, Bob & Barbara George, Bob & Susan Gray, Neil & Virginia Quinn.

 

Neil worked at R L Dothard Associates, in Guilford, a book and magazine design firm. RLDA hired Bob Anderson (ca. 1969-70), who had been a designer at Houghton Mifflin in Boston. Bob & Becky had just returned from traveling in Europe and England touring and racing bicycles. Bob was also a cross-country skier, and it was his idea for us to ride bikes in the summer as training for skiing.

Rockwell and Gray
M. Rockwell & B. Gray
Barbara George-Sam 1971
Barbara George-Sam 1971
Bob & Martha_W
Bob & Martha

 

Neil had started X-C skiing while helping with the production of, and reading, Johnny Caldwell’s first X-C book in 1963. He got his first equipment from Johnny (used; $35 for skis, boots, bindings, poles, ca. 1963-64) getting him acquainted with some of the Putney skiers.

 

Bob George was a free-lance photographer, whom Neil had met when RLDA used him for assignments. Barbara George had grown up in Putney, so they both knew the territory and had both done some X-C skiing.

 

Bob Gray, and his wife Susan, was working at The Putney School. Bob was one of the top X-C skiers in the US. In the late 1960s he had already been racing and training on bicycles in the off-season.

 

And They Were On Their Way
This cast of world caliber characters was soon joined by a long-time bike racer Dick Ring started nightly bike training rides from the Guilford fire station. Of note, Bob Anderson and Dick were NEBC club members, and Dick was up here, during the week, as a pipe fitter working on the building of the nuclear power plant. Bob Gray had his Raleigh, Bob Anderson had his Barali (bought from M. Barali’s shop in Italy), Dick had his Holdsworth and loaned the rest of us his back-ups.

 

Neil Bob and Dick Ring
These days are shown in Bob George’s picture:
Neil in his sweatshirt, Bob Anderson hidden, Dick Ring with his shades on.

 

We soon discovered that no shops around had the tubular tires we needed along with other essential parts and appropriate racing bicycles. So we decided to start our own bike shop. Each family put up $500 and we were on the way. Bob and Barbara had a garage on Cherry Street in Brattleboro for a location, and Neil’s license plate (and sometime nickname) gave us a name, Snail Cycles.

 

The only bicycle distributor that would talk to us was Mel Pinto of Gitane, but in addition to the bikes he had tubulars and accessories. We got some Campagnolo stuff from Jerry Baker in Seattle, some Cinelli stuff from Fritz Kuhn in Princeton (via Doug Dale), Campy grouppos, frames, and bikes from Holdsworth in England. After sketching a Putney Bike Club jersey design with colored pencils, and submitting it for approval to the Amateur Bicycle League of America, we ordered them from England. At some point, each family added $2,000 of capital to the venture.

 

1971 Tour of the Valleys West

1971 Tour of the Valleys
West R. VT

All Are Equal In The Schoolhouse
We decreed that each family would be equal, although part-time, partners: Bob and Sue were super-salespeople, Bob Gray had expert knowledge in bike racing, in kayaking, in X-C skiing (although we weren’t selling skis, Bob knew all the skiers who needed bike stuff); Bob and Barbara were publicity and bookkeeping, Bob and Becky knew how to organize, started weekly time-trials, set up races (like the Tour of the Valleys, and the first New England Championships), and knew the background; Neil had expertise in inventory and business practices.

 

Speaking of the Tour of the Valleys…it was 60 miles (the first was a little longer; it started in Lebanon, NH, came south to cross the Connecticut in Westminster, then over the Kurn Hatten climb, to finish all the way up at the entrance to The Putney School - Doug Dale won the inaugural race, nipping John Allis right at the finish line). We had over 800 riders at the high point, and we did no advertising for the race, just word of mouth. The free beer after helped, I guess.

 

Anyway…back to the shop. Bob and Sue started a X-C ski shop in the schoolhouse they rented on West Hill, which they called West Hill Shop. We moved Snail Cycles into the schoolhouse, but still as a separate venture. Todd Ellis was our first “hire” as bike mechanic, etc. Bob’s father Ed Gray was a ski mechanic. Inventory was kept in a building at Ed’s.

 

The schoolhouse days produced a lot of activity. Holdsworths & Claude Butlers. Clement del Mundo silk tubulars for about $12. Some of the best racers around. The display beehive in the window. The Bianchis we got from Texas with the “28 inch” tubulars. Wood heat.

 

Neil Quinn 1999
Neil Quinn 1999

The Full Time Move to Exit 4
In September of 1973 our conditional use permit for the schoolhouse was challenged, requiring a move. Several buildings at Exit 4 were available and Bob Gray and Neil, with Ed Gray, moved the buildings together with iron-pipe rollers and come-alongs, built a vestibule with wet poplar boards, put up a block chimney for a wood stove, and there we were. Neil built an ultra-strong workbench with a beefy vise mounting (still in place), and continued getting in special tools for the tool boards.

