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Palo Alto Bicycles Turns 90

From Issue 93 • Words and Images by William Tracy

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Casual history buffs can tell you that 1930 was not an ideal year to start a business. But, in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash and in the throes of the Great Depression, that’s exactly what the Hoffacker family did by opening Palo Alto Toy & Sport—the sport part being bicycles. Perhaps any shop that can grow from those difficult circumstances is destined to thrive. Today, the shop is on its third generation of owners, brothers Bud and Neal Hoffacker, who leave the day-to-day operation to general manager Jeff Selzer.

PELOTON

The brothers were very much involved in the shop’s daily operations in the 1970s. They would travel to Europe for buying trips, bringing back brands not available stateside and selling them through a mail-order catalog. When they branched off into branding their own products, there was a problem—try fitting “Palo Alto Bicycles” onto a headset. They needed something shorter and catchier. Inspiration came during their bike rides to the nearby Baylands Nature Preserve, where they saw birds zooming along, skimming the water. “That’s sleek…that’s what a cyclist wants,” Selzer recalls them saying. Those birds were Avocets. It seemed appropriate so the Hoffackers started branding components like headsets, hubs, tires and saddles with the Avocet name. Much catchier.

Palo Alto Bicycles General Manager Jeff Selzer

While many bike brands today create a lot of their own components, back then most brands would spec their frames with aftermarket parts—and the cooler the parts, the better your bikes sold. Avocet components

had that cool factor, so onto brands’ bikes they went. Eventually, the brand began creating its own products, often with unique, cutting-edge designs. Avocet saddles, for one, resemble modern, flatter models such as fi’zi:k. And the brand’s road tires moved to a completely smooth tread design at a time when competitors reasoned that grooves increased traction. And we all know what road tires look like today.

The shop still
The shop still has a display case of Avocet components.

Then came the cyclometer. “That’s what really put Avocet in the worldview,” says Selzer. Whereas cyclometers up until that point had been rudimentary devices, some simply keeping track of wheel revolutions and leaving you to calculate your distance traveled after the fact, Avocet’s design used multiple magnets around the hub, so it took very little movement, less than an inch, to pick up a delta between two magnets and provide real-time speed and distance. But the thing that helped Avocet cyclometers flourish was their use by Greg LeMond, who would go on to be featured in some of the brand’s most memorable marketing. One ad shows LeMond, his face gnarled, out-sprinting Sean Kelly—both with Avocet cyclometer-adorned bikes—to win the 1989 worlds.

Greg LeMond outsprints Sean Kelly, both using Avocet computers, at the 1989 worlds.

LeMond’s relationship with Avocet goes back before his time as a pro. The Hoffackers first noticed the teenage LeMond when he was racing in the Bay Area and thought he was just as good as anyone in Europe, so they sponsored the up-andcoming junior. He raced in an Avocet jersey, and before that a Palo Alto Bicycles jersey.

A young Greg LeMond races to victory wearing an Avocet-branded jersey

The shop has been at the crossroads of other larger-than-life names in cycling. A local kid welded some of the first bicycle models for the shop’s catalog. His name? Tom Ritchey. One of those Ritchey-made bikes hangs from the shop’s rafters today, and a 1974 picture hanging on the wall shows Bud Hoffacker riding in Yosemite National Park with Ritchey and Jobst Brandt—who wrote the book on wheel building, “The Bicycle Wheel.”

One of the shop’s catalog bicycles, built by the legendary Tom Ritchey.

Selzer is a fount of knowledge on the shop’s history. He tells how the shop was working three shifts a day during World War II to keep up with demand for mechanic work, because people relied on bikes as a main source of transportation. And how in the shop’s early days it was contracted by the U.S. Postal Service for delivery bikes, often plugging tires with matchsticks and contact cement to keep bikes on the road when rubber was scarce. He says the family even has a connection to baseball legend Ty Cobb through the shop’s second-generation owner Bernie Hoffacker—Bud and Neal’s father—who played baseball for the minor league San Francisco Seals. Cobb was a coach for the team, and the Hoffacker family has photos of Bernie fielding balls with the baseball legend at nearby Stanford University.

“The connection to sports icons is cool,” says Selzer. “I don’t know how those things happen, but I love the fact that they do.” 

If you’re ever in Palo Alto, be sure to stop by: paloaltobicycles.com

From issue 93, get your copy here.