Sonoma County bike retailers tackle major changes

Sonoma County may be a hot spot for cycling, but national trends have made it a lot harder for local bike shops to survive.

Faced with growing numbers of competitors, the rising popularity of online bike shopping, and bike sales nationally as flat as a popped tire, local shop owners remain optimistic and have chosen to get creative.

Some have turned to rentals and home service calls. Others have leveraged their affiliations with major bike brands. Still others have opted to offer a variety of enticements to their customers, from cafes to taprooms.

According to the Bicycle Recycler and Industry Trade News, national bike sales to retailers fell in 2016 by 8 percent. That comes after the National Bike Dealers Association (NBDA) reported a 3.4 percent decrease from 2014 to 2015 with 17.4 million bikes being sold. Sales have averaged around $6 billion annually in past years.

“It’s a no-growth market right now,” said Lynette Carpiet, editor of Bicycle Retailer and Industry Trade News. “That’s what is driving things.”

The effect has been stark on the specialty shops, the small retailers that cater largely to cycling aficionados decked out in florescent spandex jerseys and tights, who can be seen on back country roads from Occidental to the Alexander Valley on weekends. The shops’ numbers have dropped by 39 percent from 2000 to 2015, when there were 3,790 stores across the country, according to NBDA. The result has produced consolidation and deal-making within the industry; last year, for example, the bike company Advanced Sports International bought the nation’s largest bicycle retailer, Performance Bicycle, which has a Santa Rosa location.

Locally, Sonoma Bicycle Co., Revolution Cycles in Sebastopol, Rincon Cyclery, Everything Cycles, Jonathon’s Bike Shop and Cambria all have closed their doors in the last five years for various reasons.

Yet even with the grim statistics, local shops are sensing opportunity. Trek Bicycle Store in Santa Rosa, for example, now offers 24-hour service turnaround time, free demonstration bikes and a free bicycle fitting with a purchase.

Velofix, a new company out to fill a niche, will come to your house to do repairs and even assemble the bike you bought online, as Amazon has increased its marketing to younger consumers who don’t think twice about buying a bike online. Canyon Bicycles, a well-regarded German bike manufacturer with a strong online presence, will enter the U.S. market this year with consumer direct sales thanks to an assist from TSG Consumer Partners, a private equity firm based in San Francisco.

“If you don’t pivot, you become like the Yellow Pages,” said Bret Gave, store manager for the Trek Bicycle Store.

His shop, which he claims has the largest fleet of rentals in the North Bay, offers free pickup and delivery of bicycles for upkeep and maintenance work, a crucial service as repairs provide 11 percent of a typical shop’s revenue while parts and accessories are another 36 percent, according to NBDA.

“Companies in general, not exclusively retail, if they don’t change at the same rate inside as the rate on the outside, they are not going to be around for very long,” Gave said. “I think that is one thing that bicycle retailers have been very good at is thinking on their feet to adjust and move with the economy.”

That’s the thinking over at TrailHouse, a new bicycle shop right next to Howarth Park. To call TrailHouse a bike shop, though, isn’t quite accurate - it also runs a taproom with brews from Russian River Brewing Co. and HenHouse Brewing Co. and offers burritos from Lepe’s Taqueria and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The idea came to Glenn Fant as he saw the number of cyclists mountain biking at Annadel State Park, regarded as one of the top off-road biking areas on the North Coast, who would then go over to Russian River Brewing Co. afterward for a pint or two.

“We feel it’s one of the best trails in the world. It’s world class,” said Fant, who also owns NorCal Bike Sport as well as the Bike Peddler. The TrailHouse space also includes 4,000 square feet for bike storage as well as a service area with two mechanics.

Customers can rent a top-notch mountain bike for about $100 per day to go on the trails - a price that will be discounted if they buy a bike - and there are options for guided trips as well. But the store also caters to families, as it rents cruisers and kids’ bikes by the hour for a leisurely ride around Spring Lake and Howarth parks.

