Matt Barkley and the undulating hills of the Peninsula have something in common: Cycling is ingrained in their DNA. The Menlo Park-based pedaling devotee has ridden through every stage of a cyclist’s journey. From leisure to convenience and competition, his relationship to the sport has never wavered along life’s winding road.
Some obsessions start with a conscious choice. “I’m going to try building one of those ships in a bottle,” one might say before disappearing down a lifelong bottled-ship rabbit hole. But for Matt Barkley, owner and operator of Menlo Park’s specialty cycling shop Red Lantern Cycles, the pedaling bug seems to have been innate. Throughout every phase of his life, his love for the sport has stubbornly found a way to adapt.“I know what it’s like to feel great on a bike and also how poorly you can feel — the suffering, the injuries, the fatigue,” says Barkley. “I have been ‘dropped’ so many times in races and on rides, but I have also gotten back on and rode more, trained smarter and was able to hang, even attack and win first place. That is the hardest, when there is a clear finish line and only one who can cross it first.”
For better or for worse, Barkley’s life revolves around bicycles. In the past, he competed against some of the fastest riders this side of Lance Armstrong. Today, his specialty cycle shop on Menlo Avenue enjoys a cult following among hardcore bike enthusiasts.
Training Wheels: Growing up in Washington, D.C., Barkley and his bike were inseparable. “I started some ‘hardcore’ group rides before high school, and I was by far the youngest person on the rides,” he reminisces. “Then I did a couple training races, which were the hardest physical exertion I had ever experienced.” The mental rewards outweighed the physical burden, and riding became an outlet for Barkley throughout his adolescence. “Being able to ride my bike long distances and exploring that part of my independence at such a relatively young age was a great feeling of freedom that I have never forgotten.”
The Racing Bug: Barkley began racing as a junior (under 18) with what is now known as the DC Velo club, a path that would continue well into adulthood. He eventually worked his way up to battling against the pros. The search for the perfect ride led Barkley to the Bay Area, where he first visited Menlo Park after racing in San Luis Obispo circa the mid-1990s. The region’s natural beauty wowed him. “I fell in love with the climbs here, like Old La Honda Road and Mt. Tamalpais up in Marin,” he says. “I mean, we had nothing like that back East.”
Setting Up Shop: Those routes — famous in the Bay Area cyclist community — would lure Barkley back to Menlo Park, where he made a permanent move and opened Red Lantern. Its name is a play on lanterne rouge, the term given to the last-placed competitor in the Tour de France. But the small shop — a purveyor of professional machines crafted in the United States and Italy — carries everything a cyclist needs to take the yellow jersey.
Although Red Lantern specializes in merchandise perfectly suited for Barkley’s peer group of devoted riders, the proprietor is adamant about one thing in particular: His store is for everyone. “We’re inclusive, not exclusive,” he stresses in our conversation. Barkley tailors a bicycle to the customer, providing customizations, fittings and advice on which gear to buy. Above all, the machine reigns supreme. “Red Lantern gets to choose what we sell,” he adds. “This is very important.” Barkley offers custom versions of some of the world’s best-quality carbon bikes from the Massachusetts-based Parlee company. He also stocks top-notch models by high-end Italian maker Officine Mattio.
From Beginner to Pro: Barkley knows what works for cyclists at every level. For the casual rider: “Fuji Absolute is a great ‘hybrid’-style bike,” he says. “It’s perfect for everyone and all uses, from commuting, errands and even going out for a 15-mile loop — very utilitarian and still fun to ride.” For the rider flirting with commitment: “LOOK Cycle’s 785 Huez is this solid setup that will last for a number of seasons, and you can always get a lighter wheel-set and upgrade parts in the future.” For the dedicated cyclist: “The $4,500 to $5,500 level of a Basso Astra.” And, finally, for the diehard: “Custom Parlee Z-Zero is the crème de la crème. It’s measured for you like a custom-made suit, and you work with a designer for a beautiful custom paint — giving you a one-of-a-kind, made-for-you bicycle.”