BY NICOLE FORMOSA
OKANOGAN, WA—Every year in mid-June, cyclists on touring bikes loaded with bulging panniers start dropping by The Bike Shop in rural Okanogan, Washington, as they embark on pedaling pilgrimages across the country.
The family-owned shop sits just east of the Cascade mountain range in central Washington, smack on the Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern Tier route, which traverses the country from Anacortes, Washington, to Bar Harbor, Maine.
The Bike Shop owner Sarin Molnar, who grew up in the shop and took the business over from his parents three-and-a-half years ago, offers repairs, maps, tires, tubes, or shuttles up the steep mountain pass to riders who roll through his shop. Often, he re-gears bikes for cyclists accustomed to riding flatter terrain so they can tackle the Kettle and Rocky Mountain ranges ahead.
Even in the peak summer touring season, sales generated from self-supported riders make up barely 10 percent of Molnar’s business, but it’s important business nonetheless in the town of 3,500 residents.
“I don’t know if I rely on it. I do anticipate [the start of touring season]. I look forward to hearing people’s stories of what they’re doing—there are always people pedaling for some cause,” Molnar said moments after watching a small touring group pedal past his shop in late May.
After a dry winter—Molnar sells ski equipment in the off-season—on top of the lagging economy, Molnar hopes that more people turn to bicycle touring this summer as an alternative to costlier vacations.
He may be in luck.
A recent survey Adventure Cycling Association sent to its 45,000 members found 63.7 percent of the 4,025 respondents would still take a bike vacation despite the economic situation. Another 13 percent said they would still take a bike vacation but would travel closer to home; and 3.2 percent said they had planned to take a bike vacation, but changed their mind given the economy. That was offset by the 3.1 percent who said they hadn’t previously planned a bike vacation, but now would.
Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) has also seen a 3 percent increase in new members and a 19 percent increase in life memberships, which cost about $1,000.
“In tough economic times people go back to what’s important to them and what enriches their lives the most and I think cycling does that for a lot of people,” said Julie Huck, membership and development director for ACA.
Though ACA has no way to tally the number of self-supported riders hitting the roads this summer, it does track map sales. Maps of ACA’s U.S. routes with details on services and turn-by-turn directions are considered a must-have on the unsupported journey. So far in 2009, sales of ACA’s 17 maps are on par with 2008, which was a record year with a 10 percent increase from 2007.
Another sign that people may be looking to keep it simple this year: ACA has seen a 9 percent increase in its guided tours from 2008. ACA offers no frills self-contained and supported tours with cyclists sleeping in tents at local campgrounds and pitching in to help cook meals.
While basic tours like those offered by ACA may turn out to be recession resistant, tour operators that run high-end trips are facing a more challenging year.
Companies like Butterfield and Robinson, Trek Travel and Backroads all said customers seem to be taking their time deciding whether or not to reserve space on a summer trip.
“The great news is we’re definitely seeing a lot of last-minute bookings and this has been nice. It’s going to help out a year that was less positive than last year,” said Kathy Stewart, spokeswoman for Butterfield and Robinson, a luxury tour operator that runs supported four-star cycling trips all over the world with prices in the $5,000 to $7,000 per person range.
Stewart said business is down this year, as with the rest of the travel industry—although trips to wine regions like Bordeaux and Piedmont continue to be popular—and clients are more value conscious than before. B & R offered discounts and incentives packages to attract travelers, but kept prices steady.
Trek Travel emphasized trips under $1,600 and shortened a few six-day trips to four days in response to the slowdown, said Tania Worgull, president of Trek Travel. Still, bookings are on par with last year and race trips in conjunction with the Tour Down Under, Tour de France, Tour of California, Giro D’Italia and Vuelta a España have sold especially well, likely because of Lance Armstrong’s return to the sport, Worgull said.
Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, which offers guided mountain biking and cycling tours between $800 and $2,500, mostly in the West and Rocky Mountain regions, said new bookings have been sluggish, although return customers continue to be strong. New bookings are down 20 percent, while 65 percent of clients who have already traveled with Western Spirit have rebooked for this year, Korenblat said.
In response Korenblat trimmed back on hiring new guides and buying new trucks this year. “We’re used to growing by 20 percent a year. We won’t see anything like that this year, but we’re taking bookings every day so I don’t really know. It’s unlikely we’re going to grow, but it’s not the end of the world,” she said.