An Absolute Institution–Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colorado

Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colorado is a mainstay in the mountain bike destination town and one of the most distinct shops in the country, all under the careful guidance of owner Shawn Gillis.

What makes an ordinary place an “institution”? What gives a place—a restaurant, a record store, a bike shop—that gestalt, that common understanding that this place is special? Well, sure you could say “the people,” but a bike shop with no bikes would be kinda silly. And we all know that it’s not just the bikes/clothes/parts alone because there are plenty of retailers—online and brick and mortar—who will sell you stuff, but certainly don’t qualify as an institution. 

It’s one of those things—you know it when you see it. If you’ve been to Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colorado, odds are you know of which I speak. Yeah, it’s imbued with history. It’s got signed photos and jerseys from Alison Dunlap, Joe Murray, Ned Overend. But that’s not it. Lots of places have that, and frankly, it often just makes them look old, tired, and like their grasping at glory days gone by. Plus, 98.9% of the population doesn’t know or care who Ned Overend is.  

There’s a veritable museum hanging from the ceiling— Fat Chance, Breezer, Fisher, all circa 1980s, all with handy descriptions regarding the build, the intention, the unique things about each one. And it’s hard not to notice how positively archaic they look with a bangin’ new Revel Ranger hanging four inches away from them, but it’s pretty nifty to see the whole evolution of mountain biking right in front of your eyes, all within a 20-foot radius. 

So, they’ve got bikes, and nice ones too. All the modern bling. But they don’t really have road bikes cause honestly, road riding in the Arkansas Valley is just plain poopy (negligible shoulder, big trucks, poopy). From kids bikes to entry level mountain bikes to crème-de-la-crème bank account busters, it’s all here. But that’s still not it. 

Salida, then and now

Enter Shawn Gillis. Owner. Rider. Racer. Dad. Trail designer/builder/advocate/volunteer/philanthropist. Humble bike emissary. The first time I met Gillis was over Labor Day Weekend when a gang of pals and I secured five shuttle spots for the Monarch Crest. This warm, unassuming man does not immediately strike one as a 25-time Leadville finisher, an Ironman competitor in multiple countries, TransAlp, TransAndes, La Ruta finisher, among other things. 

“This summer will be my 27th time for the Leadville 100. This past year I was lucky enough to ride it with both my son and daughter. Cassidy and I rode most everything together and just made it in under the 12 hours.”

Nor would you know unless someone else told you that he has been a major force behind the Salida that mountain bikers love today. Gillis came from Flagstaff, Arizona in 1999 where he owned and managed a bike shop, and bought an old feed barn complete with a grain silo that is home to Absolute and an adjacent restaurant to this day. The building is iconic, and of course has always been on the river, but the riverfront of 1999 is not the same riverfront of today. Many towns across the country once turned their backs to their respective waterfronts, and in the past two decades have fomented a riverfront renaissance. Salida is one of those towns. 

“Salida has really changed over the past decade or so,” says Gillis, and it is a relief to hear this said in an upbeat, positive way. “We now have a trail system, a world class River Park, the Steamplant Convention Center, the Salida Skate Park, an improved Riverside Park with the new Rotary Bandshell, we have an amazing in-town trail system so we can get around on foot or on a bike.”  

So often when these words are said—“X place/town/city has really changed…” it is with a shake of the head, and more often than not you can be sure that a blast of bitter nostalgia is heading your way. And it must be human nature because you can surely remember your elders pissing and moaning “well when I was a kid…{insert dependable diatribe here},” and I would be a liar to pretend such sentiments have never escaped my own mouth. 

And yes, runaway real estate prices have found Salida, just like any other desirable location. But Gillis points to the fact that Salida kids are returning to Salida after college, not just leaving this small mountain town ASAP, never to return. Cause there’s stuff to do here now. The local trails group Salida Mountain Trails (SMT) did not focus solely on mountain bikers when building trails, and as a result, there is a large contingent of trail-runners sluicing through the S Mountain and Methodist trails. The rafting, kayaking, fishing and water sports are world class. Monarch ski area is 25 minutes away; Denver 2.5 hours. 

This proximity to the Front Range does not explain why most Absolute Bikes customers hail from there, cause you can be sure that Denver, Golden, Boulder, Colorado Springs etc. all have bike shops, and I’d hazard a guess that they are good ones to boot. It’s back to that gestalt, the secret sauce for which no recipe exists. 

“Aside from the Monarch Crest, there really wasn’t much to ride here 25 years ago. Tenderfoot and Methodist Mountain trail systems didn’t exist, and what was there were mostly social trails.” 

Building a destination bike shop

So the first few years at Absolute, business could be pretty quiet. Concerningly quiet. Town was full of cruiser bikes and Gillis was careful in the first years to stock only bikes with a lower price point. But the community rallied around its collective desire for more trails close to town–on S and Methodist Mountains. 

