It was the year of 1973 and Sky Yaeger was an art major living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but something was missing from her life. It soon become clear that that mysterious something was a pair of wheels, frame, and handlebars. To say that she really liked bicycles would be an understatement – it was pure and genuine love. She just walked up the counter of the only bike shop in town and faced the owner with uncompromising: “I know everything there is to know about bikes, and I want to work here,” she told Ella Cycling Tips. And was the opening line of her 44-year-long career.
Growing up in a small 6000-people town in the north of the USA, riding a bike there was considered somehow geeky and curious. Mind you, it was way before the internet and cycling craze times. Although she confesses that making herself different was one possible reason she was drawn to bikes, there was still no way how to connect with fellow cycling enthusiasts all over the world. After leaving for college, she started meeting other people on bikes and from there it was, well, not easy, but there was a path.
Yaeger confesses that, initially, she had no idea that you could make living off bikes – she was just an art student, trying to make her way through school and waiting tables didn’t sound very tempting. After 8 years of college and three degrees, she moved to New York and subsequently Japan to become an artist, but she kept coming back to Wisconsin just to ride the glorious country roads. After realizing the big city life isn’t for her, she came back to that Wisconsin bike shop; a decision that landed her a marketing role at Suntour Components and later on her career-defining job – a position at legendary Bianchi bicycles.
That’s when the legendary models started coming in. During her 17-year career with Bianchi she introduced now classic models like the “Pista”, “Milano” and the “San Jose”. By the way, Pista was inspired by fearless New York bike messengers riding fixies bikes in the early 90s’ in one of the heaviest traffics in the world.
Later on, she decided to leave Bianchi to start an entirely new business from scratch. With the onset of the internet, Yaeger realized that this is the train to be caught, so she co-founded Swobo. Swobo was the first company that figured out how to sell bikes directly to the customer. Not that they wanted to put bike dealers completely out of the picture, but in Yaeger’s words: “We wanted to engage the person who feels totally comfortable buying a bike on the Internet at 1 in the morning if they want to. I wanted to learn how to do that.” The plan was getting a bike in a box comfortably on peoples’ doorsteps with little assembly required. What was the key to that? No derailleurs. The plan was indeed successful and by the time they sold the company, there were 10 models of bikes she was very proud of.
When asked about cycling industry being a predominantly male one, Yaeger smiles and confirms that everything a man says you have to repeat five times to be heard but at the end of the day, “people respect anybody who does their homework, and knows their sh$t. To get into a technical field, you have to be able to prove that you know what you’re doing.” She walked through a bike shop door in 1973, with the sign “no girls allowed”, and she haven’t looked back since.
Yaeger considers herself the luckiest person in the world because she got to spend the better part of her life doing what she loves. Today, she’s the director of bike development at the upscale, design-based brand Shinola, where the steel bikes are just a small asset of an all made-in-the-US product line that also includes watches, leather goods, journals, turn tables, speakers and headphones later this year. The company is exposing people to bikes they would never get at bikes shops and is also trying to bring back US manufacturing, especially to such places like Detroit.
She confesses she has about 28 bikes in her garage and that she’s constantly trying to cull the herd, but some pieces are so rare it’s impossible to get rid of them. So, the endnote certainly is that when it comes to true passion, you’re its prisoner for life.