Biking in New York City can seem daunting: Traffic, weather, pedestrians and road conditions conspire to make for a sometimes-harrowing ordeal. But for Kasia Nikhamina ’07, co-owner (with her husband, Ilya Nikhamin) of Brooklyn’s Redbeard Bikes, it’s all about freedom — once you have the perfect bike, you’ll forget the rest.
Situated on DUMBO’s busy Jay Street, the brightly lit shop is a cyclist’s paradise. Bikes hang from floor to ceiling along exposed brick walls, while the wooden floors house neat rows of bikes; accessories like seats and helmets are dotted throughout the store. Says Nikhamina, “We’re going for a down-to-Earth, welcoming place. There are a lot of people who feel excluded from cycling, and we want to be a place where you can walk in and feel comfortable no matter your knowledge or background.”
Redbeard is rare in that it specializes in both custom bike builds, made by Ilya, as well as off-the-rack sales and bike repairs for more casual riders. While Ilya focuses on builds and fixes, Nikhamina focuses on the day-to-day operations — “I keep the place running,” she says with a laugh. Opened in November 2012 by Ilya, demand quickly outpaced the one-person operation and within the first year, Nikhamina had left her finance job to jump into the small business world. “The growth is funny; it’s hard to reflect on it,” says Nikhamina. “So much has happened — people just kept coming, and DUMBO definitely has exploded. There’s so much demand.”
Early on, Nikhamina and her husband started offering community-focused activities like neighborhood rides (which are now led by “Redbeard ambassadors” and run every Saturday and Sunday, March–October) to build out the biking community in the neighborhood. By the end of 2013, Redbeard had expanded into its current, larger space from a smaller shop down the street.
Nikhamina first became interested in cycling in high school, when Ilya bought her her first bike (the couple met as classmates at Stuyvesant H.S.). “New York wasn’t very bike friendly at the time,” she says. “My parents were worried about my safety, but it was a way of asserting my independence. Having a bike I thought, ‘Now I’m free. I don’t have to rely on anyone to drive me anywhere.’”
Outside of the bike shop, Nikhamina, who majored in literature, is wrapping up work on her first book, a memoir, in her spare time; her experiences at Redbeard feature heavily in the work. She’s thrilled about the city’s growing support of cyclist culture and credits Citi Bike, as well as the improved infrastructure around bike lanes, as part of a change that has led to an explosion of biking enthusiasm in New York during the seven-plus years Redbeard has been open.
That explosion hasn’t come without difficulties, though, as the realities of running a growing business mean that the husband-and-wife team need to always be on hand at the store, and staffing needs often outpace the supply of workers. “There aren’t as many people working with their hands, and definitely not with bicycles,” Nikhamina says. “It’s getting safer, easier and more commonplace to ride — but who’s going to serve all those people?”
Biking in New York City is clearly here to stay, and Nikhamina is a big part of that culture shift. “In the city, we live in such close quarters, and we don’t have a lot of chances to feel free,” she says. “We’re always corralled somewhere; we’re in a line to get coffee, we’re crowded in the subway. When you get a bike, yeah, there’s traffic, but you have control. You connect with your animal self, you reconnect with your inner child.”
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