Shawn Wilson and Kazia Pennino at their Westside Santa Cruz location. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
The confluence of passion, recreation and community involvement
The Saturday afternoon parking lot at Epicenter Cycling teems like a vibrant cycling ecosystem. Toyota Tundras arrive with knobby tires hanging off the tailgates. The adjacent pump track swarms with groms coasting over the rollers and berms under the watchful gaze of proud parents. Flocks of riders pedal up Aptos Creek Road toward the single-track Mecca of Soquel Demonstration Forest.
Next to the frenzy of fun sits Epicenter, where a grinning rider pushes a polished full-suspension steed through the door. In the heart of the shop, a 26-year-old man jumps up and down, arms triumphantly raised amidst the walls of components, Trek bikes and baggy riding apparel.
Epicenter’s owner, the former professional racer Shawn Wilson, performs his bicycle-sale victory dance—celebrating the successful spread of cycling stoke to yet another customer.
By age 15, Wilson knew he wanted to promote cycling throughout his community, he just didn’t know how. As a scruffy redheaded junior, he raced for the Santa Cruz Syndicate development squad. Turning pro at 18, he continued to pursue his passion for racing, switching to a self-supported privateer race program with bicycle support from Trek.
When not traveling around the US competing in top-flight downhill events, Shawn commuted from Santa Cruz over the hill to work at a Los Gatos bike shop. After four years following the NORBA national race circuit around the US, Wilson decided to refocus on his goal. At age 20, he took a fulltime position at the shop and eventually became the store manager.
In 2009, plans to co-own the bike shop fell through. Other bike industry opportunities arose over the hill but he knew the commute and corporate culture would not facilitate the goal of spreading bicycle passion throughout his community. A young man adrift, Wilson found his answer in a vacant building at the base of Nisene Marks State Park. What if this were his new shop?
The location proved ideal. It abutted nearly 60 miles of trail in Nisene Marks and the Demo Forest and was within view of the world-renowned dirt jumps of the Aptos Post Office. Every ride he took to Nisene, that vacant building sat beckoning. (Epicenter mechanic Sarah Hansing in her natural habitat. Photo by Chip Scheuer)
Wilson acted on his aspirations. He and fiancé Kazia Pennino worked for three months on a business proposal, outlining every detail of their plan. While banks were not in a lending mood at that moment in history, a private investor came through.
With the financial hurdle cleared, the young entrepreneurs enlisted the help of local friend, World Cup downhill racer and mechanical wizard Evan Turpen. Bringing Trek on board as the main bicycle brand, the trio began to transform the vacant building into a hub of cycling culture for Aptos and Santa Cruz.
In order to break into the hallowed bike retail scene in Santa Cruz, Wilson, Pennino and Turpen knew they needed to go big right from the beginning. With the doors barely open, Epicenter pinned it straight off a giant sender and tackled the vacant lot behind the shop. The Epicenter crew and local volunteers transformed the dusty weed ridden field into of public pump track for the community. The free course, filled with rollers, jumps and berms, now serves as a skills-development area and transition feature between the trails of Nisene and Demo and the sculpted lips of the Post Office Jumps just two hundred yards away.
Still thinking big, Epicenter assisted the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz to help organize the inaugural Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival. The event featured a jump contest, a pump track race and short track cross-country. In just four years, the festival grew to 9,000 attendees and nearly 400 participants and raised funds for local projects like the Emma McCrary Trail, a permanent bike park in Aptos and a flow trail in Demo Forest. The shop remains active in maintaining and promoting the hugely successful homegrown event. (Above, Andrea Kopp fits bike to rider. Photo by Chip Scheuer)
Meanwhile, up on the Westside of Santa Cruz, another empty storefront beckoned. The site of the old Blockbuster on Mission Street stood vacant since 2009. Success at the first store led to a bold business decision to expand Epicenter Cycling into a second location. Among their first initiatives, Wilson and Pennino enlisted local artist Steve Hosmer to create a vibrantly colored visage of a cyclist holding a surfboard above the legend “Welcome to Santa Cruz!”
At 26, Wilson and Pennino built a successful business model grounded on passion and drive. The duo’s dreams created two locations in Santa Cruz that not only sell bikes, but get toddlers pumping, festivalgoers amping, and riders stoking on two wheels throughout the county. (Photo by Chip Scheuer)