It’s 6 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning. Outside, the sun has not yet risen. But inside Victory Bicycle Studio, they’re already playing Rihanna. “We’re gonna start with some two-minute openers,” shouts Clark Butcher, over the thump of the music. “I want you at 70 percent of your max. Let’s go!”
Just like that, it starts. Twelve adults in colorful spandex lean over their bikes and start to sweat. During the day, Victory is a path-breaking bike shop. Right now, it’s the most exclusive spin class in the city.
Wanna join? Well, you can’t. They’ve been sold out for the last five years.
Recently, Memphis has won several national awards for being bike-friendly. For those of us who grew up here, it has come as something of a surprise. We find ourselves wondering, when – and how – did this happen?
The answer, as usual, is complicated. The shift can be credited to any number of individuals and institutions – from Kyle Wagenschutz to Bike Walk TN to the Mid-South Regional Greenprint. But Clark Butcher isn’t a bad place to start. Over the last six years, he’s done as much as anyone to advance bike culture in this city.
For starters, since founding Victory in 2010, Butcher has sent $6 million worth of bicycles sailing down Memphis streets.
“Yeah, that’s a buttload of bikes,” he concedes.
Butcher caught the bike bug early. At age 11, he volunteered at a mountain bike race in Coldwater, Miss., grilling burgers and hot dogs for contestants. He recalls being mesmerized by the aerodynamic forms as they whizzed by, and he vowed then and there to make his mark on the sport.
Another 11-year-old might have forgotten his promise. Not Butcher, who went semi-pro at age 15. By age 17, he had been identified by USA Cycling as one of the top young talents in the country. The organization sent him to train and race in Germany.
“My parents were like, ‘Oh, Clark’s gonna go ride his bicycle in Europe,’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘No guys, I’m actually pretty good.’”
Butcher raced professionally during college; afterward, he made brief forays into real estate and medical software. He says the idea for a bike shop came to him through a coaching company he had started.
“My clients kept asking me for equipment advice,” he recalls. “I thought, if they’re coming to me, that means the local bike shops aren’t doing their job.”
Butcher launched Victory in 2010 from a 550-square-foot bay on Young Avenue (the studio has since moved to a larger space on Broad). From the beginning, it was more than a bike shop. In addition to bikes and gear, Victory offers service, clinics, group rides, spin class, personal coaching, and semiannual race trips to Austin and Leadville.
Meanwhile, Butcher has advanced bike culture with a fervor bordering on the evangelistic. In 2008, he built a bike for triathletes on the US Olympic Team. Since then, he has announced partnerships with Carpenter Art Garden, ALSAC, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Just last month, Victory was tapped to be the first North American service center for Italian 3T Cycling.
It’s the kind of commitment that goes beyond making money. For Butcher, it’s about spreading the good news.
“Back in high school,” he recalls, “every single day, I would race home and get on my mountain bike. I was addicted. I wanted to get in as many hours of riding as I could before the sun went down.”
“That’s what I want to share with people,” he adds. “That freedom. That clarity.”
Back at spin class, the sun is starting to rise, and the racers have entered a time trial. Over the next fourteen minutes, buffeted by top-40 hits like Bastille’s “Pompeii” and Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me,” they will gradually build to 100 percent of their maximum effort. At the front of the room, with fire in his eyes and confetti-colored socks on his feet, Butcher exhorts his congregation.
“This is a long effort,” he says, “so don’t look down at your watch. Picture the road in your mind and sail down it.”
“Breathe into the cadence,” he continues. “Nothing else.”
Clark Butcher is a New Memphis Embarker driving our city forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.