The ultimate ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of bicycle shops is in Switzerland!

A few posts back, I tried to articulate what my perfect bicycle shop might look, feel and smell like, and it was a kind of bicycle-shop-utopia-thing. However, today I’m going to introduce you to my actual favourite bicycle shop, and its owner, Stefan Stettler. But first, lets set the location scene for you………

There’s a beautiful old Swiss town close to Lake Neuchatel, called Avenches. Confirmation of it being in a great location is explicit in the vast amount of Roman remains that cover a wide area around the town, and by the magnificent amphitheatre at one end of the main street. The Romans were pretty good at finding good locations to build towns and garrisons and this was a big Roman centre. The town architecture is fabulous, and typically of the Canton of Vaud that it sits in. It hosts regular events, concerts and festivals, some of which are held in the amphitheatre. We went to see Status Quo play there one night a few years back, which was very atmospheric, and I’m sure that if the Romans were still around, they would have been impressed with the noise that ‘The Quo’ made in that amphitheatre. There’s a great patisserie in the town too!

A historic and well used location. The amphitheatre at Avenches.

Around the town and within a 5 kilometre radius, there are many Roman remains of buildings, baths and stuff, which makes it is an amazing area for cycling, site seeing, history and eating cakes. It’s quite flat for Switzerland, and there are loads of tracks that connect all of the Roman sites. It is close to the big lake of Neuchatel and it is also a great wine region. The four seasons are beautiful, so it’s a great location to visit all year round. What more do you need to satisfy a great visit?

Roman remains as far as the eye can see around the town.

It is also special for something else. On the outskirts of the town and on a road heading south, there is THE most amazing bicycle shop. I can’t do justice to the special feel of the place as it has to be experienced to be believed, and before I try to describe my recent visit, here’s an introduction to Stefan Stettler, the proprietor.

Captain of the ship, Stefan Stettler

Stefan is Swiss, comes from the city of Biel, and like most Swiss, he speaks several languages including German, French and English fluently and says he ‘can get by’ in Spanish. Stefan is interested in anything vintage from bicycles, cars, cameras, tools, aeroplanes, houses to music. He claims that his music interests haven’t really evolved since 1978, and he’s well into Jazz & blues from 1940s as well.

He bought the building 12 years ago. The core of the building is very old, and it started its vehicle-linked life as a garage in the 1930s when it was a Mercedes truck dealership. If you ask Stefan to describe his shop, he’ll tell you it is like one big stock room, and where nothing is bar coded! Stock room control is at ‘not much control’ status. This is all part of the attraction of the place. He does have a pretty good idea of the rough location that you will find what you want though. He also knows a hell of a lot about old cars and bicycles and anything vintage.

Tools everywhere

He reckons that he has approximately 700-ish bicycles in stock, from 1915 to todays models. He’s most interested in bicycles from the 1930s onwards, and particularly 1970s Swiss and English bicycles. He doesn’t look for specific brands to find and sell. Instead, he looks for the colours, the chrome, and the shape of the bicycle and its components. He takes the same approach with cars. He likes mid to late 1960s American cars, and he runs two old V8 Vans. He does bicycle repairs for people as well as selling stuff. About a quarter of his stock is vintage car parts and hidden under various piles of stuff, there are some cars as well.

A V8 van and about 2% of the massive stock of bikes

A lot of his stock comes from other bicycle shops that have closed down. Fashions in Switzerland haven’t changed fast over the years, so he’s managed to collect some amazing new-old-stock (NOS) parts that in many other countries, have been used, abused and thrown away years ago. You won’t find his shop on the internet and he only advertises as a buyer in local newspapers. Stefan will be the first to admit that when it comes to technology, internet, email, social media etc, he’s at ‘caveman’ level, so to get him, you either turn up to the shop or call him on the phone (contact details at the end of this post). The winter selling season is mainly people who are restoring stuff and the summer season is when people buy stuff to ride. Interestingly, Stefan has noticed that each year, the demand for vintage bicycles changes. It could be Swiss Military bicycles one year and another type another year. It is always changing. You can buy a bicycle to restore, to ride away, or just find some key parts for a project. People do travel quite long distances to the shop when they need specific car parts or a specific bicycle as well.

