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Tourists Take to Rental Bikes to See Cities

Published April 20, 2010

BY MATT WIEBE

HILTON HEAD, SC—The rental car business may be down but bike rentals are booming. Stores that cater to rental customers report an increase in business over the past five years as tourists increasingly embrace cycling to tour a city.

Biking offers a novel way for visitors to sightsee. Whether it’s to get around town or to share as a fun family activity, people are pairing vacations with bikes.

“The more bike rental businesses grow around here—and they have been springing up everywhere—the more people are interested in riding on their vacation,” said Kerrie Bradford, co-owner with her husband James of The Bike Doctor in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

“Partly it’s that people are more health conscious, but I think it’s that the more people see others enjoying riding, the more they want to do it, too,” Bradford said. The Bike Doctor rents cruisers to people wanting to enjoy Hilton Head’s beaches.

David Bell, owner of Mellow Velo in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has grown his rental fleet quickly over the last few seasons to about 65 bikes. It’s to the point that his rental earnings have swamped his new bike sales.

“People have worked bikes into a very happy part of their life and can’t imagine vacationing without riding,” Bell said. His rental fleet goes from cruisers with baskets to high-end road bikes and full-suspension mountain bikes.

Bell said even for serious cyclists, the cost of transporting a bike is one motivation for renting, as is the hassle of traveling with a bike whether by car or by plane.

Rental shops also use their fleets as demo bikes for local riders. In this tight economy, some riders prefer to rent a high-end bike for a few epic rides rather than buying.

“This is true of freeride and downhill bikes. Few riders are willing to invest in an 8- to 10-inch travel bike that mostly sits around, so renting makes sense,” said Brian Anciaux, owner of Cactus Bike in Phoenix, Arizona.

But Anciaux said tourists are driving rental growth. “It’s the tourist business that is growing. So far it’s been very good as the cold weather drove quite a few people to Phoenix and many of them wanted to ride when they got here. And college spring break was big in Phoenix this year,” he said.

Anciaux rents bikes from his three retail shops and at Pine Top ski resort for lift riding. He plans to soon open a new rental operation at the Grand Canyon.

Cactus Bike’s rental fleet consists of about 50 mountain, road and triathlon bikes, though Anciaux said Phoenix rental companies work together to move about 200 rental bikes around when someone has a large group contract.

Rental shops like Cactus Bike work with hotels and tourist information outlets to publicize their business. But most of their connections are made through Internet searches.

The growth in the rental business over the past few years has not escaped suppliers that cater to it. J&B Importers, which does sizable rental business with its Sun Bicycle cruisers, recently developed an all-alloy cruiser specifically for rental businesses called the Boardwalk Type-R.

“It’s got an aluminum frame and as much alloy as we could get on it so salt water doesn’t hurt it. Plus, the saddle has no stitching so it doesn’t absorb rain or dew, making it ready to rent,” said Chris Dupuis, J&B’s product manager.

“Our rental business on the coast is growing the quickest. I expect its mostly people vacationing closer to home these days,” Dupuis said.

Kona developed a line of bikes targeting mountain bike park rentals at ski resorts. The bikes are similar to their mainline models, but have a different parts spec so replacing the most venerable components is cheaper.

“Our park bike sales softened last year, partly because the rental businesses were having a hard time selling their fleets after the season was over. The full-suspension market is tough right now,” said Jake Heilbron, Kona’s co-founder.

Heilbron doesn’t think this reflects a decline in park business since the 20 parks Kona sells to continue to report increasing visits and rental business, but rather shows the state of the full-suspension market.

“What is growing for us are sales to urban rental companies. This includes hotels beginning to build their own rental fleets like they do in Europe,” Heilbron said.

“Once people get someplace, more of them are choosing a bike to get around on rather than the usual rental car,” he added.

But bicycle infrastructure investment, or lack of it, can make or break rental business. Cactus Bike’s Anciaux said trail development in South Mountain and nearby McDowell Mountain parks has been a boon for his business.

The Bike Doctor’s Bradford said that Hilton Head has created more bike paths and trails over the last few years, something her renters comment on and enjoy.

For Mellow Velo’s Bell, Santa Fe’s lack of integrated in-town bike path system frustrates him and his renters.

“We have some good trail systems, but there is nothing linking them together. The last thing you want to have to do for a three-hour rental is spend an hour explaining how to get around safely,” he said.

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