About seven months ago, employees at Highwire Coffee Roasters passed around a YouTube video of their boss, Rich Avella, riding in a BMX freestyle competition. The 35-year-old video shows a teenage Avella ripping through a routine of switch stances, one-legged hop backs and other tricks, backed by a cheesy ‘80s soundtrack. It would be hilarious if Avella’s moves weren’t so impressive.
“I was like, ‘No way. There is no way this is Rich,’” said Dana Hartman, Highwire barista and trainer. “And then there was a short interview at the end of the video and he was talking just the same way he does today.”
The staff at Highwire Coffee couldn’t believe what they saw: their quiet, unassuming boss was once a BMX star. They knew Avella and co-founder Rob Meyers used to play in punk bands before they started Highwire, but beyond that Avella was a nice guy with a lot of experience in specialty coffee and tea.
Why would they have known? Avella’s BMX days were brief and over long before the sport’s peak in the late ‘80s. But a new book called Wall to Wall – The Birth of the Freestyle Movement tells Avella’s story, documenting his rise to BMX stardom with the 2-Hip Trick Team — a team he started with BMX legend Ron Wilkerson.
“They’re not just another couple of kids that rode together and got sponsored,” said Wall To Wall author Dominic Phillips. “These two did that and did it better than anyone else.”
Their partnership lasted about three years and their rise to fame was meteoric. But the experience led to two very different lives: Wilkerson went on to be one of the biggest stars in the BMX, while Avella went on to co-found one of the East Bay’s best coffee chains.
A two-wheeled childhood
Avella spent much of his childhood on two wheels. Growing up on the north side of Novato, Avella could ride his bike everywhere and he did — to and from school, to friends’ houses, and after he bought his first BMX bike, to the local dirt jumps. It was at the jumps where he met Wilkerson, who moved to Novato, a few houses down from Avella, when they were both 14. Wilkerson had the same enthusiasm for BMX Avella did and they fell into a routine hanging out riding their bikes every day.
At this time, their favorite magazine, BMX Action, started covering the first BMX trick riders, like Mike Buff, R.L. Osborn and the godfather of freestyle, Bob Haro. Photos captured them not on dirt tracks but at skateparks, using half pipes and quarter pipes to show off the tricks they were inventing.
Inspired, Avella and Wilkerson built their own wedge ramp, which they parked in front of Wilkerson’s house.
“Every day, that’s what we did. We got out a boombox, we played music, and we rode,” Avella said. “We just kept hammering away, trying to do the tricks we were seeing in magazines.”
Avella and Wilkerson were both outcasts at their high school so they dove deeper into their riding, treating it more as a job than a hobby. Wilkerson especially saw potential in what they were doing. They could be sports stars, even more popular than the jocks that picked on them at school.
“At school, we got made fun of for riding our little bikes. It just fueled Ron even more,” Avella said.
With the help of their first sponsor, the #1 Bicycle Shop in Vallejo, Avella and Wilkerson booked their first gig: the 1983 Musical Fun Fair in Vallejo. In a parking lot on the outskirts of the festival, they’d set up their ramps and perform tricks for an audience two times a day, for three days.
“The expectations were very low. What we were doing just didn’t exist yet in most people’s consciousness,” Avella said.
The success of these shows led to more bookings, so the duo named their team the 2-Hip Trick Team, which came from a logo their friend and future renowned architect Joey Shimoda designed. Not long after, they signed with GT Bicycles, arguably the biggest manufacturer of BMX bikes at the time.
Things accelerated from there: freestyle competitions, photo shoots for magazines, even a segment on the show Evening Magazine. The peak for Avella came when GT sent the 2-Hip Trick Team on a nationwide tour. For almost a month, Avella and Wilkerson would be driven all across the nation with ramps in tow, performing for throngs of young, excited BMX fans. One fan, 14-year-old Adam “Spike” Spiegel, later to be known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Spike Jonze, actually hopped in the RV with the 2-Hip team for a chunk of the tour, taking photos. (He’d go on to help Wilkerson start his first bike company.)
Though he was enjoying himself, Avella came to a crossroads after a competition in Huntington Beach. Wilkerson announced that he was leaving GT Bikes for Haro, and he was marrying his girlfriend and moving to San Diego. If Avella wanted to stay in 2-Hip, he’d have to move with them. Avella passed. Then 18 and out of high school, Avella planned to go to college and maybe play in a band.