I asked Stefan if he had any advice for new customers visiting his Aladdin’s cave, and he said “come in old clothes and not a white shirt, bring a miner’s head torch and don’t expect to find what you want quickly, so give yourself enough time to enjoy exploring”.

I went there recently as I needed some parts for a Cannondale Killer V MTB restoration that I’m currently doing. Unusually, the weather for late February was magnificent and as my wife was away with our only car, I went on the BMW GS1200. I Put all of the luggage boxes on it, threw in some straps (you never know what you might need to strap on to the BMW after a visit to Stefan’s shop!) and set off on the 60 minute ride on dry, smooth surfaced and flowing roads.

A good selection of rear derailleurs

Stefan welcomed me into his paradise with his usual jolly smile and a handshake, then I ask where I might find the ‘derailieurs section’. He moves about 4 bicycles out of an aisle and points to a big metal filing cabinet. The middle drawer is full of front derailleurs and the one below it, rear derailleurs. I rooted around and found what I needed. My hands were not clean anymore, so I was good to continue my search for wheels, brakes, chains etc. I also found a couple of things that I wasn’t looking for.

Evidence of some stock control

The building has over 500 square metres of rooms and space, and it is literally stuffed to the ceiling with things. Some rooms are unlit due to the floor to ceiling racking, so apart from a small window providing some guiding light, the head torch is key to navigating and for searching. The shop smells great, from leather, to oil, to tyres, to old cars. The place is just full of soul. There is also the local radio station playing through an old stereo system. On a few occasions, I ask Stefan where a part might be, and he’ll point me in the right direction, then I head off in anticipation of a great find.

This is the top shelf. Under this lot are rows and rows of bicycles

I always learn something when I go there. This visit was a lesson about the old Swiss insurance plaques. From the beginning of the 20th century to 2011, every bicycle in Switzerland had to have a insurance plaque by law. This insurance was required in case of third part damage or injury due to some wayward or dangerous cycling which involved an accident. Stefan showed me the contents of a box which was sitting on the bonnet of an old Volvo. Inside were used and unused bicycle insurance plaques from all decades. Each Swiss Canton took a different approach to designing and making their plaques. The French Cantons used a stamped steel example, some of the German speaking areas had cast aluminium ones and in the Zug and Argau Cantons, they made amazing enamelled plaques. Every plaque was individually numbered. At the end of the century, national standardisation took a grip on the design and all Cantons used a red with white lettering plaque, then finally, moved to a sticker. These very old plaques are rare and expensive.

Vintage bicycle insurance plaques

My ‘shopping basket’ at the end of the visit included a pair of 7-speed MTB wheels plus a load of smaller parts to finish the Cannondale. I put all the parts in a pile on the floor and ask Stefan how much it all was. He does a quick calculation and gives me a fair price, which I pay in cash as there is no credit card facility. I put my stash of parts in the panniers of the BMW, strap the two wheels to the back to the top box, wave goodbye and head off back home on another glorious ride. I had arrived at the shop at 11am, and including a coffee stop with Stefan, I left 4 hours later. Top fun!

The BMW is loaded up and ready for a great ride home.

It is interesting to reflect on why we return to some shops or why they become a favourite. I always come away from Stefan’s shop thinking I’ve missed something. It is also because he has a good turnover of stock, which also ensures that I have a high level of anticipation, which makes me always want to go back.

Having seen many bicycle shops in different parts of the world, Stefan’s Aladdin’s cave is by far, my favourite. It has the most interesting and right level of chaos that makes the place exciting to visit. If you’re into vintage stuff, I can guarantee absolute satisfaction. You can reach Stefan on +41 796306840 and the shop address is: 10 Route de Donatyre, Avenches, Vaud, Switzerland.

It takes time to look, and it is great fun!

All photos by the author