SARAH AND TOM SWALLOW, (soon) PETALUMA, CA
Q: In the past couple of months, and especially in the last weeks, there was a lot of talk about you guys on the Internet, because of your recent successful attempt of cycling the Trans America Trail. I’ve kind of got an idea of who you guys are, and what you do, but please be so kind to introduce yourself. Where you’re from, how you met, what do you do etc.?
A: Tom and I met when we were working at the same bike shop in 2008. We became good friends while working there, until Tom called me to tell me that he was going to move to Philadelphia to work for another shop. I thought that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t tell him how I felt, so I did and he felt the same way. He still moved away, but he was back in 2 months. The rest is history. Both of our families are in the Cincinnati area, which is where we have lived for most of our lives. In 2011, we started Swallow Bicycle Works. We began fixing bikes in our tiny apartment, then opened a storefront, when we could afford to grow bigger, in January 2012. Since then Swallow Bicycle Works has evolved into many things for many different people.
Q: As I understand, you run a small bike shop and when you have the time, you’re doing bike trips and participate in races such as the Oregon Outback. How hard is it to combine these two things and does one affect the other in some way? For example, you had to close the shop in order to do the TAT, which results in a lack of income, but on the other hand you’ve gained a lot of attention and recognition. Do you think that these trips are good for business in a long term?
A: We made riding bikes a major priority when we started our business. Prior to opening, we had never ridden a gravel road, and most of our experience as riders came from group rides, commuting, and a handful of road, cyclocross, and mountain bike races. We loved bikes, and wanted to be a better resource for our customers. We just happened to fall in love with exploring new places along the way and riding is now a huge part of our business. It is a way for us to learn, ultimately allowing us to help our customers more effectively. There is also the potential to inspire others to try something new. Many of our customers come to us for this specific reason, so, yes, I think it is good for business in the long term and believe it should be the norm for all bike shops to close for bike trips. Heck, most shops close for Interbike, think of what you could learn during that time, bikepacking!? The key for us is to keep our overhead low so that we don’t have to rely so much on an income while we are gone. It’s a sacrifice to close and not have an income, but we look at it as an investment.
Q: For those who don’t know what TAT is, can you please share a couple of words about it? Where did you get the idea to try and ride it? How did your preparation look like? And how do you feel now, after a job well done?
A: The Trans America Trail (TAT) was originally designed as a dual sport motorcycle route following dirt roads across the U.S.A. I first learned about the route when I was searching for dirt roads in the North Carolina and Tennessee area and stumbled upon a link to www.transamtrail.com. My first instinct was that if dual-sport motorcycles could ride it, someone on a bicycle could as well, and I was surprised that I could not find any information about bicycles attempting it. This scared me a little, but also made me want to ride it even more. We had always been interested in riding across the country, but wanted to follow our own route, rather than the traditional paved road routes, taking as many dirt roads as possible. I saw this pre-existing route as a great guide that would allow us to make the trip sooner, rather than later. Our preparation for the trip was not very structured. We did the rides we already intended to do which included a handful of 3-day bike-packing trips throughout the Midwest along with a 7-day trip along dirt roads across Ohio to hone our fitness, and equipment. Needless to say, we learned a lot over 5,000 miles. At times we felt like we were re-learning how to ride a bike all together. We did all right though! We stuck to our itinerary for the first 2500 miles, and then we slowed down and started to really enjoy living on the bike.
Q: One would expect that after finishing a 5000 mile long journey, you’d hop right on the plane and head back home. But I saw some photos of you guys visiting GSC for example, and when I sent you an e-mail I still got the auto reply saying that you’re on the road. So, what’s the deal with that? Did you finish the ride faster than expected or just decided to enjoy the west coast weather for a few more days? What is waiting for you back home, what are the plans?
A: Taking a long drive home was always part of our plan. We don’t get to the West Coast very often so we were going to use the opportunity to visit some people and places while we were out there. My sister drove our van to move to Portland in July, so our van was already there. One of the people we stayed with on the drive home was Bruce Gordon of Bruce Gordon Cycles. What started as a friendly visit quickly turned into the realisation that by combining the skills and services of our two businesses, the three of us could create something very unique and special. So our plan right now is to enjoy our time back in Ohio with family and friends before we head back out west and re-open Swallow Bicycle Works inside Bruce Gordon Cycles, in Petaluma, California, in February 2016.
Q: Every journey has its ups and downs, which ones did you encounter? Has being a couple made things easier, since you know each other’s limits and problems? Would you change anything if you decided to do this again?
A: Someone told me once that if you ever think you want to marry someone go to an airport and fly to some really remote foreign country with them. If you can make it through that without killing each other you can make it through anything. Tom and I have been married for over 5-years now, because we ride together and we always have worked together, we probably have only spent a few weeks worth of days, apart. Our whole marriage has been unintentional training for a trip like this and even with that, we still have our ups and downs. On our trip, our ups and downs were much more extreme than normal life, but have come away with memories and lessons to last a lifetime and a better understanding of the love we have for one another. Because each other’s pace was a big topic of ours during our trip, we’re considering participating in an event where we could race each other… On the other hand… we make a really good team, so who knows!
Q: You’ve traveled through a lot of different places, was there a place that stood out in the way it impressed you? A place where you definitely want to go back to and explore some more?
A: Absolutely, to name a few places: Eastern Oklahoma, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Umpqua National Forest, and Salida, Colorado.
Q: I’ve noticed that you had some support from sponsors. Does the fact that you’re running a bike shop help you out with that, since you’re already in touch with companies and people from the industry know you?
A: Sponsorship is not about who you know, but what you do, how you do it, and your potential to return on your sponsors’ investment. I understand this more than anything, as a business owner and a rider.
Q: It’s kind of soon to ask, but do you already have a new plan for the future? The Great Divide route might seem like a logical next thing to do? Or are you searching for something a bit less known?
A: We are interested in riding the Great Divide Route or doing the Tour Divide to compare the experience to the TAT. We are always searching for excuses to test new unknown routes though, and are looking to try something outside the U.S. this year. We’re thinking some place tropical!
Q: Usually I ask people who I interview to send me a link to their favorite song, I’ve read somewhere that you carried a portable speaker with you along the way so I’m really curious to see what you guys were listening to while riding. Do you have a specific song that marked your journey, or was everything good, as long as it lifted your spirits?
A: We listened to everything and anything, but our favorite tunes came from the downloaded playlists of Reverberation Radio (http://reverberationradio.com/).
Q: Any last words?
A: Some people say we’re living the dream. Our dream is a constant work in progress and it’s always evolving, but here are some things we try and live by… We are given one life to live and there are no guarantees. Be honest with yourself. Live life by doing, taking chances, interacting with people, and following your heart. It’s up to you. No one is going to do it for you. Make a positive impact.