Avella tried to keep up with the newest tricks but his heart just wasn’t into BMX after Wilkerson left. The part he enjoyed most about it was hanging out with his friend, listening to music and playing around on their bikes. The GT sponsorship didn’t pay anyway, so Avella gave it up.
“My motivation wasn’t to be the sponsored, famous rider winning all the contests,” Avella said. “Without having a person to ride and hang out with, it just wasn’t fun. It became work.”
In 1990, Avella applied for a job at a Peet’s Coffee and Tea in San Francisco. Since giving up BMX riding he focused on playing in a band and he needed a job. Starbucks and the specialty coffee trend hadn’t blown up yet, so Avella didn’t know what to expect when he applied. He thought it’d be just another retail job.
“On the first day, they put me in front of a bunch of glasses of coffee and I had to taste them. I was supposed to tell them what I thought and I was like, ‘You tell me,’” Avella said. “That concept of describing taste just didn’t exist to me.”
At first, Avella couldn’t believe how seriously they took coffee at Peet’s. For a long time, he needed to water down his coffee in the morning, as it was too strong. His co-workers’ obsession with taste mystified him, but after a while, he started getting into it. The eureka moment came when he noticed the fruitiness in a cup of Ethiopian coffee.
“I realized there was something there; it wasn’t just BS,” Avella said.
Avella jumped into coffee like he did BMX years before, compulsively learning all that he could. He moved up in the company, going from staffer to taste trainer to running Peet’s education programs. He also trained to judge International barista competitions, where he’d witness the world’s best coffee makers ply their trade. But after 20 years, the culture at Peet’s had changed and Avella knew he needed to move on.
The opportunity came when Peaberry’s Coffee and Tea went on the market in 2011. Together with two co-workers at Peet’s, Eric Hashimoto and Robert Myers, they pooled their money and bought the Emeryville roastery and Rockridge retail space from a former protege of Alfred Peet. Highwire Coffee Roasters was born.
They made big changes right away, starting with how they roasted the beans. Instead of the smooth dark roast Peaberry’s cloned from Peet’s, the Highwire team went for shorter roasts that gave their coffee a brighter flavor.
Some of the changes weren’t well-received by Peaberry’s longtime customers, especially at the cafe in Rockridge.
“One of the things [Peaberry’s] used to do was buy this massive block of expensive chocolate and shave it into a small container to be used on the condiment bar. We weren’t going to do that anymore,” Avella said. “After the chocolate was gone, an older gentleman came up to the counter and yelled, ‘You’re disrespecting Rockridge!’”
Avella says that it took some time before the business supported itself, but now they have locations in Albany, Berkeley and San Francisco, and a staff of more than 30 people. Also, to help expand their reach, Highwire is converting a San Francisco Chronicle delivery truck into mobile espresso cart, which will be deployed in Oakland and the rest of the East Bay.
The Highwire team is also looking to expand their offerings. In recent years, Avella’s spearheaded new products like 4-Track Tea, a line of specialty tea blends he designs. They’ve also partnered with Drake’s Brewing on a coffee-infused beer that’s available at their San Pablo location. There’s even talk of bringing back the cans of their flash-brewed coffee — they tried this in 2015 with mixed results, but feel it will have a better shot this time around.
As for BMX, 35 years after he quit the sport, Avella’s looking to buy a new bike. He also keeps in contact with his buddy Wilkerson, who’s still riding vert at the age of 53. He recently texted a picture to Avella of him jumping 12-feet high — the highest he’s ever been on a standard vert ramp.
Avella’s not planning on joining him on a halfpipe any time soon. While he’s proud of his friend’s achievements, Avella doesn’t regret his decision to walk away from BMX.
“I think Ron had more of the vision of, ‘this can be what I do.’ For me it was more about the camaraderie, friendship, fun and the personal challenge,” Avella said. “I think we each had our own path.”
Highwire Coffee has three East Bay cafés: 5655 College Ave. (at Keith), Oakland; 2049 San Pablo Ave. (at University), Berkeley; and a coffee trailer at Flowerland Nursery, 1330 Solano Ave. (at Pomona), Albany. You can also find Highwire Coffees at many retail locations.