Green Guru Gear: Up-cycling a changing industry

Words by Ben Brashear. Photos by Ben Brashear unless otherwise captioned.

Upon meeting Davidson Lewis and Justin Daugherty of Green Guru Gear, located in Boulder, Colorado, it is apparent that their success rests squarely on a strong foundation of environmental stewardship, solid craftsmanship, pragmatic adaptability and ultimately, not taking themselves too seriously. With a little levity, Lewis and Daugherty shine some light on how they’ve come to thrive in an industry and marketplace reeling with change.

Dark clouds stack against the Flatirons as rain begins to fall. It’s Thursday evening and a few employees gather at picnic tables just outside of Green Guru deciding whether to hit the streets for the weekly town ride or to embrace the rain and quaff another beer from Kettle and Spoke brewery nestled in the corner of the warehouse.

Lewis stands within an open doorframe looking out to the horizon, still optimistic that the weather will turn before it is time to ride. He is trimmed in slim fitted jeans, brogue boots and a simple charcoal-colored button-up. Running a hand over his chin he turns and leads me beyond the small retail storefront for Green Guru Gear and around the warehouse.

Making his way upstairs he points out an archive of thousands of design templates he has compiled over the years. Before heading back downstairs to the design area he stops, tempted by the fridge full of Kettle and Spoke brew. “It’s late enough for a beer right?” he asks. “It has to be five somewhere,” he says while pouring a pint. He shuffles down to the design space where several sewing machines, collected from industry leaders such as Osprey Packs and Madden Mountaineering, are employed for sewing prototypes. The bulk of production is done off-site in nearby Louisville.

The rain begins to let up and Lewis rolls his sleeves up and makes his way outside to a hulking pile of mostly pre-production nylon scraps sourced from Omni Promotional Tents and Softopper. There are also used wetsuits and waders from Patagonia, vinyl banners from New Belgium Brewing and Smartwool and several 55-gallon barrels full of used and even new bike tubes from Trek with recalled valve stems. One of two Sprinter vans is out making the rounds collecting discarded tubes from several established collection sites throughout the city. So far, the company has kept over 500,000 pounds of material from going to the trash.

Right up front Lewis pokes fun at the new Rapha store and reveals something we’re all familiar with, the intrinsic dividing line of what he calls the “techno-carbon-crowd” and those in the sport for fun. “I used to race when I was younger, sure, for GT, but we just don’t appeal to the spandex crowd. I mean, now I wear board shorts on my big rides and pedal an extra-cycle to work with my Chihuahua, Gracie, every day.”

And admittedly, Green Guru’s new line of insulated six-pack carriers, can coolers, frame bags and even a Dutch-style picnic pannier in development are testament to the kind of fun that can be had on a bike.

It’s not that Lewis is against having a high-tech product, but he and Daugherty haven’t found a reliable source for waterproof zippers or cuben fiber says Lewis. Their bags are however, hands down built with durability and affordability in mind. Most bags are constructed with 1000 denier nylon with a urethane backed and well, the bike tubes used in their backpacks and wallets are petroleum based and will last forever, Lewis says with a smirk. “I’m constantly approached by people at shows telling me that they’ve had one of our wallets for six or seven years. It’s both good and bad to produce something that lasts so long. I guess we forgot to design in some planned obsolescence,” he laughs.

Theirs is a utilitarian product and with the ever-shifting perspective of the bike-as-tool paradigm with bike shares, e-bikes, touring and fat bikes, Lewis and Daugherty have found their niche in catering to the many enthusiasts trying to ditch the car for their daily commute or leaving the weekly grind behind for a quick weekend tour.

Finding their place in a crowded market didn’t come easily though, it’s been a decades-long process. Lewis first started toying with recycling and re-using bicycle tubes long before developing what is now the Eco Brands Group that encompasses the business-to- business Eco Designs that produces bags, wallets and koozies for the likes of Microsoft, Subaru and Patagonia and their recently acquired Alchemy Goods, which embraces an urban boutique styling that includes a convertible pannier-tote bag and clutch purses for the ladies.

In Lewis’ youth, he collected bicycle tubes repairing and patching them for his friends and also utilized the tubes as makeshift bungee cords to tie down his surfboard to his car-rack. The next evolution and refinement in design came when tasked with his final project while pursuing a degree in Industrial Design at Virginia Tech— a way to produce a product that would have measurable impact and benefit to the environment. Lewis knew that he could expound on his childhood resourcefulness and up-cycle bike tubes into finely crafted wallets and bags with the goal of keeping as much material from the landfills as possible.

In 2001 Lewis found himself in Boulder working with Jim Clements of Ripstop Repairs helping with gear repair and even pack designs for Lowe Alpine. It was his involvement in the outdoor industry that opened Lewis’ eyes to the potential of running his own business and in 2005 Green Guru Gear was born.

“It’s been interesting,” Lewis says. “We started at Outdoor Retailer eight or nine years ago mainly focused on wallets, backpacks, messenger bags and even dog products; more of the general audience thing and then in 2009 after attending InterBike we found our focus in the urban cycling, commuting and bikepacking scene. It made more sense, cycling is what we love anyway.”

The rains have come full force now driving everyone inside. The parking lot fills with more bikes and hopeful town riders that instead choose to saddle up at the bar. It’s clearly a tight-knit community that Lewis and Daugherty have created. Jim Clements has made his way over from his repair shop for a brew. Eyeing one of Lewis’ six-pack coolers he comments on the nice shiny piping, “You know, this thing looks good but you should really get out your pinking shears and add some nice frills,” he says to Lewis resting his hand on his shoulder. “Straight to busting my chops,” Lewis laughs; the years of camaraderie between the two is apparent.

Daugherty joins the group and as his five year-old son speeds around the shop on his strider bike, Daugherty begins to reminisce. “Man, where the bar is now used to be our bio-diesel tanks filled with cooking oil from a sushi restaurant. We’d hit the road in our ambulance for five months out of the year in the early days knocking on doors and attending event shows,” he says. “We weren’t making any money but we were having a blast riding bikes, touring, partying and drinking beer.”

Photo: Davidson Lewis

Things have changed since then. Both men now have families to consider and it has altered their approach to business, “Sometimes I think I need to have my head checked for running my own company,” Lewis smiles, “but we have families now and that has us looking at how we can keep things steadily growing.”

A few more rounds are poured and the conversation turns to the mercurial nature of the cycling industry, media trends and the dangers of road cycling. Daugherty laments the downtrend in bicycle sales, the loss of retail storefronts and “real-life” customer service and he is critical of the mafia-style tactics employed by some of the corporate players. It all sounds like a bad Bukowski hangover or a Mad Max pastiche but Lewis chimes in with hope and references the way they have managed to adapt—that those who will thrive are the ones willing to develop community through outreach, offer beer or coffee sales or a mobile repair service and embrace direct-to- customer sales in conjunction with the traditional brick-and- mortar storefront. And while the future may be uncertain, Lewis and Daugherty strive to do their part to ensure the world will still be standing, one recycled tube at a time, and it will definitely be a party ride getting there.

 

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