Gene Whitaker got his first set of wheels when he was 10 years old – 20 inches with steel spokes and could take him anywhere.
Now at 63, the “bike whisperer” shares his love for cycling with visitors of the Savannah Rapids Pavilion through rentals, repairs and rotating bolts at The Bike Peddler.
Whitaker was a middle school shop teacher for 20 years before he started turning wrenches on the very thing that saved his life. He rode for three years, peddling through chest pains leading to six bypass surgeries.
After an early medical retirement, Whitaker started repairing bikes at Chain Reaction where he worked for 14 years.
“I eventually got burned out,” he said. “But after a couple of years away I really started to miss working with bicycles.”
Barry Smith, the Columbia County Community Leisure Services Director, said there was a public desire for a bicycle rental kiosk in the county.
“We were trying to meet the needs of the citizenry by adding another attraction and giving people one more reason to visit the canal,” he said. “Having a bike rental provider there does fill a niche that was missing before.”
Although now tucked away in the basement of the Mill House, The Bike Peddler started out as a mobile business in 2011. Whitaker lugged bikes to the water more than 200 times during his first two years as the bike renter.
After finding a permanent location with more room for repairs, Whitaker decided to expand his business and start selling accessories and bikes. Unlike most shops, Whitaker caters to the recreational cyclist.
“My customers are those who are just getting in to cycling or someone who has a department store bike and suffering through it,” he said. “I also stock stuff that isn’t real expensive that a recreational cyclist would like to have.”
Whitaker said there are benefits and downsides to both renting and purchasing a bicycle. A good bike, in his opinion, costs around $350. A person looking for light exercise or leisure riding could get about 23 half-day rentals for the cost of a bike.
“The disadvantage of renting is you won’t have the bike available whenever you want,” he said. “If you own a bike, you have to maintain it and have a way to transport it.”
He said the only problem with The Bike Peddler is lack of awareness.
“People don’t know where I am or who I am,” he said. “I’m a full-service bike guy who can rent you a bike, sell you a bike, work on your bike, and I’m the only shop open on Sundays.”