Meridian — Heart & Sole Cycle & Fitness may seem like an odd name for a bicycle shop, but its mission has been clear since it opened in 1989.
Owner Butch Gray realized a need for a quality bike shop that could supply the people of East Mississippi and West Alabama with professional full-time bicycle sales and service. With more than 20 years of riding, racing and enjoying bicycles, he wanted to help others enjoy his passion without having to drive to larger cities to get what they need.
Gray says he originally thought the store would be a running store. That didn’t materialize, but he kept the “sole” in the name anyway. He was a long-time runner until a sprained ankle took him off his feet.
“I got into cycling by accident,” he said. “I didn’t want to be immobile after I sprained my ankle, so my doctor recommended bike riding. I fell in love with it. You don’t have the compression on the joints but you’re getting the same benefit as running.”
The 53-year-old says cycling is something he plans to do for a long time. He has numerous customers in their 70s (including his father) who ride every day when the weather is good. He especially likes seeing two generations of families riding bikes.
Although there is no typical bike shop customer, he says many clients are adults in their 30s who realize they’re not 18 anymore. “They start feeling more human and see their waistlines growing,” he said. “And of course kids always ride bikes. It’s freedom for them.”
While most people in the Meridian area ride bikes in the surrounding countryside, Bonita Lake Park within the city limits is also a top choice. The park’s hilly terrain is ideal for mountain bikers, runners and horseback riders.
“It’s a big land offering what few cities have. It’s little known, and we call it our gem,” Gray said. “People travel from New Orleans and Jackson to ride.”
For a time Heart & Sole was selling more mountain bikes than road bikes, but now Gray says the trend seems to be swinging back somewhat to the road bikes. The No. 1 seller, however, is the Trek brand, which six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong rides.
“He’s definitely made bike riding more popular,” the Heart & Sole owner says. “He’s a pioneer and the fact that he had cancer and came back made a big impression.”
The store also carries Schwinn, Bell, Thule, Oakley, Camelbak, Haro and Lemond brands. The holiday season is a good time for bike sales but April, May and June are the best months. Fitness equipment appeals to people this time of year when they’re often stuck inside with winter weather, Gray says.
The shop has four employees and the motto: “If it can be fixed, we will fix it.” Between Butch Gray, his son Bo Gray, and employee Chris Trayal, they have a combined 40 years of experience in biking and repair. The owner says he likes to be in the back too and repairing flat tires is the thing they see the most.
“Service is a big part of our business. That’s something you can’t get on the Internet,” he says. “I’ve had customers who’ve been burned that way.”
His best advice for anyone shopping for a bicycle is to go to a bike shop and get properly fitted to the right size bike. “We can explain things to customers and we go one step farther,” Gray said. “We offer 30- and 90-day bike checkups. You can get a bike at a discount store but you won’t get checkups.”
Heart & Sole also believes in fitting the customer to the bike, and they stock a lot of styles to ensure the right fit, even for people as tall as 6’8” or 6’10.” “To enjoy bike riding, you need to be on a bike that fits,” he says. “We measure — usually we can eyeball a person because we’ve been doing it a long time — and base all fitting on the legs, not the height of the person.”
Gray says they sometimes see strange things, like the 6’6” customer with legs shorter than those of the 5’9” Heart & Sole owner. “If it’s not comfortable, people will quit riding,” he added.
The shop sponsors Meridian’s annual Century Ride each October and participates in various charity rides. The century ride is 100 miles and is for serious riders who’ve been training the way marathon runners train. It takes six to eight hours to complete and usually draws 10 to 20 entrants. “It’s a hard thing to do in one day,” Gray says, “but there’s a lot of accomplishment in doing it.”
Butch Gray would love to see Meridian develop a riding trail like the one Hattiesburg has that winds through several counties following an abandoned railroad line.
“I’ve been pushing for it. Mississippi is not a high-cycling state like other parts of the country where people ride to work as well as for pleasure,” he said. “Meridian is not set up for cycling, but I really hope we can improve that.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.