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Southern California Retrospective

Published May 29, 2009

BY JASON NORMAN

LAKE FOREST, CA—Soon the last vestiges of GT’s Southern California heritage and existence will be gone, packed in boxes and headed for Bethel, Connecticut—headquarters of Dorel’s Cycling Sports Group.

It won’t be the first time a major brand has cut its Southern California ties. Former Southern California inhabitants have included distributors like West Coast Cycle, Western States Imports, John T. Bill, Lawee, Riteway, Harry Wilson Sales Agency and bike manufacturers such as Mongoose, Powerlite, Redline and SE Racing. For more than 30 years—from the 1960s to the 1990s—Southern California was the industry’s Mecca.

“Some of these distributors were located all within about six to eight blocks of downtown Los Angeles,” said Howie Cohen, whose parents founded West Coast Cycle, and who carried on the business’ legacy. During the 1960s, West Coast Cycle introduced the Japanese bike brand Nishiki, and then in the 1970s Cycle Pro and Azuki.

Nick Andrade, who purchased a minority interest in West Coast Cycle in the late 1970s, said the Japanese influence on the early Southern California bike scene was strong.

“The Japanese were always wanting to understand more about the American bike culture,” said Andrade, who currently works as sales and advocacy advisor for Pacific Cycle. “And West Coast Cycle was so in tune with what was going on in Japan.”

This strong Japanese relationship led to West Coast Cycle’s huge success in parts and accessories. “We were able to react so much quicker to the rapidly changing bicycle market,” Andrade said.

SoCal’s Aerospace Industry. Southern California was ground zero for prominent players such as GT. From its “shop” days in Santa Ana in 1979 to its early days in Huntington Beach in the 1980s to its peak periods of American manufacturing back in Santa Ana in the 1990s to its last engineering chapter in Lake Forest this century, GT has always been linked to Southern California.

Many might argue its SoCal days flamed out long ago, perhaps with the 1996 death of co-founder Richard Long, or the brand’s bankruptcy, or the various owners after Long and co-founder Gary Turner.

“We lost a lot of things,” said Mark Peterman, director of product development for GT Bicycles, who started with the company in 1988 as an outside sales rep.

Peterman said Southern California was a hotbed for bike companies largely because of the strong presence of the aerospace industry, especially when aluminum was the material of choice for bike manufacturers.

“That’s what made the higher-end bike thing happen,” Peterman said, alluding to aluminum heat-treating and powdercoating. “We taught Taiwan to make high-end bikes.”

BMX’s Rise. Another big reason for Southern California’s dominance was BMX. Cohen’s “second coming” in the bicycle industry came after he sold West Coast Cycle to Andrade and a few other investors. Three years later, Cohen founded Everything Bicycles, where the focus was BMX.

“Everything Bicycles was the king of BMX those days,” Cohen said with a sparkle in his voice.

Cohen recalled GT’s Long phone call one day, asking him if he could get some anodized brakes. Cohen called up the Dia-Compe factory in Japan to see if he could get Long his custom order—and he did.

“That basically started the color fashion,” Cohen said. “Gold, black, red, blue—you name it.

“I can’t tell you why Southern California was the place to do business, but I can tell you that BMX racing was very big.”

While many of its Southern California competitors got bought out or simply moved, Haro was able to survive and flourish thanks in large part to company founder and industry icon Bob Haro, founder of the freestyle BMX movement.

“Southern California accepts new ideas and activities with a more free and understandable thinking,” Haro said on why the region embraced the sport. “There was also a certain dynamic going on with people being opportunistic, and at the right place, at the right time.”

Haro, who founded the company in 1978, built upon the success of making and selling BMX number plates at races. “Dirtbikes had really cool plates,” Haro recalled. “Us being the stylish guys we were, we wanted something cool, too.”

Haro credits the brand’s longevity to industry veterans like Jim Ford, who now works for Mirraco, and current Haro Bicycles president Joe Hawk.

Haro sold the company in 1992 and now owns two small companies: Haro Design, which does design and advertising work for major players in motorcycle and auto racing; and Axio, a maker of bags for motorcyclists, musicians and designers.

Another industry giant that called the region home was Lawee headed by Ben Lawee who passed away in 2002. The distributor was responsible for one of the most recognizable names in mountain biking in the day—Univega.

“Univega was a pretty important brand at the time,” said Brian Cox, who served as Lawee’s credit manager from 1979 to 1987, and now is the vice president of operations for Jax Bicycles in Southern California.

Derby Cycle, parent company of Raleigh USA, bought Univega in the late 1990s. The brand is no longer marketed or sold in the United States.

But Cox said the region’s prominent role back in the day not only had to do with BMX. “We were close to all the major ports,” Cox said. “And it was easy to get to the Far East from here. And, of course, the weather supported it.”

Cox also worked at Riteway—a major distributor in the United States at the time. GT acquired Riteway in 1987. Riteway’s office was in Placentia.

“We were doing $350 million in business in the U.S.,” Cox recalled of Riteway. “It was a great time. There was such a history of great product and great things that came out of Southern California,” Cox added.

Eventually, many of the brands and distributors left or were bought.

“What happened to a lot of these companies is that the market changed,” Cohen said. “Distributors were no longer needed. Companies like Trek and Cannondale were selling direct to the dealer. Then you had distributors like J&B Importers and SBS who were national. It’s the evolution of business.”

GT’s legacy, like many of these old Southern California companies, is felt throughout the industry today as many former GT employees have landed in high-profile positions.

“It was really fun working there,” said Ed Hickey, who worked in high-ranking sales positions for the company from 1994 to 2001. He now serves as director of sales and marketing at Phat Cycles. “There was an entrepreneurial spirit at that time in Southern California. It was success, not failure, that made these companies desirable to purchase.”

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