“We really didn’t know what it was going to morph into,” said Fant, who noted TrailHouse has attracted many in the local cycling community as well as newcomers and tourists. “It’s about the connections we are making there.”

The sense of community that many of the almost 20 specialty bike stores in the area provide also gives them an advantage in customer loyalty, and those roots lead to popular events and programs. Trek Bicycle Store is sponsoring a local ride on Feb. 19 at its store. Spoke Folk Cyclery in Healdsburg has a program with the St. Vincent de Paul charity to provide bikes to the local homeless.

“For a lot of the homeless, the bicycle is their only means of transportation,” said Richard Peacock, who has owned the shop with his wife for more than 10 years and recently retired from his full-time job as an engineer to devote more time to it.

His shop sells everything from bicycles that can fetch more than $15,000 - those super lightweight ones ranging from 16 to 18 pounds and featuring electronic shifting and disc brakes - to entry-level bikes for those on a budget. About 15 percent of his business is in rentals, which are popular with tourists who want to pedal through wine country. But he limits his rental business, he said, because he doesn’t want to turn into a full-fledged tour operator like Wine Country Bikes, also in Healdsburg.

“We consider ourselves as a customer-service business … not a retail business,” Peacock said. “That’s the one thing you can say about cycling: It’s a very social activity. And people do like talking about their bikes and riding their bikes.”

The future of the local industry hinges in good part on bringing more everyday cyclists into the fold, especially commuters pedaling to and from work and those making short trips to run errands.

Technology may help put commuters and casual shoppers on wheels; electric-powered bikes can average around 15 mph without heavy pedaling and also allows cargo and small children on the back. Petaluma-based Yuba Bicycles makes such cargo models, which allow for a physically easier commute without working up a sweat.

There is also renewed commitment to dedicated bike paths so cyclers will feel safer. Locally, the biggest project is the 71-mile trail that follows along the SMART train path, which is planned to run from Cloverdale all the way down to Larkspur. So far, about 10.5 miles of path are complete or under construction in various segments. In addition, there are plans for a Sonoma Valley trail from east Santa Rosa to Sonoma.

If all those projects are completed, they would combine with the Joe Rodota and West County trails to provide a system that would cover both major north-south and east-west routes throughout Sonoma County.

“I think there is a huge opportunity to grow the number of bicycle commuters,” said Alisha O’Loughlin, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, which has worked closely with local shops to help expand riding opportunities in the county. One major thrust of her group has been to create more dedicated trails and buffers between cars and bikes along roads. “If you perceive it is not safe, you are not going to ride,” she said.

That makes the local industry’s fortunes very much tied to public policy decisions.

“We are really fortunate that we have so many wonderful bike shops, many of them family owned here in the county,” said O’Loughlin, who appreciates their lobbying efforts. “From what I have experienced, there is a real community partnership in place with the bike shops.”

That partnership is something that Gave at Trek Bicycle would like to better capitalize on as he helps spread the gospel of cycling locally. “I think safety is a big concern for a lot of people,” he said, echoing O’Loughlin’s concerns.

Last fall, Gave sold his store to the Waterloo, Wisconsin-based Trek, which is one of the three big bike manufacturers along with Specialized and Giant Bicycles.

A major reason he sold is to afford his full-time employees health care and other benefits that he could not offer on his own. It’s a common problem among independent bike shops, which are operated mostly by enthusiasts who turned into small-business owners. In 2011, the average specialty bike retailer had gross yearly sales of only $866,817, according to the NBDA.

“I had full-time employees and I just could not afford to take care of them the way I felt as an owner I should be doing,” he said. “This change made it possible for me to provide for the people I care most about for all those things.”

He said he believes cycling is a transformational activity and sees potential to build a true biking culture in the county like many of the towns and cities in Europe, providing benefits ranging from combating climate change to improving health outcomes to solving transportation problems.

“I think it is a solution to some of the world’s most common problems,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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