Gillis is a founding member of SMT and remains on the board of directors to this day. SMT has been working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, and the City of Salida to plan, design and build a high-quality, top-notch system of trails both on S Mountain (so named for the giant “S” in white concrete that can be seen for miles) and Methodist Mountain on the opposite side of the valley. Both trail systems are rideable from town, though S Mountain is closer, located approximately 345 pedal strokes from the front door of the shop. 

“We are in the business of saving vacations” says Mike Franco, store manager at Absolute. “We understand that people put a lot of time, effort and money into coming to ride for the weekend, for a week, and a broken bike can destroy all of that pretty quickly.” 

Case in point, over the Labor Day weekend of which I spoke, I had loaned my bike to a friend for a few hours and a tip-over had snapped the dropper lever. She was mortified. I, on the other hand, was blissfully ignorant because it was ready for pickup before I even knew what had transpired. Gillis and Franco both pride themselves on creating and retaining a welcoming atmosphere, one that does not condescend, as far too many shops do. 

“It just doesn’t make sense to us that we’d want to make our customers feel dumb” says Franco, who’s got a passable “bro” halo and surprises me with stories of being victim of just such behavior through the years. 

Absolute has more women on staff than many similar sized shops, and not all of them are front-of-house recommending cute shorts. And not that there’s anything wrong with cute shorts. I like them, and I want to know where they are. But these ladies can sell you shorts and bleed your brakes, replace your cable housing, and probably wallop you on the trail, but in a really nice way. 

More than just sales and service

The shop shuttle to the Monarch Crest is a staple of the business, though not one that showers them in coin. “The shuttle is more about making friends than making money” says Gillis, and while that may sound trite and a touch saccharine, think about how much time for authentic connection a 30-minute drive provides. I doubt that Gillis consciously equates shuttle time into dollars—that would feel somehow crass, even for a business owner who needs to pay suppliers, employees, and the heating bill. You can tell that his low-key love for this place, these trails, bikes and where they can take us is genuine, and that he wants you to love it too. And yes, he wants to sell you a bike, but it truly feels secondary. 

Gillis, 58, wants to work less and ride more (hallelujah to that…), but the shop’s got big plans in 2024. A redesign of the service area a la the “open kitchen” layout in a fancy, high-end restaurant so you can see the magic unfolding. A new demo program where you pick tasty bikes from a menu then go shred on trails 34 seconds from the front door. Return, exchange, repeat…but maybe with a dip in the Arkansas River 12 seconds from the back door in between laps, and/or a burger and beer at the High Side conveniently located under the same roof as Absolute. 

And if you are a bike nerd/geek, you will want to check out the hanging collection that Gillis is clearly proud of.

“When we moved to Salida in 1999 this building had pretty tall ceilings so it was easier to display and we started with just a few bikes, and this allowed us to create some good conversations with people. Over the years as we did store remodels we could display much easier and add more bikes. Right now it is at about 56 bikes. We add or change 1-2 bikes per year.”

A few of Gillis’ personal favorites include a 1985 Cunningham, the American Breezer, and a Manitou FS, one of the earliest full suspension bikes. The Cunningham was one of the first bikes collected and he notes that it took several years to find the parts to get it close to period correct.

“Many times people visit bike shops and look at the new items and don’t really understand the amazing things that came from the early pioneers and designers. There was a lot of experimentation and broken things to get to where we are now, and many of these bikes show that progression.”

Gillis will be tackling the Vapor Trail 125 for the fourth time in September. 125 miles, 15,658 feet of climbing, the race starts at 10:00 p.m. on the F Street Bridge in Salida and finishes at…Absolute Bikes. Gillis’ 22-year-old son Camden finished this race in 17 hours, 19 minutes in 2023, and they will both be racing in 2024. 

“I hope to finish with a smile and have a great time…Sometimes people go to such extremes they forget to have fun and then they are a total wreck afterwards. My goal would be around 20 hours if all goes well. As for the father/son aspect, I hope to ride together in the neutral roll out and hear about where Camden is as I go through the Aid Stations hours later…”

Some places try to become instant institutions. Add a big name and an even bigger dollop of cash and that should be the recipe, right? Not so much. Like a freewheeling cook taking on the meticulous and fussy task of baking, the biscuits won’t rise, the cake will collapse, and the pizza dough will resemble a board. I still can’t pinpoint what makes this shop different, likely because it’s a magical confluence of people, bikes, community, location and probably some fairy dust. So go get some cute shorts, get walloped by a shop girl, and say hi to Shawn. He says he’s gonna ride more and work less but he’ll probably be there anyway.