By Carson Gerber Kokomo Tribune
---- — PERU — When he was 13 years old, Zac See started making special trips, after completing his paper route on Saturday mornings, to drop off a newspaper at the Breakaway Bike and Fitness Shop.
The newspaper delivery was more than just a stop on the route, though — it was an excuse for the budding bike enthusiast to hang out with the morning regulars sipping coffee and talking shop about the latest and greatest two-wheelers.
“I’d be the kid that hung out and always bugged the guys for an hour or two,” he said with a grin.
The Saturday morning stops paid off, because the owners at the time ended up offering the 14-year-old a job.
Zac started out changing tires and doing other basic mechanical work, but quickly picked up on the ins and outs of fixing and repairing bikes. He also made it a point to eavesdrop when the sales guys talked with customers.
“By the time I was 15, I was comfortable going out on the floor and selling somebody a $1,000 bike,” he said. “Then I’d go back and turn wrenches again after I was done doing that.”
Zac worked at Breakaway until he graduated from Peru High School in 1997, when he left for college and ended up earning a degree in engineering from Purdue University.
Nine years later, Zac was working at the shop again, but not as a mechanic or sales guy. This time, he co-owned the place with his wife, Shannon.
Since then, Zac and Shannon have transformed Breakaway into one of the most pre-eminent bike shops in the local cycling community, offering a diverse line of bikes and cycling gear and a wide-range of mechanical services.
Zac and Shannon may own the shop now, but it was two Peru firefighters who first envisioned the creation of professional bike shop in Peru 25 years ago.
The year was 1989, and Bill Click and Chris Betzner had both become big-time cycle enthusiasts. They both had bought their two-wheelers at the old Hive Bike Shop in town, and they knew the owner was looking to sell the place.
“The guy that owned the Hive at the time, his heart wasn’t in it,” Click said.
So he and Betzner started looking into the possibility of buying the store.
“We spent hours around my kitchen table figuring if we could manage it and how we would do it,” Click said. “We had to figure out how to finance everything, and that was pretty scary stuff for us. But we got her done.”
So they went for it. The only physical things they really bought from the owner were a cash register and some tools. The rest of the money paid for the old shop’s customer base.
“We knew the business was here, but it was still a leap of faith to go for it and give it a try,” Betzner said.
With their new business underway, they wanted a fresh start, so they chose a new name — Breakaway Bike Shop, a name based on a movie about the annual Little 500 bicycle race in Bloomington.
But running the business quickly became a struggle for Click after he was appointed the new Peru fire chief.
Between the shop and his duties as chief, Click said he was working 110 hours a week. It was getting too crazy for him, so in 1993, Betzner bought him out and took over full ownership with his wife.
That was the same year he hired Zac, who worked at the shop after school and on the weekends.
For 17 years, Betzner juggled his jobs as a firefighter and bike shop owner, but the double duty started wearing him thin when he was appointed fire chief, just as it had with Click.
“I’d just had it,” he said. “After 17 years, I was burned out.”
Betzner said he had planned to sell off his entire inventory to a place in Colorado, lease the building and close up shop. But he didn’t really want to. He wanted to see the store survive and stay in Peru.
So it was a kind of godsend, Betzner said, when Zac walked in unannounced one day and said, “‘You know, I’ve always liked this business. Have you ever thought about selling it?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You bet I have.’”
And that was it. Zac quit his job as an engineer in Warsaw and started running the place with Shannon in 2006.
“I was tired of the routine and the drive and working for somebody else,” he said. “I gave them my two-week notice, and started doing this.”
As it turned out, it was a perfect time to buy a bike shop in Peru, because that was the same year the first 3.5 miles of the Nickel Plate Trail were paved just south of town.
Within the first month of the trail’s opening, Zac said people were pouring into the shop to buy a new bike.
“The first words out of their mouth after, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ was ‘I’m looking for a bike for that new trail,’” Zac said. “We said, ‘OK.’”
Business only got better as volunteers completed more of the trail over the years. Now, Zac estimates the Nickel Plate has helped nearly double the amount of business at Breakaway.
Business grew so much that Zac and Shannon were able to move two years ago from their old location on Grant Street to the much larger — and much nicer — facility at 8 S. Wabash St.
Betzner said the location on Grant Street, where he ran the shop, was pretty run down and crude. With their new location, he said the Sees have turned Breakaway into a world-class operation.
“This is a professional shop now,” he said. “The layout here is just what you’d find in Fort Wayne or Indy. They’ve really turned this into a professional business.”
Click agreed. “This is what Chris and I would have liked to have created if we had more time,” he said.
There’s no doubt the Nickel Plate Trail has been a boon for business, but Zac said he and Shannon have also worked hard over the last eight years to turn the shop into the center of the local cycling community.
“We had this customer base, but they were all just individuals biking on their own,” he said. “We’ve tried to bring everyone together into a community.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carsongerber1.