BOISE — Mike Cooley and Tom Platt, who built George’s Cycles into a Boise dynasty over the last 40 years, fell in love with riding 10-speeds when they were 15. Once they learned how to race bikes, and then bought George’s in 1981, they put the hammer down, as they say in cycling lingo.
The two Boise kids came of age in the 1970s. This was a time of huge growth in bicycling nationwide. The era brought Earth Day, back-to-nature activities like backpacking, and the Bikecentennial event in 1976, when Americans were encouraged to bike across the nation in 90 days. Two-thousand rode the whole distance.
Cooley and Platt joined the Boise Cycling Club in 1976. A number of Boise-based bike racing enthusiasts, including Bob and Joyce Sulanke, who had opened George’s Bike Shop on Broadway in 1971, helped start the club.
Platt’s older brother, John, encouraged Mike and Tom to tag along to bike-racing events in western Oregon and race as juniors. Joyce Sulanke was a dominant force in the national women’s bike-racing circuit, winning 5 gold medals, 2 silvers and a bronze.
Cooley and Platt met while working at Greenwood’s Ski Haus as bike/ski mechanics at a ski-rental shop across Bogus Basin Road from the main shop.
Tom Platt remembers riding in the Bogus Basin Hill Climb for the first time. The ride features a 16-mile, grueling climb featuring 3,450 feet of vertical gain. “I was in ninth grade the first time I rode Bogus,” he said. “I rode it in blue jean cutoffs with tennis shoes and toe clips. I did it in 1 hour, 58 minutes. The next year I was more serious and did it in 1 hour and 14 minutes.”
John Platt smoked the course the same year in 58 minutes, winning 1st place.
Being four years older, John Platt was super serious about bike-racing. He inspired the two younger guys to train hard and compete well at the junior level. He remembers Cooley weight-training and doing squats with a bodybuilder, and Tom stopping by his house on the way home from high school, taking time to train on a bike mounted on rollers.
“Tom was a really good cross-country runner, competing at the varsity level for Boise High,” John Platt said. “They both got the bug to train hard. Mike was getting really big and strong, too.”
In the summer of 1978, John Platt bought a house in Corvallis, Oregon, so he could live closer to racing venues. Cooley, Tom Platt and two other juniors all bunked in one bedroom in the small house. “We called it Camp Corvallis,” Platt said. Cooley excelled as a sprinter and Tom Platt loved to climb. Both of them were very competitive.
“Bicycle racing was an exciting sport that we were both good at,” Tom Platt said. “It also allowed us the freedom of traveling (without parents) while still in high school. We came away with many entertaining lifelong stories during our travels to bike races throughout the Northwest.
“Happiness comes from being in shape, challenging yourself and friends, camaraderie, being outdoors. It is a great lifestyle.”
Cooley and Platt went on to college. Cooley studied business marketing at Boise State University and Platt exercise physiology at Oregon State University.
As soon as they graduated in 1981, the Sulankes asked Cooley if he’d be interested in buying George’s Bike Shop. He called Platt to see if he’d buy the shop with him. They borrowed money from their parents to seal the deal. “It sounded like fun at the time,” Platt said, chuckling.
“One thing that was important to both of us was that we could ride every day,” Cooley said. “I mean, we knew we weren’t going to get rich running a bike shop, but we could buy the best bikes on the market, and get out on a ride every day. We loved the lifestyle.”
Platt and Cooley rode Italian racing bikes at the time, with top-of-the-line Campagnolo wheels components. “One of our early goals was to sell every one of those cool Italian framesets,” Platt said.
Taking over George’s also meant taking over the events that Sulanke started and creating more. “There was no bike racing in Idaho, so we created our own racing,” Cooley said.
Cooley quickly showed a real talent for organizing events. First, he worked with Jim Rabdau at Ore-Ida Foods to create the Ore-Ida Women’s Challenge in 1984, which instantly became the largest international event for women, with $75,000 in prize money.
“That was a huge accomplishment to put on that race,” John Platt said. “It drew the best talent from all over the world. It put Idaho on the map as a racing venue.”
Top world-class female cyclists like Rebecca Twigg (USA), Inga Thompson (USA) Jeannie Longo (France), and Boise’s own Katrin Tobin finished on the podium at the Ore-Ida Women’s Challenge in the early years of the race. A young Kristin Armstrong competed the last year the race was held in 2002.
Armstrong remembers Team Goldy’s captain Brooke Blackwelder lobbying her to join their team for the 663-mile event with 17 stages. Armstrong managed to get a leave of absence from work. By the end of the race, she had three contract offers to become a professional, sponsored women’s cyclist. Two years later, she won her first Olympic gold medal.