 

At about this time, the Andersons and the Georges got their investments back and stepped away from Snail Cycles and at the same time I stepped away from Dothard Associates, and into full-time with Snail Cycles.

 

Thereafter…
With many years of notable happenings, and reasons, West Hill became what it became: [listed in no particular order]

  • One of the first Specialized dealers in the world (really...Mike Sinyard was just marketing Blackburn racks, Cinelli stems, and other stuff like that...the Rockhopper was just a dream).
  • One of the first bike shops to have a computerized inventory and point-of-sale system.
  • The first bike shop in New England with a website (we were ahead of Sheldon Brown by a month or two in 1995) - Neil built it after studying an HTML book, having been inspired by Scott Nicol of Ibis, who had just made his own site that way.
  • Bevin Quinn

    Bevan Quinn

    We bought the first Fit Kit Bill Farrell sold (serial #2) - Bill, who developed this tool, was one of the first Putney Bike Club racers.
  • Made a point of hiring extremely good mechanics.
  • Had some really good salespeople.
  • Always stocked stuff that really worked, searching out sometimes-obscure good products - not just what everyone else had.
  • Jim Langley built, from a Schwinn Jaguar, one of the first mountain bikes in the area once we heard what was going on out West.
  • Were one of the first business in the area to have printed tee shirts (hard to imagine the days before silk screened and logo-d tees).
  • One of the first Burton snowboard dealers, due to Bevan & Jeremy’s interest at the beginning of this sport, and we continued with Burton for about 14 years.
  • Bevan and Daq put together the Freestyle Control Trick Team, confirming our expertise in BMX freestyle in the early days of trick riding.
  • We were skateboard experts in the early days of that sport also (our Brattleboro store sold a lot of high-end skate stuff).
  • Betsy Bates started the Tuesday Night Rides in about 1977, a continuing institution.
  • We tried to be experts in every field we were in - early on we were the bike shop other shops would bring their tough jobs to (we made a point of having high-end threading tools, fork crown race cutters, drop-out and frame alignment tools, seat tube reamers, etc).
  • West Hill Shop Xmas Betsy Bates
    West Hill Shop Xmas Betsy Bates
    We stocked individual Regina freewheel cogs so we could make any gear combination a customer needed.
  • It was Bob Gray’s idea to do a length-of-the-State-in-one-day ride with a group of other skiers (mostly).
  • We prided ourselves in fitting bicycles properly to the rider. Our reputation grew and drew customers from far away to get the West Hill fit.
  • At one point we designed a long-distance touring bicycle, had a small bunch built by the Dawes factory in England and shipped to Putney (they arrived in a giant crate, fully assembled, even with the wheels on!).
  • National trade magazines got a kick out of the fact that we had a high level of expertise and no bathroom, and also a state-of-the-art computer POS system with only wood heat.
  • Neil designed a series of early business cards using beautiful cycling pictures (by RF George, of course) behind the text; they helped get our name out at national bike shows, etc.
  • Our memorable PBC jersey was (and still is) an excellent publicity tool around the country. The shop benefited greatly from having many most-excellent riders in PBC jerseys and at one point, we even had a factory in Italy weave Putney jerseys in wool with the text embroidered.
  • We heard about Ortlieb bicycle bags through a customer who saw a pair while he was bicycle touring near Nepal, and we became one of the first Ortlieb dealers in the US, shipping bags to Arizona, Chicago, even Japan.
  • We were early cyclocross enthusiasts in the US…with the Classic Putney West Hill cyclocross race now in it’s 21st year.

 

Some TOV Lore

I remember one year a rider's car broke down before he got to Putney on race morning. So he got on his bike, rode towards the shop, met the pack about a quarter mile from the start, turned around and joined them. And I recall, he went on to win the race! Only to be DQed, of course. Another year the State Police were out in force trying to stop the racers. Didn't stop us though. One year we ran the race as a two-day event. And another we used an alternate course with a killer, and long, dirt section, Paris-Roubaix-style...long before it became popular.

 

But most importantly... we had fun. We had the best of the best equipment and service around. And made sure the customer was satisfied.

 

Martha Rockwell, Bob Gray, Putney Elm_W
Martha Rockwell, Bob Gray, Putney Elm

Simple Needs. Enduring Results.

So a simple quest
to train for cross-country skiing
during the Summer months
in Putney, Vermont
for three gentleman named Bob
and another named Neill
did so start a legendary bike
and cross-country ski shop
that continues to gently serve
the novice’s desire to simply move
while empowering the professional’s
need to compete and conquer
and a simple group ride that
captured the hearts and bodies
of nearly every cyclist around and
became itself a tour legend separating
the hard from those who pretend
and helped spawn a local culture of
bike racing the fabric of which is so
deep it remains steadfast to this day
a fabric in its infancy helped create
the acclaimed cycling journal that
changed the world of competitive
bike racing and we have
Bob Gray, Bob Anderson
Bob George, Neill Quinn and their very
significant others to thank for
the wonderful trip it’s been.

 

dg’11