Alley Cat Cycles: scrappy new bike shop emphasizes comfort and teaching

Alley Cat wants to be "a space where people are happy to get their bikes built and repaired while learning a little at the same time," says co-owner Cali Jirsa
Alley Cat wants to be "a space where people are happy to get their bikes built and repaired while learning a little at the same time," says co-owner Cali Jirsa
Patrick Stephenson

It's a chilly, late August evening in Minneapolis, with the sun nearly set and a ragweed haze in the air. I'm seated beside Cali Jirsa, co-owner of Loring Park's Alley Cat Cycles, at a metal bistro table on the store's loading dock.

We're talking bikes.

Around us sits Alley Cat's bike armada: a silver Destroyer with a B&W checkered seat; a black-framed Pake fixie with red tires, red flat bars, and red saddle; and a pretty road bike whose antique-looking saddle complements its leather handlebar grips. The dock is like a porch, looking out onto both Loring Alley and the posterior of Joe's Garage. A few hundred yards before us, cyclists coast past a Nice Ride station on the Loring Greenway. In the cobblestone alley beside us, three painters work on canvases I can't see while a white-shorted Bar Lurcat valet smokes and a photographer snaps a dolled-up high school student. This alley, with its vintage looks, is senior-photo ground zero, a classy location for a scrappy new bike shop, founded 2011.

"I always biked as a kid," says Jirsa of her history as a cyclist, "but when I moved to Minneapolis in 2003, there was a bus strike. I had to get to Uptown, from where I was living, to the U of M, with no way to bus there. Walking would've taken forever. So I started riding my bike, this really crummy mountain bike. As I moved around, I realized how much biking made me safer. I explored the city and tried to reach every corner, to see what was there." That bicycling mobility was a drastic change for Jirsa, who had moved from suburbia. "You couldn't really get too far on a bike there," she says. "I couldn't get to my high school, even." In Minneapolis, biking could get her everywhere.

Co-owner Cali JIrsa: "Just a cat working on bikes in the alley."
Co-owner Cali JIrsa: "Just a cat working on bikes in the alley."
Courtesy of Cali Jirsa

Jirsa's new-found love became a desire to contribute to the city's bicycling community, especially for Minneapolitans who couldn't afford bikes or repair them without help. She joined the Grease Pit, an outfit then situated under Palmer's Bar, and a "literally underground" DIY collective devoted to helping people become self-sufficient bike owners. "They'd been open for about seven years," says Jirsa. "Just in the evenings. It was mostly Somali immigrants and the punk kids who worked in nearby co-ops. It was all about helping the kids out and teaching them."

Jirsa worked the Grease Pit for four years, then moved on to the Sibley Bike Depot, a community shop in St. Paul now called Cycles for Change. The group's mission, per its website, is "to promote an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, self-sufficient way of life by teaching community members the skills essential to using bikes as a reliable, affordable, ecologically sustainable, and personally empowering form of transportation." As the president of the board of directors, Jirsa helped restructure Sibley and led a bike maintenance class. Her idea for the class, she says, was to make a "safe place where women could come and learn how to fix bikes."

Women and bicycling is an important issue in Minneapolis. In general, the bicycling world is male-dominated. Minneapolis has it better than most, with an estimated 31 to 45 percent of Minnie cyclists being female, but many women still find the bike world, with its grease-stained dudes all dressed in black and soaked in beer, intimidating.

"Really, it takes a while to break down the barriers," says Jirsa. "There are more and more women learning that they enjoy working on bikes. I'm disappointed that women get disheartened or indignant when people are surprised or doubtful of their skills. When that happens I realize that women in the bike culture are not the mainstream and that people are surprised by what they're not used to. I generally think, 'What a doof' and keep on working."

In the midst of Jirsa's Sibley work, her bike love became a full-blown bike obsession. She worked in two different shops specializing in used bikes, as well as a bike parts distributor based in St. Paul. If she wasn't repairing a bike at her employer or working in the parts warehouse, she was "fixing my friends' bikes ... or volunteering at a community shop. I really was 'all bikes all the time.'"

From Sibley, Jirsa moved on to Bolder Options, a bike mentorship program, started an apprenticeship with Erik Noren of Peacock Groove, and jumped at co-opening her own shop, in Alley Cat Cycles. The community-building DIY philosophy Jirsa has promoted for the past decade is essential to the store's mission. "My business partner Roger Koelker and I," says Jirsa, "are even closer than when we started to making a space where people are happy to get their bikes built and repaired while learning a little at the same time."

And Alley Cat, which stocks brands like Velo-orange, Sugino, Fox, Soma, Surly, Eighth Inch, Shadow Conspiracy, Lezyne, Panaracer, and more, is jumping.

On the quiet weekday evening of our conversation, Jirsa and I were interrupted by a middle-aged fella and his wife, a black T-shirted cyclist in for a parts delivery, and a rockabilly dude in cuffed jeans looking for a new bike lock. I walked in on Jirsa schooling a guy dressed head to toe in roadie stylings, and I arrived with my friend Karen Hanson, whose baby-seater cruiser Alley Cat had carefully repaired. Jirsa greeted everyone with a friendly "How y'all doing?" She wants Alley Cat to be welcoming.

"My main goal was to make biking more accessible to more people," says Jirsa. "I felt there were plenty of bike shops in Minneapolis but very few that I felt comfortable in. Shops have a habit of being staffed by people who are skilled at mechanics but have not been trained at how to communicate with people who typically understand their bike in terms of noises and feelings. I wanted to make the shop a place where I could teach while I worked on bikes and make it so that people felt comfortable asking questions."

So, why's the store called Alley Cat Cycles?

"I tell people, 'We're just a couple of cats working on bikes in the alley,'" Jirsa says. "Also, when people have a hard time remembering my name, I tell them, 'I'm Cali from the alley!'"

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