“There’s no question, without being able to participate in that race in 2002, I wouldn’t have been a bike racer or an Olympic gold medalist,” she said.
Cooley brought men’s national bike racing to Boise in 1986 with USA Cycling Federation National Championships. The 30-mile event featured the nation’s top male cyclists doing laps in Boise’s East End on hilly Shaw Mountain Road and Shenandoah Drive, creating great excitement for residents who could watch in lawn chairs from their front yard.
The first Downtown Twilight Criterium was held the following year. It would become an iconic Idaho event that draws 15,000-20,000 people each year. The economic impact from the single-day event exceeds $1 million.
Cooley wanted a big audience. “Where are all the people on a Saturday night in Boise? They’re downtown drinking at the bars,” he noted.
Cooley worked with the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Boise Association to entice corporate sponsors. They had a $500 cash prize for first place for Category 1 racers, the best of the best. They lit the course with Christmas lights donated by Morrison Knudsen.
“That was an instant success,” Cooley said. “It just took off, and it was a natural thing. Sometimes you get lucky.”
Kâren Sander, former executive director of the Downtown Boise Association, one of the event sponsors, said the Twilight Criterium had immediate buy-in by Boise residents.
“It was one of those great iconic events where people got behind it right away,” Sander said. “They’d put it on the calendar every summer. And it’s one of those super cool free events that people could attend in downtown Boise. They could step up to the course and see some of the best cyclists in the racing world.”
All of the events that George’s organized led to increased business at their bike shop, still a single store at that time on Broadway near Burger King and Albertsons by Broadway and Beacon. “It wasn’t just about having a bike shop for them, they made it about community. George’s was a go-to place that people trusted,” Sander said.
Platt and Cooley worked long days and long weeks, often six days a week, and put as much cash back into the store as possible. As time went on, they paid more attention to the business side of the operation. By this time, both had gotten married and kids would follow.
“Mike did a lot of the promoting and marketing,” Platt said. “He was the networker, and I was the guy hiding in the back of the office, keeping a close eye on the books.”
Boise was a natural to grow as a cycling town, Cooley said. The City of Boise had worked together with Ada County and other agencies to grow the Boise River Greenbelt from downtown to Lucky Peak, and then efforts shifted to the west, pushing the pathway toward Eagle Island State Park.
By the mid-1980s, mountain bikes emerged on the national scene. George’s jumped into that business with both feet, opening a new store in 17th Street Marketplace with Ron Stacy managing the shop.
The Boise Foothills had hundreds of miles of roads and trails, the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association (SWIMBA) formed to educate mountain bikers about sharing trails with runners and hikers, maintaining trails, and building new trails with volunteers. The Ridge to Rivers Trail System was born in 1992, with a vision of connecting Bogus Basin Ski Area trails with trails through the foothills to the Greenbelt on the Boise River.
Bike sales grew “exponentially” through this period, Platt said, with both mountain biking and road biking enjoying big popularity. Many other Boise bike shops thrived during that growth period, including Idaho Mountain Touring, World Cycle and McU Sports downtown, Bob’s Bicycles on Fairview, and Ken’s Bicycle Warehouse in West Boise. All of the shops had their own vibe and customer base.
Ultimately, it’s about building relationships, trust and loyalty with customers, Cooley and Platt said.
George’s Tuesday-Nighters was a fun, timed racing event out in the windy desert south of Boise, where local bike racers and roadies could train and socialize afterwards. Many of them were George’s customers.
Armstrong remembers being super nervous about participating in the Tuesday-Nighters when she was first transitioning from being a triathlete to a bike racer. She wanted to fit in. She practiced drafting with other riders on Hill Road so she could ride a straight line. Working at the YMCA at the time, she had only one pair of biking shorts and a top to match.
“I had saved up all my money to buy a Trek road bike from George’s, and I couldn’t afford to buy one of those expensive jerseys,” she said. “After my first time out racing on a Tuesday-Nighter, I went into George’s the next day” and Mike Cooley came over to say Hi. He pulled a new women’s jersey off the rack, and said “Here, I want you to feel like you’re part of the team. I was a George’s girl. That meant so much to me!”
The booming business climate in Boise, fed by corporate tech giants Micron Technology, HewlettPackard, Santa Clara Plastics and other corporate headquarters in Boise provided a steady flow of new customers, Cooley said. “That was a game-changer. All of those high-tech companies had a lot of relatively young, active men and women who were eager to get out and ride on evenings and weekends,” he said.
