In last year’s Spring issue of Paved we chronicled the story of industry luminary Sky Yeager and her incredible bike collection. We thought we’d give you a chance to revisit that story, along with the extended photo gallery published in the digital edition of the issue (Note: to get more exclusive digital-only content i.e. extended photo galleries, exclusive videos and the like, help yourself to a digital subscription, available on the Apple Newsstand.)
Words: Sal Ruibal
Photos: Anthony Smith
Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sounds like the squarest city in America. The home of OshKosh B'gosh and Ardy & Ed's Drive-In is hardly a Portland on Lake Winnebago. But if not for a momentous event that took place here in 1972, the bike world as we know it would not exist. Singlespeeds, fixed-gear track bike commuters and much of the urban bike scene that defines our 21st century day-to-day reality just might not have evolved. We would probably be so uncool. Commuter bike jeans? Forget about it.
Fortunately for us, a young blond woman named Sky Yaeger walked into Vern's Schwinn Shop that year and changed history.
In those days, femininity ruled and feminism was, well, sort of like communism.
Vern's shop was segregated into two parts by a swinging door and a sign that read 'No Girls Allowed', with male mechanics doing their manly thing away from those pesky girls.
That didn't deter Sky from marching in and asking the owner for a job. When she was asked why she should be hired, Sky whipped out a pen and paper, wrote down an emphatic statement and handed it to the owner. "I know everything there is to know about bikes." She was hired. Sky was stretching the truth like a pair of too-tight spandex road shorts, but she did have a passion for riding. Her epiphany came in high school, when she first rode 20 miles on her bike.
"That was when I first realized that I could do this," she says. "Sitting in the bathtub after the ride, I thought, 'I can do this. I rode 20 miles. That's awesome!'" After high school, she went to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to begin art studies with the goal of immersing herself in art and someday teaching at the university level or working in the art business.
"When I was hired by the bike shop," she says, "it was like a switch had been flipped. I figured out that I loved bikes. I have always been an athlete, but I couldn't figure out how to do sports. I had a really hard time with ball-team sports.
"With cycling, I was immediately drawn to the combination of beautiful equipment and the wonderful feeling I got from riding. It was very seductive."
Sky eventually made her way to Madison, the state capital and the Midwest center of counter-culture. Madison then was much like Madison now, but more militant and politically aggressive. Among the most shocking headlines was the bombing of a school building that killed a janitor. Even the town's bike shops reflected the times.
Sky got three art degrees at the university and a job at the still-infamous Yellow Jersey bike shop.
"There was a basic sensibility there that was anti-establishment, anti-Trek and pro-drugs," she recalls. "It was a really great place to be."
She loved the shop's tiny bins, where freewheel cogs, bearings and hundreds of other metal parts were kept.
"It was like a cult," she says. "This was a cult where you used glue-on tires and nailed cleats to your shoes. This was where the black arts and magic of cycling was practiced in the '80s. We were snooty and hated Shimano and loved Campy. There was a place in the building that was the 'People's Work Area', and anyone could buy a share in the co-op for a dollar. There was even a place for doing drugs."
Sky began to feel the familiar tug of the art world and quickly dismissed any idea of an art career.
"I tried to get away from it. I had an MFA (Masters in Fine Art) and was supposed to be a college professor. I was supposed to be in the art business."
She did the obligatory art-world stint in New York City, but found that the city in that era lacked good places to ride.
"I got tired of riding in Central Park over and over," she says. "I needed balance and a place to ride my bike. So in 1982, I went back to Wisconsin and fell back in with the bike shop again."
Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, a new breed of bike had been born: the mountain bike. A tight group of innovators had created bikes that were less formal than road bikes and geared for climbing and descending on the hundreds of trails in California's Marin County.
The Japanese bike-component company SunTour was interested in the fledgling mountain-bike scene and was looking for a product manager who could move with them from New Jersey to Marin. SunTour contacted Sky, and she was soon en route to the Left Coast.
"It was a natural place for me to be," she says. "It turned out to be a great move."
She helped SunTour develop the first full mountain- bike group and began interacting with the cadre of frame builders that was creating the soul of a new sport.
"I made great friends with people such as Scot Nicol [of Ibis] and Joe Breeze, who were among the many small bike builders who were involved in the early MTB scene."
And again, she was a woman in a male-dominated world--but a world that was less rigid than the one she encountered back in Oshkosh.
"With the Marin crew, I always felt that being a woman in a male sport was a benefit. I could talk components and knew how to ride. I really was equal with the guys."
In 1985, another opportunity opened that took Sky to a different level of the bike world. She became vice-president of product development and marketing manager for Bianchi USA, the North American arm of the famous Italian bike company known worldwide for its trademark Celeste paint jobs. At that time, working for Bianchi was the epitome of her life-long mission of blending art and the bicycle.
"In the '70s, I thought the sun rose and set with Campagnolo Record derailleurs," she told Dirt Rag magazine in a 1998 interview. "When Super Record came along, I thought, 'Lord, take me now.'"
It was at Bianchi that her artist's mind for simplicity and function came up with the idea of making singlespeed bikes. Singlespeeds had been a mainstay of bike couriers and shop rats for several years, but Sky took the bold step of convincing Bianchi to create production singlespeed bikes for the U.S. market.
"The singlespeed frame was a clean sheet of paper," she told Dirt Rag in 1998. "And not just because of different dropouts and no cable guides. Toptube length should be a little longer as you have to muscle all over the bike if you climb in one gear."
The fact that she guessed right is now history, but Sky wasn't done with the U.S. bike market. She then made the move to Swobo, an off-beat company that made bike-specific clothing that preferred cotton hoodies and baggy messenger shorts over fine Italian velo duds that fit like a surgical glove and cost as much as a mink coat.
Sky created artsy but inexpensive bikes for Swobo that meshed with the street-bike lifestyle of midnight alleycat races and drunken derbies.
"I have been very lucky to be able to design bikes that have both function and an art sensibility," she says. "It is immensely satisfying to have my bikes on the market, to see people riding them on the streets. To make bikes and also make a living out of it is amazing. People who make bikes get it. It is a wonderful gift to combine art and bikes to make people happy."