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Howie Cohen remembered at Colorado service

Published September 23, 2013
Gene Smith with a banner signed at Interbike by Cohen's friends

Industry figure Howie Cohen was remembered at a service in Erie, Colo., Saturday, where family and friends laughed and cried as stories of Cohen's generosity, enthusiasm and loving spirit were shared.

Industry attendees included Gene Smith, Scott McCaskey of Bicycles Inc. in Hurst, Texas, and Ray Keener representing BRAIN and the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association.

Another memorial will be held at Gene Smith's home in Fullerton, Calif., on October 12. Contact Gene at (714) 271-5183 if you'd like an invitation.

Below is an article about Cohen by BRAIN managing editor Toby Hill. The article first appeared in the August 1 edition of BRAIN. 

LAFAYETTE, CO—Howie Cohen, a hugely influential figure in developing the U.S. BMX market and arguably the first person to bring high-quality Asian-made bikes to America, died July 11 surrounded by family in his hometown of Lafayette, Colorado. He was 74.

Cohen was treated for lymphoma eight years ago and had been in remission up until late June, said retired Kool Stop president Gene Smith, Cohen's friend of 50 years who was in Lafayette at the time of his passing. The cancer had spread to Cohen's liver, and he spent the last few weeks of his life in and out of the hospital, Smith added.

Although Cohen retired in 1989, he continued to do occasional consulting work in the industry as well as maintain his passion project, an online cycling memorabilia and bike collection at www.howiebikeman.com, until shortly before his death.

"He will be remembered as an innovator, bringing the first quality Japanese bikes to the U.S., and as one of the first people to go to Japan and Taiwan for bicycles," said his wife, Kay Cohen. "He was a forerunner in most of the things he did in the bicycle industry."

"One things that everyone in the industry knows about Howie is that he was never without a smile," said Jay Townley, industry consultant and former Schwinn executive. The well-traveled Cohen had friends throughout the global industry, all of whom he was happy to help at a moment's notice, added Townley.

But as warm and friendly as Cohen was, he was utterly exacting about getting products made right, recalled Nick Andrade, his one-time partner in distributor West Coast Cycle. "Howie was obsessed with the quality issue, even down to the box—what was the marketing on the box, the thickness of the cardboard?" Andrade said.

Cohen came up in the bike business through his parents' shops, first in Minneapolis and later in Los Angeles. After growing to three Southern California locations, the Cohen family sold the retail business and launched distributor West Coast Cycle. During the early 1960s, when West Coast Cycle—and its retailers—grew dissatisfied with the quality of the higher-end bikes it was bringing in from Europe, Cohen's mother, RosaBelle, twice sent him to Japan to investigate new manufacturers. He visited dozens of factories before zeroing in on Kawamura Sangyo, which in 1964 produced the first run of West Coast Cycle's American Eagle bikes, later rebranded as Nishiki. The bikes were outfitted with high-quality parts he persuaded suppliers like Shimano, Sugino, Asahi and Dia-Compe to start making.

"The reality is, until Howie demanded higher-quality product from Japan, it didn't happen. Same thing for Taiwan," Andrade said.

West Coast's next brand, Azuki, was also successful, and in 1976 Cohen retired at age 37. But he soon returned to the industry and launched BMX wholesaler Everything Bicycles in 1978, distributing brands including Powerlite and Torker. He also mined an existing relationship with manufacturer Kuwahara in Osaka to bring the Japanese brand to the U.S. BMX market.

Kuwaharas would famously take flight in Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster film "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," and Cohen scored a marketing coup in obtaining the worldwide rights to sell bikes with the E.T. name, which were a smash hit. He was also the first to bring anodized chainwheels, brake levers and other components to the BMX market, Kay Cohen noted.

"He loved the bike industry. He was in it since he was 7 years old," she said. "He just loved bicycles. It wasn't a question of the business or the monetary rewards, even though that came. He just loved the industry and the people, and the challenge of seeing the progress and the innovation."

In addition to his wife of 31 years, Cohen is survived by four children and three grandchildren.

Topics associated with this article: People

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