As time went on, George’s expanded to a Schwinn shop on Fairview by Curtis, and another shop in West Fairview near Meridian as that town’s population exploded while Boise boomed as well. George’s moved the Broadway store to a much larger venue on Front Street next to Winco. They even tried opening a bike shop in Twin Falls for a time. They dabbled in selling fitness equipment — treadmills, home gyms, free weights, and Schwinn Airdyne workout bikes. During that time, they changed their name to George’s Cycles and Fitness.
“I was always pushing for more and bigger stores, and Tom was the reality-check,” Cooley recalls.
More events were added to the race and recreation calendar. The 4 Summits Challenge, a recreational benefit ride for the town of Cascade, raised $10,000 a year for the community. The 75-mile road ride attracted about 300 cyclists a year.
The Lyle Pearson 200 is a recreational relay event with four riders taking turns riding 200 miles from Boise to Ketchum via Idaho City, Lowman, Banner Summit, Stanley and Galena Summit. The ride is scheduled in late May, creating a big incentive for cyclists to train early in the season to be ready for that event, and then they’ll be in shape for Cascade 4 Summits in July.
George’s also helped get the Boise Bike Patrol launched with the Boise Police Department. “We called the mayor and suggested it,” Cooley says. “We provided all the bikes and racks for their officers for two years until they saw the benefit, and then they took it over from there.”
Before the nonprofit Boise Bicycle Project was invented by Jimmy Halliburton, George’s did “Burgers for Bikes” events, where anyone who donated a bike for charity got a free burger at Red Robin. Through that community event, George’s donated several hundred bikes to families in need.
Nowadays, George’s operates two stores in Boise after establishing their main headquarters at Third and Front Street in 2016 with 25,000 square feet of space. The store is big enough to accommodate a Custom Bike-Fitting Studio for assisting people with an optimum bike fit for peak performance. The store allows George’s to carry a wide variety of bikes at the shop, with enough space to display about 400 bikes — from cruisers, to kids bikes, e-bikes, mountain bikes and road bikes in different sizes for men and women.
“It’s either go big or go home,” Cooley said. “We love having that big space.”
And that’s part of what attracted Nathan and Linda Lloyd to purchasing George’s. The Lloyds heard about the opportunity to buy George’s from a friend in the real estate business. Nathan Lloyd is the brand manager at Boise Audi, and Linda Lloyd has a strong business background while also raising their two teen-age kids. She helped her brother start up City Center Wines in Boise.
“It’s such a great-running bike shop. We just want to continue the tradition of making it the best it can be,” Linda Lloyd said.
Their vision for George’s is to expand on its reputation as a destination bike shop. “If you come to Boise, you have to go to George’s. That’s the kind of reputation we want to build on,” said Nathan Lloyd.
“You might say they’re interested in polishing the diamond,” added Frank Leone, manager of the Front Street store.
Cooley and Platt had a long tradition of treating their employees as best they could to keep quality, knowledgeable employees who help customers with questions about their existing bikes or in shopping for a new bike. The Lloyds said they plan on keeping that tradition.
“We know that Mike and Tom created a culture at George’s where the employees felt that they were part of a big family. That’s an honorable way to treat your people, and we sure hope to earn their trust and respect as well, and the trust and respect of the community,” Linda Lloyd said. “We know we have big shoes to fill.”
“I think they’ll do super good,” Cooley said.
“Nathan has a lot of passion for riding, and that’s what it takes, the love and passion for cycling,” Armstrong added.
Now in their young 60s, Cooley and Platt plan to continue riding bikes in their retirement. They’re both geared up for road trips and camping. Cooley also has pledged to continue running major bike events like the Twilight Criterium until a replacement is found.
They’re both proud of the George’s legacy.
“We all have shaped and helped create Boise’s bike culture,” Cooley said. “Not only the races but the fun community events in the little towns in the mountains. It’s important to give back to those communities because they certainly feed us well and help out with our events.
“I think we’ve got as good of a cycling community as any place. It’s been great to be a part of that.”
Armstrong looks back in awe at what Cooley and Platt have done with George’s and cycling events.
“Look at what they’ve done,” Armstrong said. “George’s is about bringing community to our sport. They’ve got such a passion for bringing community into riding and racing bikes. If we’re able to do the Twilight Criterium again this summer, that would be such a great way to celebrate getting past the COVID pandemic. The Twilight Criterium is part of our culture; it’s who we are.”