Meet John Klemme, Founder of Bike Switzerland

October 27, 2015

What brought you to Switzerland and when?

I came to Switzerland to work for the first time back in 1993. I got hired at a summer camp and did that for four years. In the meantime, I earned a teaching degree back in the states. I wanted to live outside the USA and I thought that degree was my ticket. I had planned to teach English in Chile, but spent one more summer in Switzerland and that lead to my first real teaching job at a private school in Gstaad.

What do you like most about living and working here?

There’s a lot. The trains for example: I’ve got my business in Geneva, but my wife and children live in Zurich. Of course, I can’t be doing that commute every day, but the trains are clean, comfortable and efficient and I use them all the time. They’re my second office.

Can you tell us about the story of Bike Switzerland and what inspired you to set it up?

I was living in Geneva and had been teaching for over ten years. This was back around 2004. I was beginning to feel burned-out. I didn’t have any real money to quit my job and start a business and so I needed to find something that I enjoyed that was compatible with teaching.
So, having a lot of time in the summer, I got the idea to work for a bicycle tour company. I wrote to someone who did tours in Europe and proposed my services. I would develop the itinerary, research hotels, bike rentals and do the guiding. The company said, “go for it”. So, I began doing all of this research and after a few weeks I thought, “I should just get a website and do this myself”.
The first few years I did just one tour itinerary. I hired a van driver, rented the bikes from a local shop and I did all the guiding myself. Then I took a bit more time off in the summer and developed another itinerary. After three years I had enough money saved up to by a small fleet of bikes.
Once I had those bikes, I decided that I should try to rent them and so developed a rentals website and that took off. When that happened,  I had to take off even more time from my “real” job.
It was really hard to let go of that job. I finally made the leap four years ago when the space at 22 Rue des Grottes opened up. I thought the location was perfect as we had two large caves right below the place that we were using for storage. So, I quit my job and opened the shop. At that point my plate was full and I had no choice but to start doing Bike Switzerland full time.

Who are your customers and which of Bike Switzerland’s services do they value most?

Our clientele is all over the map. We’ve got customers flying in from London for the weekend to rent bikes. We’ve got locals who buy bikes and need them serviced. We have Russians doing independent tours, Americans signing up for our guided tours. Everyone really – Brazilians, Indians, Taiwanese.

Do you think there has been a surge in cycling recently? Are you noticing more people getting out on their bikes in Switzerland?

People do say there’s a surge, but I don’t know. I don’t feel that so much here. Yes, there are a lot of cyclists, but I’m not sure if there are more than there were before. If you look at the numbers, there are probably fewer individual bike shops in Geneva then there were 20 years ago.
Cycling is a big business and people behind the business are always trying to grow it with new products and marketing. The professional racing circuit is all part of that marketing effort too, so maybe that makes it feel like its bigger than it actually is.
But to answer your question, I really haven’t noticed this surge. In fact, I’m always surprised that I don’t see more cyclists when I go out.

What do you love most about cycling?

Of course, there’s nature, exercise and the fact that it’s a really perfect machine. But I also really like where my mind goes when I’m on a bike. The pace and rhythm is such that I’m always thinking on the bike, coming up with ideas, solutions or just meditating.

Is there anything about Switzerland that makes it the perfect place to cycle?

Of course, there are the roads and the dedicated bicycle paths that have been planned and mapped-out. Those routes give us ideas and direction.
But just as valuable are the trains. There are lots of 100 km cycling loops you can do in Geneva, but you’ll eventually do them all and want something more. When that happens, put your bike on an early morning train and head to the Jura, to Bern or Graubunden and you’ve got a whole new world to explore.

You also have a young family. What is the best way to get children out on their bikes in the fresh air? Do you have any practical advice for taking the family out for a ride?

Well, my oldest is 4 ½ and he’s just started riding a pedal bike by himself, so I haven’t got a lot of experience yet. That said, I’m working towards that goal.
In retrospect, I would say that you really can’t start too early. Once a child begins to feel comfortable walking, you can almost immediately put him/her on a balance bike. At that point your life will be easier… No more carrying, waiting or coaxing them to follow. Just make sure they know how to stop and that they stay on the sidewalk.

What other activities do you and your family like doing at the weekend here?

It’s all about trying to introduce the kids to new things. They’re very young and so we’re limited in what is possible: a hike, a visit to a new city, a puppet theatre, a climbing wall, a kite, a walk through old town.

Switzerland has incredibly beautiful and varied terrain. Which of your favourite routes in the Geneva area would you recommend for the following groups?

Beginners such as young children and families seeking a relaxing ride:
Perhaps a ride from the “Rade” to Hermance. Or follow National Route 1 out of town to Nyon. But National Route #5 is also a popular route for families because it’s car-free and flat. This corresponds more or less to our own “Lite Route”. You can catch Route #5 in Lausanne and follow it all the way to Lake Constance.
Intermediate cyclists, like teenagers and sportier cyclists:
Lots of people like to bike around the lake. The loop is 180 km, so depending upon your fitness level, you could do it in a long day or divide it up into 2 or 3 days, staying at hotels along the way.
Advanced cyclists and those wanting a challenge:
We’ve got the Salève just over the border, which is my favourite climb because it’s short, but hard. A longer, but less steep climb would be the Col de La Faucille beginning in Gex. But of course, we’ve got a large playground here – La Vallée Verte, the roads between here and Annecy, etc.

Bike Switzerland’s bike tour holidays are very popular. Can you describe the format, and who usually joins them?

We do guided and independent tours. The guided tours include everything: professional guides, the bikes, the hotels, luggage delivery, catered lunches and evening meals at restaurants. We have four guided tours scheduled in 2016. These tours are limited to 18 riders and those joining come from around the world. Of course, they’re open to meeting new people. In the best instances, it’s a party on wheels.
But those tours are at specific times on our calendar and not everyone can make the dates and so we also offer “independent tours”. This is where we supply the bikes, hotels, luggage transfers and then give the clients a GPS and maps. Riders on those tours have to be a little more independent and should feel comfortable changing a flat tire.
Then we also do private guided tours for riders who want guides, but can’t make the dates of our regular guided tours.  Or  for riders who would prefer not to pass their holiday in a big group.

What have been your greatest challenges running the business in a foreign country?

If anything, being a foreigner has been an advantage. I see things differently and so sometimes see opportunities that a person born here might miss. The bureaucracy that comes with owning a business is never fun, but there’s less here than most places.

What advice would you give to other parents living abroad who might be thinking about starting a business?

Don’t think too hard or you’ll just drag your feet and never get on with it.

What does the future hold for Bike Switzerland?

I’d love to open up a larger shop here in Geneva and expand to Zurich. Calling all investors!

How have you made a successful business out of your passion? What advice would you give others who might be looking to make a living from their favourite hobby?

My passion was never cycling. If my passion were cycling, then the business is would have killed my passion. Since starting the business fulltime, my cycling has dwindled to almost nothing. I hope that changes, but how can you bike 10,000 kilometres a year and start up a business ?
My passion has always been the business. Fortunately, I found a business that I enjoy. If you’ve got a passion, then you’re already there. Why would you want to take it “further”.
Thanks to John Klemme of Bike Switzerland for this interview. To find out more about Bike Switzerland,  visit their website at www.bikeswitzerland.com.

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